Brunei Darussalam is a monarchy governed since 1967 by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. Emergency powers in place since 1962 allow the sultan to govern with few limitations on his authority. The Legislative Council (LegCo), composed of appointed, indirectly elected, and ex officio members, met during the year and exercised a purely consultative role in recommending and approving legislation and budgets.
The Royal Brunei Police Force and the Internal Security Department have responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country and come under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, respectively. For crimes that fall under the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which the government fully implemented in April, both entities are supported by religious enforcement officers from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Departments of Labor and Immigration in the Ministry of Home Affairs also hold limited law enforcement powers for labor and immigration offenses, respectively. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security matters but maintain some domestic security responsibilities. The secular and sharia judicial systems operate in parallel. The sultan maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: forms of punishment that raise concerns about torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment–stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning–included in newly implemented sections of sharia law, although the sharia court did not hand down any sentences imposing such punishment; caning of some individuals convicted under secular law; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; censorship and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although these laws were not enforced; and exploitation of foreign workers, including through forced labor.
There were no reports of official impunity or allegations of human rights abuses by government officials.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Under the law and emergency powers, the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: There is no provision for freedom of speech in the constitution or laws. Members of the LegCo may “speak their opinions freely” on behalf of citizens, but they are prohibited from using language or exhibiting behavior deemed “irresponsible, derogatory, scandalous, or injurious.” Under the law it is an offense to challenge the royal family’s authority. The law also makes it an offense to challenge “the standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept.” This philosophy identifies Islam as the state religion and monarchical rule as the sole form of government to uphold the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race. The law also criminalizes any act, matter, or word intended to promote “feelings of ill will or hostility” between classes of persons or “wound religious feelings.”
The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. The SPC sections implemented in April provide, under certain circumstances, for death sentences for apostasy from Islam, deriding Islamic scriptures, and declaring oneself as god, among other offenses. There were no known cases of persons charged under these sections, but online criticism of the law was largely self-censored, and online newspapers did not permit comments or stories on these subjects.
In December a secular court judge convicted a former government employee in absentia for sedition based on social media comments posted in 2017 criticizing Ministry of Religious Affairs officials and halal policy. The court sentenced the man, who fled the country after pleading not guilty during initial trial hearings in 2018, to 18 months’ imprisonment.
All public musical or theatrical performances require prior approval by a censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The government interpreted the SPC to prohibit public celebration of religions other than Islam, including displaying Christmas decorations. Some establishments, however, openly sold Christmas decorations or advertised Christmas-themed events. Christmas remained an official national holiday.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause. The law requires local newspapers to obtain operating licenses and prior government approval for hiring foreign editorial staff, journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit. Foreign newspapers generally were available. Internet versions of local and foreign media were generally available without censorship or blocking.
The government owned the only local television station. Three Malaysian television channels were also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including religious content, but such censorship was not consistent.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides for prosecution of newspaper publishers, proprietors, or editors who publish anything with what the government deems seditious intent. Punishments include suspension of publication for a maximum of one year, a prohibition on publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing for, or editing any other newspaper, and the seizure of printing equipment. Persons convicted under the law also face a maximum fine of 5,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($3,690) and a maximum prison term of three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subject to fines or prison sentences. In the past, the government shuttered media outlets and reprimanded media companies for their portrayals of certain events and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics. There were no such reports during the year. The government maintained that most censorship was aimed at stopping violent content from entering the country.
The SPC prohibits publication or importation of publications giving instruction about Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution to Muslims or to persons with no religion of publications related to religions other than Islam. The SPC bars the publication, broadcast, or public expression of a list of words generally associated with Islam (such as Quran) in a non-Islamic context. The SPC also prohibits religious teaching without written approval. There were no reports of charges under these regulations.
Journalists commonly reported practicing self-censorship because of social pressure, reports of government interference, and legal and professional concerns.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law prohibits bringing into hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection against the sultan or the government. Persons convicted under the law face a fine of BND 5,000 ($3,690), a maximum of three years in prison, or both. There were no reports of such cases during the year.
The government restricts access to the internet, censors online content, and has the capability to monitor private online communications. The government monitors private email and internet chat-room exchanges believed to be propagating religious extremism or otherwise subversive views, including those of religious minorities, or material on topics deemed immoral. The Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications and the Prime Minister’s Office enforce the law that requires internet service providers and internet cafe operators to register with the director of broadcasting in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Authority for the Infocommunications Technology Industry advised internet service and content providers to monitor for content contrary to the public interest, national harmony, and social morals.
Internet companies self-censored content and reserved the right to cut off internet access without prior notice. The government continued awareness campaigns warning citizens about the misuse of and social ills associated with social media, including the use of social media to criticize Islam, sharia, or the monarchy. The government maintained a hotline for people to report fake or malicious information circulated on social media that involved public or national interests.
Although there are no official government restrictions on academic freedom, government authorities must approve public lectures, academic conferences, and visiting scholars, and the sultan serves as chancellor of all major universities.
Academics reported practicing self-censorship. In recent years, some researchers published overseas under a pseudonym when they perceived that certain topics would not be well received by the authorities. Religious authorities reviewed publications to verify compliance with social norms.
There were government restrictions on cultural events. A censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs determined the suitability of concerts, movies, cultural shows, and other public performances, and censored, banned, or restricted some activities. During the year, at least one cultural group was unable to perform for the intended audience because the show did not receive Censorship Board approval by the proposed date. Although the Censorship Board rarely required changes in performances, delays associated with the censorship process posed logistical hurdles for performing-arts organizations. Authorities restricted traditional Chinese New Year lion-dance performances to Chinese temples, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The government’s emergency powers restrict the right to assemble. Public gatherings of 10 or more persons require a government permit, and police may disband an unofficial assembly of five or more persons deemed likely to cause a disturbance of the peace. Permits require the approval of the minister of home affairs. The government routinely issued permits for annual events but has in recent years occasionally used the restrictions to disrupt political gatherings. Organizers of events on sensitive topics tended to hold meetings in private rather than apply for permits or practiced self-censorship at public events.
The law does not provide for freedom of association. The law requires formal groups, including religious, social, business, labor, and cultural organizations, to register with the Registrar of Societies and provide regular reports on membership and finances. Applicants were subject to background checks, and proposed organizations were subject to naming requirements, including a prohibition on names or symbols linked to triad societies (Chinese organized-crime networks). The government reported it accepted the majority of applications to form associations, but some new organizations reported delaying their registration applications after receiving advice that the process would be difficult. The government may suspend the activities of a registered organization if it deems such an act to be in the public interest.
Organizations seeking to raise funds or donations from the general public are required to obtain permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and each individual fundraising activity requires a separate permit. Approved organizations dealt with matters such as pollution, wildlife preservation, arts, entrepreneurship, and women in business.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The government generally respected the legal right to freedom of internal movement and the right to emigrate but imposed restrictions on foreign travel and repatriation.
Foreign Travel: Government employees, including both citizens and foreign residents working on a contractual basis, must apply for exit permits to travel abroad. Government guidelines state no government official may travel alone and unrelated male and female officers may not travel together, but the government enforced this policy inconsistently. The country’s tourist passports state the bearer may not travel to Israel.
Exile: By law the sultan may forcibly exile, permanently or temporarily, any person deemed a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. There have been no cases of banishment since the country became fully independent in 1984.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
According to the 2011 census–the most recent government figures available–there were approximately 20,500 stateless residents, most of whom had permanent-resident status. Most stateless residents were native-born, of Chinese heritage, and from families that have resided in the country for generations. Other stateless residents included members of indigenous tribes, whose lands span Brunei and the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak. The vast majority of stateless persons held a certificate of identity (COI), which functioned as a passport. COI holders have some rights, including to subsidized health care and education, similar to those of citizens. The government had no data available on stateless persons who held no form of residency or COI.
Stateless persons may apply for citizenship if they are adults born in the country and resident for 12 of the last 15 years, provided they pass a test demonstrating sufficient knowledge of Malay culture and language. Women married to citizens and the minor children of citizens who did not obtain citizenship at birth–such as children of citizen mothers and permanent-resident fathers–may also apply. Contacts in the stateless community who passed the Malay culture and language test reported, however, a de facto suspension of citizenship approvals for adult stateless residents, with many reporting that five to 10 years had elapsed since they passed their test, and yet they still had not been granted citizenship. On October 22, when the government granted 222 applicants citizenship, an official noted that 1,262 applicants had received citizenship since 2017. Local observers noted that most of those awarded citizenship had married Malay Muslim citizens and were not members of the ethnic Chinese community.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Citizens do not have the ability to choose their government. The sultan rules through hereditary birthright. While the country is a constitutional sultanate, in 1962 the ruler invoked an article of the constitution that allows him to assume emergency powers. The present sultan continued this practice and most recently renewed the state of emergency for an additional two-year period in a December 2018 proclamation.
Recent Elections: Political authority and control rest entirely with the sultan. The LegCo, composed primarily of appointed members with little independent power, provided a forum for public discussion of proposed government programs, budgets, and administrative deficiencies. It convenes once per year in March for approximately two weeks. Council members serve five-year terms at the pleasure of the sultan.
Persons age 18 and older may vote by secret ballot in village consultative council elections. Candidates must be Muslim, approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and have been a citizen or permanent resident for more than 15 years. The councils communicate constituent wishes to higher authorities through a variety of channels, including periodic meetings chaired by the minister of home affairs. The government also meets with groups of elected village chiefs to allow them to express local grievances and concerns.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The National Development Party is the only registered political party. The party pledged to support the sultan and the government. It made no criticisms of the government during the year.
Participation of Women and Minorities: The constitution requires that all ministers be of Malay ethnicity and Muslim except as permitted by the sultan. The cabinet included two ethnic Chinese, and members of tribal minorities also held senior government positions. Women accounted for more than half of civil service employees, and many held senior positions, including at the deputy-minister level. Women are subject to an earlier mandatory retirement age than men (55 versus 60 years), which may inhibit their career progression. The law requires that elected village heads be Malay Muslim men.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices.
Corruption: Although corruption was not pervasive, the sultan publicly criticized police, the military, and the immigration and labor departments for corrupt activities by some officials, among other shortcomings. In September the high court began a high-profile trial of two former judges indicted in July 2018 on 40 corruption-related charges, including money laundering and embezzling money from Brunei’s court system. The case was particularly noteworthy because the husband-and-wife pair were very well connected–one was the son of the minister of religious affairs and the other the daughter of a retired high-ranking military officer.
Financial Disclosure: Government officials are not subject to routine financial disclosure reports, but by law officials must declare their assets if they are the subject of an investigation. The government did not make these declarations public. The Anticorruption Bureau also issued a public warning to all government workers that it is empowered to investigate any official who maintains a standard of living above or disproportionate to his or her past or present emolument.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Neither domestic nor international human rights groups could operate freely due to government restrictions. No registered civil society organizations dealt directly with human rights, mostly due to self-censorship. A few domestic organizations worked on humanitarian issues, such as assistance for victims of domestic violence or provision of free legal counsel for indigent defendants. They generally operated with government support, and the government was somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, although they reported practicing self-censorship and avoiding sensitive issues. Regional and other international human rights organizations occasionally operated in the country but faced the same restrictions as all unregistered organizations.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Secular law stipulates imprisonment from eight to 30 years plus caning with a minimum of 12 strokes as punishment for rape. The SPC provides stoning to death as the maximum punishment for rape. The law does not criminalize rape against men or spousal rape and explicitly states that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife is not rape as long as she is not younger than 14 (15 if she is ethnic Chinese). There is no specific domestic violence law, but authorities arrested individuals in domestic violence cases under the law related to protection of women and girls. The criminal penalty under the law is one to two weeks in jail and a fine for a minor assault; an assault resulting in serious injury is punishable by caning and a longer prison sentence. Islamic family law provides protections against spousal abuse and for the granting of protection orders, and it has been interpreted to cover sexual assault. The penalty for violating a protection order is a maximum fine of BND 2,000 ($1,460), maximum imprisonment of six months, or both.
Police investigated domestic violence only in response to a report by a victim but reportedly did respond effectively in such cases.
The government reported rape cases, but there were no data available on the prevalence of the crime. A special police unit staffed by female officers investigated domestic-abuse and child-abuse complaints.
The Department of Community Development in the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports provided counseling for women and their spouses. Some female and minor victims of domestic violence and rape were placed in protective custody at a government-sponsored shelter while waiting for their cases to be scheduled in court. Islamic courts staffed by male and female officials offered counseling to married couples in domestic-violence cases. Islamic courts recognized assault as grounds for divorce.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No law criminalizes FGM/C for women of any age. There were no reports of FGM/C being performed on women older than 18.
There were no statistics on the prevalence of FGM/C, but contacts reported that in general it was done within 40 days of birth based on religious belief, health, and custom. Contacts also reported that the procedure was sometimes performed outside of a medical setting. The Ministry of Religious Affairs declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) to be a religious rite obligatory under Islam and described it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization (WHO) classification). The government does not consider this practice to be FGM/C and continued to express support for the WHO’s call for the elimination of FGM and for member countries to enact and enforce legislation to protect girls and women from all forms of violence, including FGM/C. The government claimed the practice rarely resembled the Type I description and had not caused medical complications or complaints.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and states that whoever utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object intending to insult the modesty of a woman shall be punished by up to three years in prison and a fine. The law also stipulates that whoever assaults or uses criminal force, intending thereby to outrage, or knowing the act is likely to outrage the modesty of a person, shall be punished by caning and a maximum imprisonment of five years. There were reports of sexual harassment, but there are no data available on the prevalence of the crime.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: In accordance with the government’s interpretation of the Quran, Muslim women and men are accorded different rights. Secular civil law permits female citizens to own property and other assets, including business properties. Noncitizen husbands of citizens may not apply for permanent-resident status until they reside in the country for a minimum of seven years, whereas noncitizen wives may do so after two years of marriage. Although citizenship is automatically inherited from citizen fathers, citizen mothers may pass their nationality to their children only through an application process in which children are first issued a COI (and considered stateless).
Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, or, following an application process, the mother. Citizenship is not derived by birth within the country’s territory. Birth registration is universal and equal for girls and boys. Stateless parents must apply for a special pass for a child born in the country. Failure to register a birth is against the law and later makes it difficult to enroll the child in school.
Child Abuse: Child abuse is a crime and was prosecuted but did not appear prevalent. The Royal Brunei Police Force includes a specialized Woman and Child Abuse Crime Investigation Unit, and the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports provided shelter and care to victims.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 14 years and seven months with parental and participant consent, unless otherwise stipulated by religion or custom under the law, which generally sets a higher minimum age. The Islamic Family Act sets the minimum marriageable age at 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for Muslim men and makes it an offense to use force, threat, or deception to compel a person to marry against his or her own will. Ethnic Chinese must be 15 or older to marry, according to the Chinese Marriage Act, which also stipulates sexual intercourse with an ethnic Chinese girl younger than 15 is considered rape even if with her spouse. Contacts reported that although permitted by the law, marriages involving minors were rare and generally prohibited by social custom.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: By law sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 14 (15 if ethnically Chinese) constitutes rape and is punishable by imprisonment of from eight to 30 years plus a minimum of 12 strokes of the cane. The law provides for protection of women, girls, and boys from commercial sexual exploitation through prostitution and “other immoral purposes,” including pornography. The government applied the law against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” to prosecute rape of male children. The minimum age for consensual sex outside of marriage is 16.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There was no known Jewish community in the country. Comments disparaging Jewish persons collectively were occasionally posted online and on social media.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities or mandate accessibility or the provision of most public services to them. Access to buildings, information, transport, and communications for persons with disabilities was inconsistent. The law does not specifically address access to the judiciary for persons with disabilities. All persons regardless of disability, however, receive the same rights and access to health care.
Although not required by law, the government provided inclusive educational services for children with disabilities who attended both government and religious schools alongside nondisabled peers. Persons with disabilities may participate in local village elections.
During the year the Department for Community Development continued its outreach programs targeted at promoting awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities.
In his 2018 New Year’s national speech, the sultan announced all children with disabilities under the age of 15 were eligible to receive a monthly disability allowance of BND 450 ($330). Nine registered NGOs worked to supplement services provided by the three government agencies that supported persons with disabilities. Public officials, including the sultan, called for persons with disabilities to be included in everyday activities.
The government favors ethnic Malays in society through its national Malay Islamic Monarchy philosophy, which is enshrined in the constitution. Under the constitution, ministers and most top officials must be Malay Muslims, although the sultan may make exceptions. Members of the military must be Malay. The government pressured both public- and private-sector employers to increase hiring of Malay citizens. There were no incidents of violence against ethnic minorities, but the government continued policies that favored ethnic Malays in employment, health, housing, and land ownership.
Some indigenous persons were stateless. Indigenous lands were not specifically demarcated, and there were no specially designated representatives for indigenous groups in the LegCo or other government entities. Indigenous persons generally had minimal participation in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, and traditions and in the exploitation of energy, minerals, timber, or other natural resources on and under indigenous lands.
Secular law criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” understood to mean sex between men. In 2017 legal amendments increased the minimum sentence for such carnal intercourse to 20 years’ incarceration. The amendment was intended to apply in cases of rape or child abuse wherein both attacker and victim are male, because existing law covers only assault of a woman by a man. The SPC bans liwat (anal intercourse) between men or between a man and a woman who is not his wife, with a maximum penalty of death by stoning. The SPC also prohibits men from dressing as women or women dressing as men “without reasonable excuse” or “for immoral purposes.” Senior officials asserted that foreign criticism of the SPC was due to “misconceptions” and that the government did not intend to “criminalize or discriminate” based on sexual orientation. The sultan stated that “the privacy of individuals” would be respected.
Members of the LGBTI community reported societal discrimination in public and private employment, housing, recreation, and in obtaining services including education from state entities. Members of the LGBTI community reported the government monitored their activities and communications. Like all events in the country, events on LGBTI topics were subject to restrictions on assembly and expression. The LGBTI community reported that the government would not issue permits for community events or events on LGBTI topics.
HIV and HIV-related stigma and discrimination occurred. By law foreigners infected with HIV are not permitted to enter or stay in the country, although no medical testing is required for short-term tourists.
On December 2, the minister of health stated that from 1986 to 2018, 247 citizens and permanent residents were diagnosed with HIV, noting that 93 percent of the patients were men. The minister called for more effective outreach to high-risk populations, citing stigma and discrimination toward HIV/AIDS patients that caused social isolation and mental-health issues. He also noted that Brunei’s health system ensured universal health coverage for all citizens and permanent residents and provided free and comprehensive health care that covered all aspects of prevention, care, treatment, and support for HIV.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, but it does not provide for collective bargaining and prohibits strikes. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against workers in connection with union activities, but it does not provide for reinstatement for dismissal related to union activity.
By law unions must register with the government under the same process and are subject to the same laws as other organizations (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). While the law permits the formation of trade-union federations for most professions, it forbids affiliation with international labor organizations unless the minister of home affairs and the ministry’s Department of Labor consent. The law requires officers of trade unions to be “bona fide” (without explanation), which has been interpreted to allow authorities broad discretion to reject officers and require that such officers have been employed in the trade for a minimum of two years.
Penalties for violating laws on unions include fines, imprisonment, or both. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations. The government did effectively enforce the law.
There were no active unions or worker organizations in the country. NGOs were involved in labor issues, such as wages, contracts, and working conditions. These NGOs largely operated openly in cooperation with relevant government agencies, but they reported avoiding confrontation with the government and engaged in self-censorship.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, although the government did not always effectively enforce the law, and forced labor occurred. Convictions for forced labor could lead to penalties including fines, imprisonment, and caning, but most cases alleging forced labor were settled out of court. Penalties were seldom applied and thus did not deter violations. In August the government enacted the Antitrafficking in Persons (TIP) Order of 2019 and a separate law, the Prevention of People Smuggling Order of 2019, covering human smuggling. The two laws replaced a single law covering both offenses and provided the legislative basis for formalizing the country’s interagency antitrafficking committee, among other steps to enhance the government’s efforts to combat TIP. The government subsequently formalized the interagency committee under the Prime Minister’s Office, from which it coordinated the government’s efforts to counter human trafficking.
The government did not effectively enforce the law against forced labor. The government did not investigate any cases of debt bondage or forced labor that were either compelled by threats of deportation or due to other circumstances, although these practices continued to occur. The heads of specialist trafficking units within the police department continued to meet regularly to coordinate antitrafficking policy and implement the national action plan to combat trafficking, including for forced labor.
Some of the approximately 100,000 foreign migrant workers in the country faced involuntary servitude, debt bondage, nonpayment of wages, passport confiscation, abusive employers, or confinement to the home. Although it is illegal for employers to withhold wages, some employers, notably of domestic and construction workers, did so to recoup labor-broker or recruitment fees or to compel continued service.
Although the government forbade wage deductions by employers to repay in-country agencies or sponsors and mandated that employees receive their full salaries, many migrant workers arrived in debt bondage to actors outside the country. Media reports indicated that widespread fraud in work-visa issuance made many migrant workers–particularly an estimated 20,000 Bangladeshi nationals working mostly in the construction industry–vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Three local women were charged in November for providing false information to the Department of Immigration and National Registration (DINR) on foreign workers’ visa applications. The accused allegedly submitted applications for foreign workers claiming that the workers would have jobs with a specific company in Brunei, but the jobs did not actually exist. Under the law the charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a fine of up to BND 30,000 ($22,000). During a surprise inspection of the immigration and labor departments in October, the sultan chastised officials for allowing widespread abuse of work-visa procedures and attributed these practices to laziness, lack of focus, and corruption, which he said “taint government management and administration.”
Although prohibited by law, retention of migrant workers’ travel documents by employers or agencies remained a common practice.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
Various laws prohibit the employment of children younger than 16. Parental consent and approval by the Labor Commission are required in order for those younger than 18 to work. Female workers younger than 18 may not work at night or on offshore oil platforms.
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The use, procuring, or offering of a child for the production of pornography or pornographic performances is not specifically prohibited. The law on procuring or offering children younger than 18 for prostitution or illicit intercourse refers only to girls and not to boys.
The Department of Labor, which is part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, effectively enforced child labor laws. Penalties for child labor violations include a fine, imprisonment, or both, and were sufficient to deter violations. There was no list of hazardous occupations prohibited for children. There is also no list of types of light work activities legal for children ages 14 to 16.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation. There is no law requiring equal pay for equal work. The law limits employment in certain government positions and the military based on ethnic origin (see section 6).
The law restricts women from serving in certain military combat roles, such as infantry. Reflecting government policy, most public and many private employers showed hiring biases against foreign workers, particularly in key sectors such as oil and gas. Some LGBTI job applicants faced discrimination and were often asked directly about their sexual identity. Many foreign workers had their wages established based on national origin, with those from certain foreign countries receiving lower wages than others.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law does not set a minimum wage for the private sector. Wages were set by contract between the employee and employer and were sometimes calculated based on national origin.
The standard work week for most government agencies and many private companies is Monday through Thursday and Saturday. The law provides for overtime in excess of 48 hours per week. The law also stipulates an employee may not work more than 72 hours of overtime per month. Government regulations establish and identify occupational health and safety standards. Individuals were encouraged to report violations of health and safety standards, but the law does not explicitly protect the right to remove oneself from a hazardous workplace.
The Department of Labor inspected working conditions both on a routine basis and in response to complaints. The number of labor inspectors in the department was adequate to conduct mandated inspections, but inspectors failed to enforce compliance effectively with some aspects of the law and failed to bring charges against some employers who violated the law. The focus was primarily on undocumented foreign workers rather than worker protection. The department has the power to terminate the licenses of abusive employers and revoke their foreign labor quotas, and it did so occasionally.
Employers who violate laws regarding conditions of service, including pay, working hours, leave, and holidays, may be fined for a first offense and, for further offenses, be fined, imprisoned, or both. Penalties for violations of wage, hour, and health and safety standards were not sufficient to deter violations.
The commissioner of the Department of Labor is responsible for protecting workers’ rights. Foreign laborers (predominantly Filipinos, Indonesians, and Bangladeshis) dominated most low-wage professions, such as domestic service, construction, maintenance, retail, and food service, in which violations of wage, overtime, and health and safety regulations most frequently occurred.
The government prosecuted some employers who employed undocumented foreign workers or did not properly process workers’ documents. When grievances cannot be resolved, regulations require employers to pay for the repatriation of foreign workers and all outstanding wages.
Government enforcement in sectors employing low-skilled labor in small-scale construction or maintenance projects was inadequate. This was especially true for foreign laborers at construction sites, where complaints of wage arrears, inadequate safety, and poor, unsafe living conditions were reported. The government did not sufficiently enforce laws on working hours.
Many employed citizens received good salaries with numerous allowances, but complaints about low wages were common, especially in entry-level positions. The government found that local employees in the private sector had an average monthly compensation of BND 2,260 ($1,670), compared with BND 1,570 ($1,160) for foreign workers. Wages for employed foreign residents varied widely.
There were some reports of industrial accidents during the year, most commonly in the construction sector, where the labor force was overwhelmingly foreign, and the oil and gas industry. According to the government’s Safety, Health and Environment National Authority (SHENA), there were five work-related fatalities during the year compared with eight in 2018.