Pandemic a wake-up call for Asean on labour protection


THE Asean countries need to improve their social and labour protection on foreign workers to support the integration of the economic bloc.

The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) research assistant Armand Azra said abuse and exploitation of the migrant industry are structural issues to keep labour costs low.

“Enforcement is meant to keep migration costs low. How migration is structured in the labour-sending Asean member states, official government departments and recruitment agencies often keep migration flowing without any proper protection.

“Migrants have the most to lose within this industry, while excessive emigration from labour-sending countries may further exacerbate the development gap,” Armand said in a virtual webinar hosted by IDEAS yesterday.

He said there will be a supply and demand mismatch at the origin countries when excessive emigration happens.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the health and social risks facing many migrants such as low-quality living conditions, inadequate access to health services, which increased infection risks among migrant populations, and social protection exclusion, according to the researcher.

Armand said IDEAS recommended the Asean countries to ratify the International Labour Organisation conventions to provide a catalyst for regional integration.

“All Asean member states can have a standard or uniformity in protecting labour and migrants,” he added.

International Monetary Fund data showed a spectrum of labour migration in Asean mapped against GDP per capita, from the labour-receiving end that consists of Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia to the labour-sending end with Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam had the highest remittances as a share of GDP in 2019 at 29.2%, 9.9% and 6.5% respectively.

Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia had remittances as a share of GDP in 2019 at 1.3%, 1% and 0.5% each.

In 2014, an estimated 87% of intra-regional Asean migration was low-wage earners.

Senior programme manager for decent work and labour mobility at the United Nations Office for Project Services Benjamin Harkins said the virus outbreak has severely disrupted labour mobility within Asean and placed the health, livelihood and human rights of migrants at risk.

“Even under a normal set, labour violations against migrants such as charging excessive recruitment fees, contract substitutions, withholding documents and other abuses are widespread.

“With severe restrictions on mobility in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, working conditions for migrant workers have become even more precarious and abuses have proliferated,” Harkins said in the webinar.

While the Asean governments have long acknowledged the potential of intra-regional migration for economic development, he said professional workers make up a small fraction of the regional labour market as non-legal barriers to mobility remain in place.

He added that the vast majority involved in intra-Asean labour migration is in low-skilled and labour-intensive jobs that are not covered by the current policies.