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Failing 6.9 Million Migrants: An Analysis of ASEAN

They go unnoticed and unprotected in unfamiliar places, but the 6.9 million migrant workers of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region play an important role in the economy. In 2014, remittances to the Philippines and Vietnam alone amounted to 10% and 6.4% of the countries’ respective GDPs--28 billion and 12 billion USD. Both regionally and globally, the importance of growing migrant worker populations in the economy can not be understated. Despite providing much-needed childcare, building infrastructure, and taking on domestic roles in foreign countries, these workers face dangerous conditions due to government inaction.

On account of their socioeconomic backgrounds, these migrants are often forced into unskilled and low-wage jobs, prevalent with unsafe working conditions, exploitation, debt bondage, human trafficking, and more.

(SOURCE: Flickr/ILO in Asia and the Pacific)

Poor Backgrounds, Grim Futures

A consideration of the origin, or “sending countries”, for the majority of migrant workers quickly reveals the factors behind their migration: economic prosperity. Young men and an increasing number of women seeking better job opportunities come most often from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar. While Thailand was one of the largest and most progressive in policy regarding migrant workers’ rights in the 1990s, the country has since shifted to a net destination country. Due to the sharp economic disparity between origin and destination countries (i.e. Thailand, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, and Malaysia), as well as labor shortages in receiving states, the number of migrant workers has increased by fivefold since the 1990s.

Women in particular have been affected by the sharp rise in migration. In 1990, women made up 0.6 million migrants; the number rose to 3.3 million in 2017. Although they comprise almost half of contemporary intra-ASEAN migrants at 48.7 percent, they are often treated differently from their male counterparts. Recruited for domestic work in the private service sector, these often low-skilled workers are not protected by the national labor laws of their destination country. The barriers to basic protections delineated in the ASEAN Consensus on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers are thus strengthened. Gendered migration, then, poses a challenge for acceding nations seeking to implement the already-flawed Consensus.

A substantial amount of migrant workers are irregular, often as a result of difficult, lengthy, or inaccessible migration processes, resulting in a third of 6.9 million intranational migrants being undocumented and deprived of access to legal protection. The outcome is an increase in wage withholding (experienced by 17% of migrant workers), recruitment abuse, exploitation, lack of social security and healthcare, and human trafficking. Without proper documentation, exploited migrant workers in dangerous conditions are unable to seek help for fear of legal ramifications. Third party recruitment companies promising aid in receiving proper documentation charge exorbitant sums of money to desperate workers, placing them in debt bondage, many times without giving the migrants necessary legal papers.

Despite seeking stability and money to remiss to their origin countries, migrant workers of both genders are faced with legal vulnerability and abuse in receiving countries on account of the lack of implementation of inadequate national labor laws. More often than not, absorbing foreign labor is in accordance with receiving countries' economic policy; aging populations and a lack of domestic workers willing to handle dirty jobs leads states like Singapore to rely on foreign labor. Although labor-receiving countries depend heavily on low-skilled, undocumented labor--this labor fills the aforementioned issues in most receiving countries--that has been shown to be pro-employer, these destination countries have, on the whole, failed to accede to ASEAN or draft adequate national labor laws that implement pro-employee policies.

Even worse, sending countries are unwilling to push for better protections for their outgoing migrant workers. Take, for example, Cambodia, which has signed but not acceded to the Consensus. Despite the fact that both receiving and sending countries benefit economically from migrant workers (in the form of labor and remittances, respectively), the gap between the economies of the two prevents sending countries from leveraging labor. Any risk of hurting much-needed remittances can not be taken for sending countries like the Philippines, which derived 10% of its 2015 GDP from remittances.

The gross exploitation of workers that benefits both origin and destination states has not been addressed by ASEAN until as recently as 2004, indicating the inherent apathy for human rights and setting ASEAN agreements up for failure. With so many gaps in implementation, ASEAN’s Consensus fails to prepare for increased migrant worker numbers in the future and fails to protect the millions of workers supporting the region’s economy.

Doomed to Fail

The 2007 Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers established principles for migrant worker protections and obligations of sending and receiving countries to their workers. This noble first step was significant in its forward thinking. Only two years later would the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) form to develop an instrument. As the 2007 declaration was just a declaration, no country actually took progressive steps toward the outlined principles. Policy leniency would continue to plague the AICHR and the ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers (ACMW) in the most recent migrant workers’ rights instrument.

When the ASEAN Consensus was written, it was with the intention of implementing the principles of the Declaration which had preceded it. Unfortunately, eight years were spent in negotiations as ASEAN upheld its policy of non-interference in domestic matters and allowed countries to follow national interests (the aforementioned importance of cheap labor to household and national economies). While the completion of the document on an inclusive broad-based regional platform is an achievement and set a precedent for future negotiations, the inadequacy of its contents wholly undermines the effort put into it.