Thetis Mangahas
ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Aside from being the most dynamic and populous region, Asia and the Pacific is a modern-day hub of people on the move in search of decent work. Some 25 million Asians are employed in countries other than their own. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the rate of Asian migration has been increasing. Since the beginning of the millennium, we’ve seen a clear acceleration of this trend.

Migrants from Asia and the Pacific can be found working in almost any occupation in almost any other country (as well as their own) and their reach is increasingly global. Many are professionals – such as doctors, nurses and engineers. Many others are found performing highly skilled technical work in avionics and construction projects, while large numbers of lower skilled workers fill vacancies in various other economic sectors.  It is a movement that has a growing share of women workers, as well as youth seeking employment.

However, the stereotypical Western view that almost all Asian migrants are heading for the shores of developed economies is false. From Afghanistan to Vanuatu, more than three million people are embarking on journeys each year. But, increasingly, many of these migrant workers – an estimated 43% - are remaining within the region. In other words, increasingly, migrants in Asia and the Pacific are crossing borders rather than oceans. It’s a sign not only of the region’s rapidly developing economies but also of an emerging economic interdependence within Asia and the Pacific.

This cross-border, intra-regional, migration is being propelled by various factors such as persistent disparities in development, increased integration of the regional economy and divergent demographic dynamics.  For example, in Asia-Pacific countries with more developed economies, the labour force is predicted to shrink in coming years (projections up to 2020), while in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific the labour force is expected to grow between 1.5 – 3%

What’s very evident is that migration for employment has become an established structural feature of many Asian economies. Foreign exchange remittances and workers’ earnings have proven to be a lifeline for families back home in many Asian migrant sending countries.  For more developed economies in Asia and the Pacific with a shortage of both skilled and unskilled workers in various employment sectors, the proximity to an available excess labour pool has resulted in a comparative advantage over their competitors in other parts of the world.

Despite the positive contributions migrants make to both destination economies and those back home through their remittances, many migrant workers and their families continue to be subject to labour exploitation and other abuses. It is not unusual to hear and receive reports from migrants of fraud and deception over their contractual arrangements, on earnings, type of work and legal status; the non-payment and withholding of wages; high costs of recruitment and resulting indebtedness; the retention of passports or identity documents by employers and recruiters; physical confinement; the use of intimidation, violence and threatening behaviour.  Other abuses such as excessive working hours, hazardous working conditions, physical and sexual abuse are also prevalent in many of the sectors in which women and men migrants work.  Migrant workers are routinely denied the right to organize and even join organizations of their choosing often in practice and sometimes even by legislation. 

Domestic workers are among the most vulnerable, given their confinement to private households and relative isolation, non-coverage by national laws and lack of access to any redress mechanisms. However the good news there is that domestic workers now have an international labour standard from which to build decent work. The ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C.189) was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 2010 and enters into force into 2013.

While implementation of laws and regulations to protect migrant workers remains generally problematic, it is important to acknowledge that Asia Pacific policies, despite some reversals, are heading in the right direction, and governments, employer and worker organizations are mobilizing on the issue of migrant workers in Asia and the Pacific.

There is a continuing review, consideration and articulation of national laws and policies on the governance of labour migration and the protection of migrants’ rights across a broad range of countries at different levels of economic development. This is the case in China, in Vietnam, in the Philippines, in Sri Lanka, in Cambodia, in Lao PDR, Korea and Japan.  Providing timely technical support at the country level has helped ensure that legal provisions incorporate fundamental principles and rights at work of all workers.

In 2007, the ten member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a unanimously endorsed Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. In a parallel measure, the vision of the ASEAN Economic Community for 2015, called for a freer movement of skilled workers, while simultaneously calling for a mutual recognition of professional qualifications. 

In 2005, the Government of the Republic of Korea launched its Employment Permit System, effectively transforming its immigration policy from a system of industrial traineeship to one in which workers were recruited and ensured the same coverage under Korea’s labour protection schemes already entitled to national workers.  The EPS also introduced changes by requring government-to-government arrangements for recruitment services in 15 countries of Asia.

Return and reintegration services, the last of the government and institutional services to be developed and made part of migration programs in sending countries, have expanded and become part of many migration services in sending countries, clearly part of the learning from the global financial crises.

We’ve learned many things about better approaches to improving migration policies bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally. First and foremost, we’ve learned the importance of shared values as basis for cooperation and collaboration. Second, the need for equality of treatment between migrant and national workers is a cornerstone in international labour standards on migration – everyone must have a voice. Third, while states are clearly key actors in the formulation and implementation of migration policy and programmes, social dialogue and systematic engagement ensures that policies take into account the interests of most stakeholders – governments at all levels, migrant workers, social partners (employers and trade unions) and civil society. 

Thetis Mangahas ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
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