It is complicated. Which is probably why Asean’s plan to create a single market and production base by this year does not include migrant workers in Asean. The Asean Economic Community (AEC) aims to have a free flow of goods, services, investment, capital, and skilled labour. So far only eight professions are covered, and they include engineers, architects, doctors, nurses, lawyers and accountants.

These constitute only a tiny fraction of the 310 million-strong workforce in Asean. AEC is ignoring the intra-Asean migrants. Between 1990 and 2013, intra-Asean migration increased from 1.5 million to 6.5 million. About 87 per cent of migrant workers in Asean are either unskilled or low-skilled.

Push and pull factors

AEC cannot continue to ignore this group because the numbers are likely to grow due to the push and pull factors within Asean. Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam will be facing a shrinking workforce in the next 10 years largely due to ageing populations and would desperately need foreign labour to keep their economy churning, at least at the same pace.

Unionist A. Navamukundan tells The Establishment Post that rapid growth in small and medium-sized industries in countries like Malaysia, have made the shortage for workers even more acute and this has put a further strain on the demand for workers.

Some Asean countries like Cambodia and Indonesia will have a situation where expanding youth populations will outpace job creation and this will add to the outflow migration numbers. Then there is the external factor. The world’s factory China will be looking at moving its factories to cheaper locations in Southeast Asia and South Asia because wages have been increasing in China, as high as 10 per cent per month raising the cost of production.

China’s workers are likely to contract by the same margin as the expansion in Southeast Asia, according to a report by ANZ Bank. Southeast Asia is on track to replace China as the world’s leading manufacturing centre within the next 15 years. With all this development, AEC must make sure the labour market remains strong so as to support its objectives, in terms of supply and quality. For this, a commitment to minimum labour standards is necessary.

Big money

For the longest time, the only thing free flowing in Asean are migrant workers. In 2012, this labour force generated close to US$40 billion in remittances for the whole region. High remittances encourage greater migration, and enter the middlemen who trade in people. And business is big because almost 10 per cent of global migrant workers are intra-Asean migrant workers.

Filipino maids are among the most sought migrant workers in countries like Singapore.

“It is a lucrative business. Everyone wants to make money by trading in people,” says Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, Bar Council Malaysia’s assistant director. “It’s not migrant-centric, it’s business-centric.”

This is why protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers in Asean is not in the forefront. “Migrants caught entering the country illegally are deported, but employers who hire these people are not punished,” Ms Kishna tells The Establishment Post.

Sending countries are not pushing for better working conditions and terms for their citizens. “They don’t want to jeopardise the situation,” she says, adding that receiving countries have the option of reducing their dependency on other Southeast Asian countries and sourcing for migrant workers from other areas like South Asia, which has a huge low-skilled population.

Intra-Asean migrant worker remittances 

The fear of losing a sizable income for the country forces sending countries to comply although there have been times when public pressure had forced these country to put a moratorium on sending workers. For years, remittances make up at least 12 per cent of the Philippine gross domestic product. The flow of Myanmar migrant workers’ remittances from Thailand is US$315 million per year while their contribution to the GDP of the country is almost US$2 billion.

Illegal workers in Malaysia

Legal means of entry is the ideal option but the process gets expensive, lengthy and complicated. So illegal entry becomes the path most taken by migrants, be they documented or undocumented. The horror stories of abuse have long been documented, the latest being the one involving Rohingya-Bangladesh boat people.

“There are 150,000 refugees in Malaysia and 95 percent of them are from Myanmar,” Bar Council member Dato’ M. Ramachelvam tells The Establishment Post. He is also the Bar Council’s Migrants, Refugees and Immigrant Affairs Committee chairperson.

Being the largest recipient of intra-Asean migrant workers, it is important that Malaysia has policies and practices that support migrant worker protection and at the same time local industries that depend on migrant labour. Ms Kishna says: “In Malaysia, migrant workers affairs come under the Home Ministry. Prior to that, it was under the Human Resources Ministry. There is the tendency to treat this as a defence or internal affairs issue, not as a workforce matter.” This means policies on migrant labour would be defence in nature and not human resources-based as it ought to be.

Then there is the matter of compliance. Mr Navamukundan, who is National Union of Plantation Workers executive secretary, says: “Although the law allows legal migrant workers to become members of trade unions, the employers and contractors ensure they do not. They are prevented from seeking relief for their grievances through formal industry relations system. Migrant workers who are illegal are totally helpless because they cannot be identified in the formal system.”

Legally binding instrument for Asean

This is where it gets complicated. Migrant workers would need to be given the same benefits and legal protection as locals, including minimum wages and the right to be unionised. Over the years, receiving countries have been accused of not providing adequate social and labour protection for migrant workers and their families.

It gets even more complicated because it is a regional matter, not a bilateral one. That means laws to protect migrant workers are not enough. There needs to be a harmonisation of employment laws. Asean needs to formulate a regional legal instrument on migrant worker rights and the minimum standards of treatment. This instrument has to be enforceable in the 10 member countries, which presently have varying degrees of worker protection standards. Then again, how well will these countries accept an Asean legally binding instrument and how to make the three major receiving countries adhere to the regional policies and regulations?

Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are the destinations of 91 per cent of intra-Asean migrant workers – Malaysia and Thailand get 35 per cent each and Singapore 21 per cent. It is not going to be particularly easy for Malaysia because last year the International Trade Union Confederation declared that Malaysia was “among the worst places to work” terms of violations of workers’ rights.

“We (Malaysia) don’t have minimum standards for healthcare and housing, among others,” says Dato’ Ramachelvam. He says it is the needs and goals of businesses that dictate the dependency on migrant labour in Malaysia. “We’re addicted to low-wage economy.”

Future of migrant workers in Asean

Asean achieved a milestone in 2007 with Cebu Declaration for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers that was supposed to initiate the process of ensuring migrant workers are protected. Negotiations stalled and since then there has not been much progress. Lack of political will is often cited as the reason for this.

Asean now has AEC and its success to consider and for the single production base plan to run efficiently, it should also look into creating a skilled, talented and creative workforce. This will add value to the region as a whole and to the supply chain. Asean should not merely strive to be world’s next factory and the production base for dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs for the world where the workforce for this sort of jobs come from the less developed countries in Asean.

Then there is the issue of uneven distribution and already there is fear that the development divide will get worse. This will likely be the case if the present situation persists – low-skilled workers seeking employment in a region that does not have a legal instrument on migrant worker rights and the minimum standards of treatment. All countries in Asean should be able to benefit from the fruits of AEC otherwise AEC can be deemed a failure.

Read more: migrant workers in Asean: the hidden and neglected workforce