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Bangkok Post, Thailand, 23 June 2018 - Barriers and inefficiencies in the migrant labour system are preventing ASEAN from reaping all the benefits of economic integration.


In contrast to the global trend, the movement of people across national borders within Southeast Asia has been increasing significantly over the past two decades. This intra-regional migration is a result of rapid economic development, demographic diversity and the mismatch in supply and demand for domestic labour.

However, most countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) still have inappropriate and restrictive migrant policies, as well as a lack of institutions and infrastructure that can manage labour migration efficiently.


Barriers and weaknesses in the labour system are causing ASEAN to miss out on the opportunity to accelerate economic integration, which allows skilled and low-skilled workers to move freely across borders.

“Income disparity is an important driver of the migration flow in ASEAN. There are huge economic gaps in the region where the wealthiest country is 25 times richer than the poorest,” said Philip O’Keefe, Lead Economist in the Social Protection and Labour Global Practice at the World Bank.

According to the United Nations, the share of intra-regional migration in ASEAN between 1995 and 2015 increased significantly by almost 10 percent while the rest of the world experienced a negative trend. In South Asia, intra-regional migration decreased by 25 percent over the same period, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (13 percent) and Europe and Central Asia (9 percent).

Demographic differences - which have caused a mismatch of supply and demand in the labour market - are important contributing factors encouraging people to seek employment in different parts of the region, said Mr O’Keefe.

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“Ageing populations are another key factor. While there are labour shortages in many ageing societies, some countries are still struggling to produce adequate employment for a large pool of young workers,” said Thai Labour Minister Pol Gen Adul Sangsingkeo.

The mobility of the workforce brings benefits to the citizens of both countries that receive and send labour, he said. It helps bring back capital, knowledge and skills when migrants return home. Thailand, for example, has become the regional migration hub where migrant workers are a contributing factor in economic growth.

Together, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore receive 96 percent of all intra-regional migration. Thailand receives 55 percent, Malaysia 22 percent and Singapore 19 percent.

Countries supplying migrant labour, such as Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia, have made huge economic gains from remittances from their workers abroad, helping to improve the quality of life of their families. In Singapore, for instance, the average wage is at least five times higher than that of any other ASEAN country, while Cambodian migrants can earn three times more in Thailand than they can at home.


Remittances sent to ASEAN countries from their nationals working all over the world totalled US$62 billion (about 2 trillion baht) in 2015, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Remittances account for 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the Philippines, 7 percent in Vietnam, 5 percent in Myanmar and 3 percent in Cambodia.

“Labour migration helps to ease a shortage of skilled labour in the receiving countries, which consequently boosts production and stimulates their competitiveness,” Pol Gen Adul said.


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