Migrant workers in the Asean Region live and work under inhumane conditions. To improve this situation policies, the migration industry and the accountability of employers must all get a lot more attention.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in Thailand on 8 August 1967 with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration. By 1999, the Association had reached its current size of ten Member States, encompassing Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Among the members, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are viewed as countries of destination, whereas Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam are viewed as countries of origin.
ASEAN recognises the importance of job creation, developing the quality of the workforce, and providing social security to the workers. However, migrants in ASEAN are experiencing a lack of access to regular forms of migration and safe migration channels; high costs and illegal migration fees; problems with recruitment agencies and agents; abuses at various stages of the migration process; trafficking; violence against women and gender-based exploitation/abuse; large undocumented populations; low wages; long working hours; exploitative working conditions; non-payment of salaries; workplace safety and health issues; non-recognition of domestic work under labour laws; abuse and mistreatment in domestic work conditions; and the criminalisation and detention of undocumented migrant workers. As the number of migrant workers increases annually, so does the probability of workers experiencing such inhumane actions.
International labour migration in ASEAN is increasing greatly, as well as the statistics showing the levels of intra-regional migration. It may lead to labour shortages and rising levels of dependency by the retired generation, whereas others might experience pressures to create jobs for the surplus of young workers. Despite rapid increases in economic development in countries of origin, absolute income gaps among destination countries and countries of origin still exist. Expanding trade and investment; bolstering ties among the region’s governments, employers, and workers; and delivering more harmony, stability, and dignity to its peoples could increase international mobility rather than diminish it.
As an initiative, sections 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52 of the Vientiane Action Programme (2004) mandate the elaboration of an ASEAN Instrument on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (AIMW). In January 2007, ASEAN made a ground-breaking move to address the issue of migrant workers by signing the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (DPPMW). The Declaration mandates that ASEAN countries promote fair and appropriate employment protection, payment of wages, and adequate access to decent working and living conditions for migrant workers.
The DPPMW has also established the ASEAN Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACMW), which would report to the Senior Labour Officials Meeting in 2008. The ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) was established to implement and advance the principles of the DPPMW. The AFML is held annually, wherein representatives of governments, employers, workers, civil society organisations (CSOs), international organisations, and international speakers are encouraged to discuss, share experiences, and build consensus on the protection issues committed to under the DPPMW, as well as review the implementation of past recommendations and craft future recommendations for each AFML meeting.
The first meeting of the ACMW has adopted a work plan with four priorities: (1) step up the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers against exploitation and abuse; (2) strengthen this protection and promotion by enhancing labour migration governance in ASEAN countries; (3) regional cooperation to fight human trafficking in the ASEAN region; and (4) development of an AIMW.
With regard to the latter priority, ASEAN’s four key principles of the AIMW were drawn up by representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. The first core principle is “all migrants in ASEAN shall be covered by the Framework Instrument regardless of legal status”, which was affirmed by the 10 member countries in the Bangkok Declaration on Irregular Migration in 1999. The second principle is that ASEAN’s approach to migration “shall be guided by the recognition that just as the protection of the migrant workers is a joint responsibility of labour-sending and receiving states, so migration should also be expected to provide benefits to both labour-receiving and sending countries”. This is in support of the preamble in the ACMW. The third core principle shall be non-discriminatory and “national treatment” for migrant workers. This, in particular, includes taking pro-active measures to reduce all forms of stigma faced by migrant workers and members of their families. The fourth core principle “shall be guided by gender-sensitive policies, processes, and practices on migration”.
All member states of ASEAN need to ratify all eight core International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions (29, 87, 98, 100, 105, 111, 138, and 182) to ensure that all four principles are met, and to harmonise national laws with the standards. They should also favourably consider the ratification of ILO conventions 94 and 143, which are related to migration, and the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
The Framework Instrument is supposed to be a legally binding agreement among all ASEAN states in accordance with ASEAN Charter article 5.2. However, the draft has been stalled since December 2009, when proposals to institute a legally binding framework and to include undocumented migrants under protection mechanisms were opposed. Through the Task Force on the ASEAN Migrant Workers initiative, ASEAN CSOs continue to press the AIMW on this issue.
The Tripartite Action for the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers in the ASEAN Region is an initiative of the ILO that lasted from 2012 to 2016 and targets governments as well as workers’ and employers’ organisations (including ACMW, ACE, and ATUC), male and female migrants, and potential migrants in the ASEAN region.
To gain a clearer view, below is the record on Convention ratifications of ASEAN countries in relation to migration.
Governments, workers, and advocates need to contemplate the current state of these instruments. More and more people are migrating without enough protection and will continue to be at risk of unequal treatment, violence, and exploitation. Member states have been using international instruments in drafting the Framework Instrument, but its development has not been transparent. There is a lack of clarity as to the process for member states to adopt the Instrument.
Key issues in labour migration
- Irregular migration
Irregular migration is when there are no proper documents or when people are working in informal sectors. Irregular migration also takes place when migrants and/or employers access irregular channels. Those who go through these channels are more likely to be at risk of violence inside the workplace and suffer the worst work conditions as well as experience harassment, abuse, and exploitation. This is alarming, as these occurrences happen mainly due to migrants’ lack of access to the necessary information on laws and services, most especially pre-departure training, which pushes people towards the option of looking for low-skilled work.
Irregular migration can be interpreted as an expression of the right to mobility. However, the paradox is that international law supports the right to leave a country but not the right to enter another. The disparity between economic needs and political considerations is visible because there is openness for the flow of goods and capital, but barriers are put up when it comes to the flow of people.
People are often exploited in the private economy by individuals or enterprises; are victims of forced sexual exploitation; and/or are victims of forced labour exploitation in economic activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work, or manufacturing. Others are in state-imposed forms of forced labour. The mixed flows are focussed on irregular populations that include refugees, migrant workers, asylum-seekers, victims of trafficking, smuggled migrants, and unaccompanied minors. This is a big issue, considering the possibility of not fully documenting all refugees and stateless persons and annually increasing population sizes. Unfortunately, ASEAN has been silent on this or has done very little to address this issue.
Migrant women are particularly vulnerable to labour abuses due to their reliance on employers to issue visas, accommodation, and pay. Further, they have limited access to information and encounter language barriers, which hinder them from identifying or reporting poor treatment and/or conditions. Labour inspections are useful but do not necessarily cover the informal sector, despite having a higher risk of abuse and exploitation. In the ASEAN region, manufacturing is one of the major sectors in which women migrant workers experience unexplained wage deductions for their medical fees, food, and transport costs, despite living within the vicinity of the factories.
Below is an illustration of the women’s labour migration flow in the ASEAN region. It is taken from the Policy Brief Series of ILO, UN Women, with the support of the Australian government.
Despite all member countries ratifying the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, issues of migrant women and children have not been fully addressed, particularly in the AIMW. Thus, other avenues to address the issues of migrant women and children have been considered.
On 12–13 November 2014, the ASEAN Regional Conference of Senior Officials on Strengthening the Protection and Empowerment of Women Migrant Workers was held in Manila, the Philippines. It gave ample attention to the protection and empowerment of women migrant workers, including capacity-building of gender-responsive policies relevant to migration. The regional conference aimed to contribute towards the ongoing process of crafting the AIMW. However, as mentioned, there has been very little progress on the actual implementation of the Instrument.
With regard to health and maternity, countries of destination must have facilities such as private areas for women to help deter the harassment and sexual assault of migrant women. Facilities for pregnant and breastfeeding women must also be included, since women lose their jobs if impregnated. In ILO Convention 183, the Maternal Protection Convention, it states that women should not be obliged to work while pregnant. Unfortunately, no ASEAN state has ratified this convention.
- Domestic Workers
Labour laws tend to exclude domestic workers or fail to offer effective protection due to a lack of enforcement. According to Martin and Abella, no member country – except the Philippines – has specific laws for domestic workers. Moreover, Malaysia and Singapore have exclusion clauses for foreign domestic workers. This is quite alarming, as domestic work is the most prevalent field of work for migrant workers from the ASEAN region. Domestic workers also have a higher risk of experiencing exploitation and extensive working hours. To a certain extent, they are seen as modern-day slaves with their unscrupulous contracts. Domestic workers have mentioned stories of paying exorbitant recruitment fees before being deployed and having their wages deducted monthly, which often results in debt bondage with the employers and/or recruiters. Due to these deplorable realities, domestic workers often opt to run away from their current employers and/or find new employers. There are cases in which employers hold the domestic workers’ travel documents, which makes it difficult for domestic workers to find jobs or return home, even after the end of their contract. As a result they are considered to be undocumented.
To recognise domestic workers in the mainstream labour force, the ILO initiated the Convention on Domestic Work, which made use of the ILO Tripartite Framework. It brings together representatives of employers, workers, and governments in negotiating efforts to prepare and provide minimum standards in protecting the rights and welfare of migrant workers.
Thailand’s Department of Employment has estimated that there are an additional 1.3 to 2 million undocumented immigrant workers in Thailand. In the Mae Sot province, 313 Burmese children were interviewed: the youngest interviewee was 12 years old, operating a machine in a factory for eight hours a day, seven days a week. All these Burmese children face excessive working hours, lack time off and unhealthy proximity to dangerous machines and chemicals, and even endure the practice of debt bondage.
On 21 October 2015, there was a media statement by Dr Ong Kian Ming, MP for Serdang, about 1,918 children currently being detained at detention centres for immigrants, out of 71,362 total detainees. In fact, there are children in each of the 13 detention centres, with the highest number being in Bekenu, Sarawak (299) and the lowest in Semuja, Sarawak (9).
The ILO’s framework does not have the leverage that other international economic institutions are able to exercise. The ILO’s resolution, then, is to create a rights-based approach to international migration, to let countries make their own policies, and for the ILO to assist countries guided by the principles of the relevant ILO conventions.
Having sex-disaggregated data is crucial, as it helps in understanding the jobs women are doing and how they are being recruited. There should be data available to provide evidence or be used by policy-makers and advocates to evaluate and monitor whether policies are effective, and whether migrant workers matter-of-factly have access to support services.
In 2012, the ASEAN Agreement on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Workers was adopted as an initiative by the Law Reform Commission of Thailand. Its vision is broader in the sense that it is applicable to all workers and recognises the equal status of migrant workers, particularly those in the care-giving and domestic work sectors. Negotiations have focussed around building consensus among the ASEAN member countries on each article of the draft. The ASEAN Agreement on the Rights of All Workers was finalised during the AFML 2015, which was held 26–28 October 2015.
Attention should be given to the review of policies, the practices of the migration industry and intermediaries, and the accountability of employers. The guiding principles of approaching migration issues should be the use of dialogue, responsibility-sharing – by countries of destination and countries of origin as well as employers, recruiters, and migrant workers – the promotion of human rights, and a commitment to narrowing gaps in equality. As reiterated by Asis (2004), there must be a degree of tolerance for irregular migration, as eradicating irregular migration is quite unrealistic and, thus, should not be the end goal. Instead, attention should be given to achieving equilibrium – at the end of the day, there is the question of the human rights of migrant workers in irregular situations.
Data is essential, as it could help in understanding the significant gender gaps, which are evident inside and outside the workplace. On the national level, the administration needs to make more effort to actually publish data in a timely manner, as this would help guide research and awareness on migration trends. Combining administrative records and surveys of member countries could be vital in addressing key ongoing knowledge gaps concerning irregular migration.
There is a need for better coordination among provincial offices and for national laws and services to trickle down to the grassroots level. With regard to creating or sustaining data, countries should make use of information system technologies to modernise or digitalise data instead of keeping hard copies of data available. In relation to that, they could make use of modern technology to have campaigns about raising awareness of the possible risks in migration.
- ACMW - ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers
- AEC - ASEAN Economic Community
- AFLM - ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour
- AIMW - ASEAN Instrument on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers
- ASCC - ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community
- ASCC 2025 - ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community 2025 document
- ASEAN - Association of Southeast Asian Nations
- CSO - Civil Society Organisation
- DPPMW - ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers
- GDP - gross domestic product
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