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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.

Structural Issues

The Consensus’s most fatal flaw lies not with its policy but with its structure. As with the majority of ASEAN documents and agreements, the pact is not legally-binding. ASEAN promotes regional cooperation, but it is up to individual nations to follow through and implement the policies of a document that satisfies no party. This decentralized approach is actually contrary to the goals of the document; signing nations give only the illusion of providing solvency while drawing attention away from more effective methods of advocating for human rights.

Dakota Jones from the University of Pennsylvania agrees, finding it “unlikely that ASEAN will play a significant role in assisting in the diffusion of human rights norms” due to the “perverse incentives” of each party. Naturally, without a binding document or centralized implementation, the effects of the Consensus will never be realized. National interests will continue to overtake regional interests, and destination countries with greater financial leverage in the organization have no economic incentives to accede.

Although the Consensus was originally designed as an instrument for change, it lacks regulation and direction, and therefore does not change the status quo. The lack of willingness to forcefully address this humanitarian issue on ASEAN’s part is representative of ASEAN’s policy towards non-region-destabilizing issues: apathetic.

Policy Leniency

In keeping with this leniency, the actual contents of the document have put the interests of the governments over the struggles of migrant workers. A general lack of coordination between national governments is most evident in the uneven labor laws of each country; the World Bank further reports that “Although some bilateral agreements have been formulated to coordinate migration between sending and receiving countries in ASEAN, the agreements often lack transparency and input from employers and migrants.” Inconsistent policies, then, result in varied understandings of exploitation and fair treatment between countries.

Furthermore, without a definition for unfair or fair treatment, the Consensus makes the process of seeking protection more difficult. Receiving countries could misconstrue the definition of unjust treatment and void the Consensus’s original purpose. Without details on a possible process of lodging a complaint or accessing a local court in the violating receiving state, ASEAN appeases the international community with words on the obligations of its member states without delineating a mechanism for affected migrant workers to take action by.

Another of the Consensus’ shortcomings, which happens to apply to ASEAN in general, is the incessant usage of bilateral social security agreements over multilateral agreements. As countries make bilateral agreements, they develop differing protections for migrant workers and may discriminate against migrant workers based on their origins. Varying sets of protections and entitlements results in confusion and, as the International Labor Organization puts it, “could undermine regional integration.” Multilateral agreements have been inexplicably absent in ASEAN policy implementation but would resolve issues stemming from webs of highly complex bilateral agreements; the standardization of bureaucratic processes would ease cross-border coordination. We refer back to the ILO, which indicates the ability of multilateral agreements to “provide for a phased and incremental approach” specific to the context of each migrant. Instead, the unnecessary complication of social security benefits by ASEAN further establishes the organization’s careless methodology for solving its largest crisis.

Most concerningly, only two member states have ratified the Consensus--Indonesia and the Philippines, both sending countries. While Cambodia has signed, the country has not acceded to it. In addition, ASEAN has, at large, been slow to adopt some of the UN’s provisions in the past. Considering that ASEAN member states’ human rights violations have only increased since the founding of the AICHR, the question is asked: does ASEAN care?

Regional Ramifications

Regardless of the answer, ASEAN should care. While the Consensus and the Declaration are dismal at best, the earnest improvement of ASEAN’s mechanisms and policies could establish the regional organization as a major, unified international player. An effective global community would first have to show that it is prepared; currently, ASEAN is not prepared to handle the rising surge in migrant workers, just as it was unprepared for the Rohingya Muslim Crisis . Until ASEAN sets a precedent for itself in effectively tackling regional matters, both destabilizing and not, the organization will lack serious credibility on the global stage.

ASEAN must streamline its efforts, assert the importance of regional sovereignty over national sovereignty, and protect its migrant workers. The organization has a long way to go, but the regional economic prosperity it seeks will come first from the protection of 6.9 million migrant workers.


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