Chapter 4 of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers covers rights such as access to employment information, issuance of employment contract, fair workplace treatment, reasonable accommodation, fair remuneration, transfer of earnings and the filing of a complaint in the event of a labour dispute. The right of migrant workers to join trade unions and associations has received much global attention and there have been significant efforts to realise this. This is due to the fact that migrant workers in ASEAN are often deprived of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
During the Regional Multi-Stakeholders Forum on Responsible Business Conduct for Safe Labour Migration in ASEAN, held in Manila in September 2018, the need for mutual reinforcement among the Consensus, ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, ASEAN Guidelines for Corporate Social Responsibilities on Labour, ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, Sustainable Development Goals, and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was acknowledged. The need for convergence to global frameworks in order to optimise the benefits of migration for sending states, receiving states, migrant workers and their families, as well as businesses and employers, was also agreed upon. The objective is to ensure regularised, humane and inclusive migration based on the fundamental principles of decent work.
This could be the first step to efforts in achieving a collective regional migration policy – the acknowledgement of the need for a tangible regional initiative. But there are several hurdles that have to be crossed before fulfilling this objective. It is not clear if ensuring regularised migration involves the formalisation of undocumented migrants. The AEC (ASEAN Economic Community) focuses exclusively on high-skilled labour which comprises only 5 percent of the intra-ASEAN migrant worker pool. Trade and investment are prioritised over low-skilled labour flows. The concept of economic integration and growth appears to exist independently of the contribution of low-skilled migrant workers. Although each member state has its own Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) initiative, accessibility to this programme varies across ASEAN. In order to optimise the benefits of migration, migrant workers need opportunities for skills upgrading so that they can better serve their purpose in receiving states; this could manifest in an overall increase in productivity and efficiency. It should be accompanied by the corresponding remuneration.
In addition to a low level of public spending on migrant workers’ social security benefits, there is the exclusion of irregular migrants from this protection mechanism. There is no satisfactory explanation for this, given the fact that irregular migrants are also contributing to the receiving state’s economic growth. All ASEAN Member States (AMS) have signed the Consensus. However, none of the receiving states has ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It is also pertinent to note that undocumented migrant workers and domestic migrant workers are often not regulated and protected by national employment regulations.
International assistance has been rendered via the Triangle in ASEAN programme, through the collaboration of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Global Affairs Canada (GAC). Migrant workers in ASEAN are able to obtain services directly from Migrant Worker Resource Centres (MRCs) established in six focus countries (Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam). The programme targets migrant workers employed in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, seafood processing, as well as informal workplaces. It has helped ASEAN tread in the path of equitable, inclusive and stable growth. In order for the potential of this initiative to be maximised, member states need to make concerted national efforts to improve their respective strategies for migration governance. Much remains to be done.