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ASEAN’s long road to protect migrant workers

Myanmar Times, Myanmar, 29 June 2018 - Nearly seven million – or two-thirds – of approximately 10 million international migrants living and working in ASEAN come from within the region (World Bank, 2015).

ASEAN members such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam are the main “sending” countries, and Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are the main “receiving” countries.

Labour migration flows in ASEAN have been managed mainly by bilateral agreements or Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between the specific labour-sending and receiving countries.

These arrangements cover neither undocumented migrants nor migrant workers’ families. The conditions of migrant workers are governed by domestic laws and regulations in the receiving countries. They are also affected by their own country’s labour export policies and exploitative practices of unscrupulous employment agencies.

Many of them are low-skilled and fill the gaps vacated by nationals of the destination countries. For example, migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, many of whom are women and under-age, work excessive hours in dismal conditions in the Thai fishing industry. Meanwhile, Thai workers migrate to more developed economies within the region and beyond in search of higher skilled employment.

Human trafficking for forced labour, or exploitation of migrants fleeing persecution from their home countries has also come to light in recent years. Aspiring migrants are vulnerable to exploitation by recruiters/employers, and not all have recourse to assistance and redress. Much of the initial assistance and support is provided by civil society organisations which themselves may face restrictions in their work scope. In 2016, Andy Hall, a British migrant rights advocate working in Thailand and Myanmar on migration policy issues, left Thailand after facing judicial harassment.

Female migrant workers from countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and modern-day slavery in the entertainment or service industries.

Culture shock/clashes, and a glaring uneven-ness of pre-departure preparation procedures, have affected the lives of many domestic helpers.

There are severe cases of abuse by employers, as well as cases of murder or violence committed by domestic helpers. Myanmar has emulated Indonesia’s move to restrict its nationals from working as domestic helpers overseas, yet many still indebt themselves to recruitment agencies to get the job.

The annual ASEAN Labour Ministers Meeting provides a venue for discussion of region-wide concerns on labour and employment, and also for relevant member states to discuss bilateral issues. Labour migration was put on ASEAN’s agenda in 2007 when the Philippines – the then ASEAN Chair – managed to obtain regional consensus to adopt the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers at the 12th ASEAN Summit.

The Declaration called on countries of origin and destination to ensure the dignity of migrant workers through protection from exploitation, discrimination and violence, improve labour migration governance, and combat trafficking in persons.

The ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers (ACMW) was set up in July 2007 to follow up on the Declaration, including the formulation of an ASEAN instrument in this regard.

The ACMW created the annual ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML), bringing together relevant stakeholders from governments, civil society and international organisations to discuss issues regarding migrant workers in Southeast Asia, and provide recommendations to the drafting of the instrument.

The drafting process started in 2009, but almost immediately, the sending and receiving countries found their positions clash on issues such as the nature of the instrument and undocumented workers and migrant workers’ families in its scope. Indonesia and the Philippines have pushed for a legal instrument with the inclusion of undocumented workers and migrant workers’ families.

Meanwhile, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are concerned that this may invite higher numbers of undocumented migrants, placing stress and strain on their existing policies, regulations and infrastructure. Eight years have passed with little progress on these key issues.

At a retreat in Davao in February 2017, ASEAN Labour Ministers reached agreement on “almost all aspects of the three principal issues” so that it could be finalised for adoption at the 30th ASEAN Summit in April 2017. This would be a main deliverable of the Philippines’ ASEAN Chairmanship which coincides with the 10th anniversary of the 2007 Declaration.

To this end, the Philippines had ceded that the instrument would be a morally binding document.

However, an eleventh-hour insistence by Indonesia on the instrument’s legally binding nature has stalled its adoption.

Meanwhile, the destination countries continue to have reservations on recommendations of extending protection to migrant workers’ families.

There is a big reluctance among the receiving countries to depart from the established “comfort” of dealing with migrant worker issues bilaterally and under existing domestic legal frameworks.

As a general rule, ASEAN members’ conclusion and implementation of regional agreements are subject to their national capacities and domestic political consensus.

Therefore, even after the advent of the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN countries still prefer non-binding declarations to enjoy flexibility in the transposition of regional commitments to their national plans.

Even if ASEAN governments can agree for the instrument to be legally binding, civil society stakeholders have highlighted their concern that some ASEAN members may drag out the national ratification processes which will in turn affect enforcement of the instrument’s provisions.

In the meantime, issues and concerns of migrant workers will not disappear from the regional agenda. Pending the completion of the instrument, a building-block approach would help.

Bilateral arrangements, regional fora such as the AFML, and regional projects supported by international organisations provide other platforms for continuing discussions. The 2016 ASEAN Guidelines for Corporate Social Responsibility on Labour, which includes recommendations for enterprises to protect the human rights of migrant workers, is also the right move to enable a more humane and fair migrant labour landscape in ASEAN.

Source: https://www.mmtimes.com/opinion/26599-asean-s-long-road-to-protect-migrant-workers.html

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