The Consensus

The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was published in March 2018 and it is a commitment to implement the purposes and commitments of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which was adopted in Cebu, the Philippines during the 12th ASEAN Summit in 2007. It is intended to serve as a framework for migrant-worker cooperation in the region and thus, contribute to the ASEAN Community building process. It is supposed to be people-oriented, people-centred, rules-based and socially responsible. It recalls the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other relevant international instruments which ASEAN states have committed to. There is concern pertaining to the ‘inclusivity’ of this Consensus.

Shared and balanced responsibilities of receiving and sending states are confirmed in this Consensus. Most importantly, there is a reaffirmed recognition of member states’ sovereignty in determining their own migration policies (including determination of entry into or departure from their jurisdiction and the conditions under which migrants may continue their stay). Stakeholders are expected to abide by the laws, regulations and policies of receiving and sending states. In other words, there is no change in managing intra-regional migrant flows because each ASEAN state will continue to implement its own policies on migrant-worker mobility, independent of other member states. It appears to be a case of ‘agreeing to disagree’. This does not facilitate or ease transition processes. The migrant worker will continue to face difficulties in the form of exorbitant costs, delays, information asymmetry, etc. There is no specific indication of how measures will be adopted to strengthen bilateral and multilateral cooperation on labour mobility in order to create a common benchmark or system for the protection of migrant workers. The specifics of how these shared and balanced responsibilities are apportioned and achieved are not spelt out. Given that the ten ASEAN states have very different capacities to fulfil labour mobility responsibilities, the role and contribution of each state to this Consensus must be clarified.

It is interesting to note that the urgent need to adopt appropriate and comprehensive migration policies on migrant workers and labour intermediaries has received only an acknowledgement; not a commitment; not even a recognition. It is ironic that the urgent need to improve or rectify the underlying principles of labour mobility, which is one of the main determinants of the AEC’s (ASEAN Economic Community) progress, is merely acknowledged. Migrant workers encounter numerous obstacles during the transition from one country to another. These have led to a rise in undocumented migrant flows, especially in Continental Southeast Asia. The ten ASEAN states are at different developmental stages with differing capacities in managing migrant inflows and outflows. Their political structures are different. Their cultures are diverse. Their labour market demands and supplies vary. Their demographics differ. To facilitate the flow of migrant workers so that they can meet the various demands of the national labour markets in ASEAN, these divergences have to be reconciled via policies, both national and regional. Policies that can translate into effective and immediate action are required. Policies that have easily workable enforcement mechanisms are needed. Without appropriate policies, the benefits of intra-ASEAN migrant mobility cannot be fully realised. The pressing question is ‘How?’, not ‘What?’.

Another grave issue that requires urgent and immediate attention and action is the need to address abuse and violence against migrant workers. This has also received only an acknowledgement. Deep concern has been raised over its governing condition. There is the acknowledgement of the need to address abuse and violence only ‘whenever such cases occur’. Meaning, abuse will have to occur first and there is no assurance pledged that such a case will be duly attended to. There is no mention of specific possible remedies. There is no suggestion of specific preventive measures. It appears to be a situation of being ‘better sorry than safe’. The key concept here is ‘specificity’ and how initiatives will be undertaken. States need to commit to clearly spelt out specific courses of action that will be taken to prevent, as well as address abuse and violence against migrant workers. It is unclear why the most important issues have received the least importance. Non-provocation, non-interference, inclusiveness and accommodation could be some of the reasons. These are valid and noble intentions but it must be analysed if they serve any long-term purpose in effectively and practically addressing abuse and violence against migrant workers.

In my forthcoming blogs, there will be analyses of the contents of this Consensus. This is not meant to be a mode for expressing academic scepticism. Rather, it is intended to serve as an earnest plea for more ambitious action. ASEAN has done so much, so well, so far. It needs to do much more and it has the potential to be a global role model for labour mobility; for a regional migration policy or policies. Though this may not be part of its agenda, the present global migration situation is crying out for a sound and practical regional solution. National policies have been proven ineffective in managing regional human mobility, simply because cross-border movements cannot be governed by one or two countries alone. Bilateral collaborations are helpful but they cannot holistically address intricate intra-regional migrant flows. Multilateralism beginning at the regional level must be attempted before there can be a realisation of any form of convergence to the Global Compact for Migration (GCM).

Foreign workers boarding a bus at the end of their shift at a construction site in Kuala Lumpur. An ILO-IOM survey has found that 73 percent of workers going to Malaysia had borrowed money to pay for migration, working on average for a whole year to repay the loan. Photo: AFP. The Daily Star – 17 December 2017.

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