The fundamental rights of migrant workers and members of their families are covered in Chapter Three of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. Family members may visit migrant workers but this is contingent on national laws and policies. This privilege is usually extended to high-skilled migrant workers in the region. Even for this group of workers, living with family is not an entitlement. Each member state has different conditions for providing such an allowance. This does not change the plight of 95 percent of intra-ASEAN migrant workers who are low-skilled. These migrants stay, apart from their families, in the receiving state for several years, depending on the duration and renewal frequencies of their work permits. This majority appears to be marginalised with regard to rights that are on record.
According to the Consensus, migrant workers have the right to hold their own passports and original government-issued work and personal documents. As mentioned in previous blogs, often, they are not permitted to hold on to personal documents. Employers hold on to migrant workers’ personal documents to prevent them from running away, changing employers or lodging complaints with authorities. Mechanisms to ensure that migrant workers keep their respective personal documents with themselves are either lacking or non-existent in member states. Employers seem to have a freehold of power in this regard. Moreover, the transition of low-skilled migrant workers from the ‘documented’ status to the ‘undocumented’ status occurs partially due to inaccessibility to their personal documents. This does not apply to the 5 percent of high-skilled intra-ASEAN migrant workers.
Migrant workers have the right to file their grievances with the relevant authorities of receiving states and seek assistance from their respective embassies, consulates or missions in receiving states. This could prove to be challenging in certain member states where is no representative authority present for an aggrieved migrant worker to turn to. Some receiving states do not have proper procedures to handle complaints from aggrieved migrants. There are also instances when embassies in receiving states do not, or are unable to render the required assistance to migrant workers belonging to their respective countries.
The right to freedom of movement in the receiving state is rarely enjoyed by low-skilled migrant workers in ASEAN. They could perhaps exercise mobility when they get leave from work. At most, this would be once a week. In some receiving states and especially in the case of undocumented migrant workers, the option of a day off from work is non-existent. Those who manage to get an off-day usually have designated meeting areas in certain parts of the receiving state. They are unable to travel long distances due to time and money constraints. This is the norm for low-skilled migrant workers. This group is also unable to choose where they reside in the receiving state. Firstly, they cannot afford to do so. Secondly, they are beholden to their respective employers who usually arrange for dormitory accommodation. Living conditions in dormitories vary from one country to another. Furthermore, not all employers arrange for decent accommodation.
The Consensus preserves the rights of high-skilled, and sometimes mid-skilled migrant workers, depending on the receiving state. All the stated rights in Chapter Three, are subject to national laws, policies and regulations. Migrants who encounter challenges are almost always from the low-skilled cohort. They are the migrant majority in ASEAN and yet, their rights are often compromised in more ways than one. The high demand for this cohort and their invaluable contribution to the region’s economic growth and development call for much more attention to their entitlements. If the ten ASEAN states can collaborate to provide this attention, without disrupting national peace, order and stability, low-skilled migrants would be able to live and work in a more humanitarian environment.