LABOR mobility within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is hindered by the lack of mutual recognition of professional qualifications between home and destination countries, the Asian Development Bank said, with governments enjoined to establish regional standards for education and training over the long term to assure workers are easily employable within the fledgling economic community.

In a report, “Achieving Skill Mobility in the ASEAN Economic Community,” the ADB said that even with the opening of economies, skilled professionals still face a number of barriers, among them non-acceptance of qualifications, constitutional barriers against foreigners in selected professions, and cultural differences and varying pay levels across the region.

The bank said governments must work to increase the mobility of professionals, calling the cost of failing to do so “staggering.”

“Harnessing the full potential of the region’s human capital also requires much greater openness towards the mobility of its high-skilled workers. Despite considerable efforts within ASEAN to create an effective framework to facilitate these movements, progress on the ground has been slow and uneven,” the ADB said.

It noted that between 2005 and 2012, just six Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) have been signed to cover the engineering, nursing, architecture, medicine, dentistry and tourism professions, with preliminary agreements in place for two more, surveying and accountancy.

“The cost of these barriers is staggering for the region. Without the ability, and real prospects, to move intraregionally, many ASEAN professionals are unemployed or, more typically, underemployed; that is, they take jobs significantly below their education and skill levels, leading to brain waste,” it said.

It said according to United Nations estimates, the region had 9.5 million migrants in 2013, of which 70% or 6.5 million were from member states. The main corridors of labor flows were Myanmar to Thailand, Indonesia to Malaysia, Malaysia to Singapore, Laos to Thailand and Cambodia to Thailand.

It added that the Philippines and Vietnam, the two ASEAN countries with the largest overseas populations, stood out for sending most of their workers outside the region.

The Philippine experience of sending workers to the Middle East “suggests the importance of open-border regimes in shaping the international movement of workers,” it said.

Expanding the number of MRAs to cover more professions is key towards expanding opportunity for skilled workers, it said, noting that “ASEAN policy makers must internalize the fact that MRAs are living documents that require continuous revision, improvement and renegotiation.”

“Achieving skill mobility is quintessentially a political and long-term process that will benefit from closer coordination and various levels of governance, the presence of country champions to set deadlines and bring bureaucracies in tow, and continued and meaningful engagement from ever-broader sets of actors, especially employers, professionals interested in exploring mobility options and professional associations that understand the benefits of mobility for their members,” it said. 11 Feb 2016