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For female migrant workers, problems can begin at home

Nikkei, Singapore, 10 March 2017 - Economic integration has not improved promised legal protections


From the very outset, Myint's search for work to support her family had to be conducted outside the law. Like thousands before her, the frightened young woman from Myanmar was recruited by a Yangon labor agency in defiance of a temporary ban enacted by the military government in 2014 on domestic workers seeking jobs overseas. With no means to check the reliability of the agency or the two-year contract it offered, she fled her job when she was forced to clean and cook for three separate Singapore households and received none of her pay for eight months.

"I come from Shan State, very dangerous," Myint explains as she sits in a shelter run by HOME, a migrant rights organization that works with the United Nations agency, UN Women Regional Office for Asia Pacific. Beside her, an older woman, who also fled from conflict in Myanmar, describes how she escaped from a bullying employer and her lecherous grandfather. She had to clean windows of an apartment on a dangerously high floor and she was never allowed a single day off. While Singapore prides itself on the rule of law, the stranded women, unpaid and without visa status, will have to wait six months or more for the resolution of their cases.

"Even then, there's no transparency about the results, no binding legal recourse," explains Jacqueline Tan, director of HOME. While the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations accepted the broad principle of free movement of labor as part of the ASEAN Economic Community, launched at the end of 2015, it does not apply to unskilled labor. There are also many conditions applied to migrant labor generally. Singapore, for example, "doesn't recognize any of the laws of the sending country, whether to provide rest days or enforce a maximum one-month agency fee," Tan noted. "Domestics are exempt from labor laws or workers' compensation. Yet the government strictly enforces a ban on migrant women marrying a Singaporean without state permission."

It is unskilled migrants who probably do more than any other group to unify ASEAN when they cross borders, yet they have come to know more about the region's pitfalls than its potential. This January marked the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, under which members pledged to "promote fair and appropriate employment protection, payment of wages, and adequate access to decent working and living conditions for migrant workers."

In addition, all ASEAN countries are among the 196 signatories to the seminal United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. As ratified in 1981, its general recommendation No. 26 specifically guarantees women migrant workers "the right to be free of degrading and inhumane treatment."

Tangled legal webs

Yet ASEAN continues to exemplify the sage dictum of the 19th-century French writer Honore de Balzac: "Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught." The vast majority of expatriate women working in a region where an estimated 20 million or more people live outside their country of birth move through an unprotected and extralegal underground networks. The policies intended to protect women migrants can actually have the opposite effect, making them "even more vulnerable to exploitation," according to a spokesperson for the International Labor Organization.

In Myanmar, while a national census in 2014 put the official number of citizens working in Thailand at more than 1.4 million, the actual number is more than 3 million, all of whom are forced to live outside legal channels. Only one ASEAN member, the Philippines, known for its huge dependence on overseas workers, has agreed to honor the ILO's 2011 Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, which sets basic standards when it comes to such issues as workers having to pay excessive portions of their salaries to unscrupulous recruiters.

Around 800,000 Cambodians, according to Socheath Heng of UN Women in Phnom Penh, are drawn to jobs in construction and agriculture in Thailand. Yet, most migrants who flood across the borders are undocumented and legal protections are virtually non-existent. In addition, "the labor law in Cambodia does not include protection for domestic workers and amending this is a very slow process," he said. Villagers are regularly cheated and given forged documents. The larger problem is that countries sending workers abroad have little leverage over host countries, he added.

Malaysia, whose legal culture is strongly influenced by British laws from the colonial era, is a major importer of migrant labor, but many expatriate unskilled workers face discrimination and legal difficulties, say labor rights activists. In one recently publicized case, a woman went to take the place of her sick husband in a Malaysian factory, but when the employers refused to give her medical clearance despite a checkup, she was left unpaid by recruiters and lost the house and land she had mortgaged back home.


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