ASEAN’s commitment to social security for migrant workers has been weak. Only six member states – Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – out of the ten have ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention on accident compensation (No. 19). The Philippines is the only state in the regional body which has committed to social security provision under Convention No. 118 and maintenance of corresponding social protection rights (No. 157). None of the ASEAN states has ratified the convention on minimal standards for social security (No. 102). Regional standards for social protection are thus challenging to implement, but all the more necessary. Malaysia and Thailand have not complied with Convention No. 19. Discrimination in social security access between citizens and migrants is blatant in some member states. Moreover, social protection benefits are not included in bilateral and multilateral agreements. There is no way to ensure or measure access to social security when there is no reciprocal arrangement for equal treatment. Yet again, ASEAN’s components function in silos.
Portability of social security benefits for migrants is lacking in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Singapore are the only states providing exportable workplace injury benefits. However, in Singapore, portability is not extended to informal migrants; in Malaysia, it is not extended to migrant domestic workers and informal migrants; Singapore and Malaysia are mainly receiving states. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand provide exportable access to old age, invalidity and survivors benefits; only Malaysia extends this coverage to migrant domestic workers; none of the countries covers informal migrants, the people who need the most protection. Responsibility should be shared among host and origin countries, and undocumented migrants need access to social security. If sending states offer portable social protection that complements the benefits provided by receiving states, migrants’ welfare would be safeguarded; an ideal situation that could serve as a regional aspiration for strengthening integration.
In Thailand, migrants can obtain workplace injury benefits, but only after they are subjected to cumbersome and lengthy processes. Malaysia’s system discriminates between locals and migrants, disadvantaging the latter. Brunei Darussalam is the only member state that does not provide workplace injury benefits to migrant workers. Most ASEAN states offer migrants access to medical care, either state-funded or employer-funded. Thailand and Malaysia stand out by extending health benefits to undocumented migrants. However, migrants are charged a higher fee than citizens, for the same treatment. Sending states such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar have taken measures to improve social protection for migrant workers. But more needs to be done. Malaysia and Singapore have more developed social security systems that differ from those present in other member states. Reconciling differences for crafting bilateral and multilateral agreements would be a challenge; difficult, but not impossible. Regional standards for social protection should be the priority.
There are Southeast Asian states that require reforms of social security legislation. There are others that need to draft new legislation. These countries are better placed to align relevant policies with international standards compared to jurisdictions with existing social protection schemes; it is a small step in the direction of regional integration using international benchmarks. Rigid immigration regulations do not facilitate social protection for deportees and large numbers of undocumented migrants in the region and especially in Continental Southeast Asia. Porous borders and informal migrant flows can be managed only through continuous bilateral and multilateral collaboration, which should be sustained by tangible acts of cooperation. ASEAN states should come together and act together, complementing one another. There is a desperate need for more action to support negotiations. Coordination among institutions in host countries, coordination among institutions in origin countries and most importantly, coordination between agencies in the receiving states and the sending states is crucial for implementing social protection for migrants. Coordination should be extended to all aspects of migration governance in ASEAN, given an increasing rate of intra-regional mobility.