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  4. June 1996 - Volume 4
  5. Migrant Workers and Human Rights

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FOCUS June 1996 Volume 4

Migrant Workers and Human Rights

In the midst of continuing economic growth among countries in northeast and southeast Asia, migrant workers occupy a significant yet undervalued place. The last few years saw the continuing stream of workers to countries where industries and development projects require much needed labor.

Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau are the countries and territories receiving migrant workers. While Thailand and Malaysia do receive migrant workers, they too send their workers abroad. The Philippines, Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan figure prominently in the supply side of the trade.

By mid-1990s, estimates indicate that there are at least 4 million legal and illegal Asian migrant workers in the region. Illegal migrant workers number almost 300,000 in Japan (mainly Peruvians, Iranians, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos and Thais), 150,000 in Korea, 500,000 in Thailand (mainly Burmese), and about 1.2 million Indonesians, Filipinos and Bangladeshis combined in Malaysia, to name a few.

It is also reported that about 1.6 million of these migrant workers are women. At the rate of 800,000 women workers leaving their countries to work abroad annually, there is a greater "feminization" of the migrant workers situation.

Today's migrant workers take up jobs in construction projects, manufacturing firms, household work, entertainment establishments, agricultural plantations, and even maritime and fishing industries.

The migration of Asian workers has developed into a sophisticated web of industries that covers both legal and illegal systems of export and import of labor. It has certainly benefited a whole lot of institutions engaged in the legal and illegal labor trading business. Employment recruitment agencies, travel agencies, airline companies, airports, government labor and immigration offices, police forces, hotels, and companies in need of cheaper workforce all gain from the billion-dollar business. The underground economy is composed of illegal recruiters, "human cargo" smugglers, and women trafficking syndicates linked to the entertainment businesses in both sending and receiving countries. Added to this are the informal, and sometimes family/social, connections that facilitate supply of workers.

Remittance of money earned by the workers runs into billions of dollars per year. In the case of the Philippines, with more than 4 million workers all over the world, the remittance comes up to a total of 6 billion dollars annually. It is the most stable source of economic support for the country.


The phenomenon of massive migration of workers from one country to the other within the Asian region is caused by several factors. One prominent reason is the continuing need for cheap labor to be able to produce goods and services in countries where economic development has already reached, or on the threshold of reaching, the industrialized status. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia need (in varying degrees) the migrant workers to help them continue getting a share of the ever growing market domestically and abroad, and to construct the infrastructures for transportation, communication and industries. Another reason is the decreasing number of workers in agricultural and manual work in many receiving countries that made foreign workers the easy substitute. Still another reason is the encouragement by governments in most of these countries, with the exception of Japan, on their citizens to work and leave housework and childcare to foreign domestic help. Lastly, the entertainment industry that mainly caters to needs of the male workforce in receiving countries recruits thousands of women to work as entertainers. All these contribute to these countries' continuing economic growth and competitiveness in the world market.

On the otherhand, the governments of sending countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are generally suffering from high unemployment (and in some cases underemployment and low-pay ing employment conditions) rate. Export of labor has become an official program to address the labor situation in particular and the national economic woes in general. Many governments either established offices for job sourcing, recruitment, training, and documentation services for workers willing to work abroad, and/or allowed private employment agencies to do the same work. The basic idea is the reduction of local unemployment rate, continuation of foreign earning remittance into the local economy, and increasing the technical know-how of their workers (particularly those in construction and industrial enterprises).

Thailand and Malaysia, with continuing high economic growth, import workers as well as export their own. Thousands of Malaysia's workforce cross over to Singapore for work. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also "export" workers as they expand their businesses in many countries in the region.

The complex system of recruitment and deployment of migrant workers is in itself an industry that supports the economic growth of the region.

Problem areas

The complication of the migrant workers issue provides a fertile ground for problems to arise.

The problem areas can be classified under the following:

a. sending country inadequacies

Despite the enormous support by the migrant workers to the economy, the governments of the sending countries appear to be ill-prepared to deal with the problems that face their migrant workers. Bureaucratic red tape in processing documents for would-be migrant workers has been a cause for the resort to illegal recruitment agencies. Inadequate orientation as well as preparation of the migrant workers for the new environment and systems that they will be moving in characterize government programs. Inability to stop illegal recruitment activities is also present. Support by sending countries' consulates in receiving countries has not been satisfactorily extended to those in need.

b. receiving country restrictions

Many receiving countries maintain strict regulatory measures against migrant workers. This stance is premised on their fear of having migrant workers becoming permanent residents. Those migrant workers considered as having low skills are not welcomed to stay longer than their employment contract will allow. They are considered to be added burdens to the social security systems of these countries. The discriminatory treatment of migrant workers maintained by the general public of receiving countries is yet another ground for regulation. In some ways, the opposition posed by the local labor unions against the importation of workers also contribute to maintaining a regulated stance toward migrant workers.

In many cases, migrant workers endure restrictions such as limited period of stay after employment contract has lapsed or has been abrogated, prohibition against seeking new employment under the existing visa, prohibition against marrying citizens of receiving countries, deportation of woman migrant workers in case of pregnancy, and short period visas. In both cases of legal and illegal migrant workers, the governments of receiving countries accept the benefits of the work done but deny the workers the corresponding job security. The "trainee" visa is another example of how receiving countries can exploit migrant workers.

c. organized exploitation

The presence of migrant workers who entered the receiving countries without proper visas or even passports is mainly due to crime syndicates which prey on people desperate in finding work abroad. The syndicates extract money from the would-be workers and receive payment from companies who would need the workers.

The syndicates are more pervasive in the sex industry. Women are induced, tricked or forced to work in the sex industry proliferating in the entertainment circuits of Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Macau. Some are lured into prostitution through mail bride system.

Those without legal permission to work are exploited by employers who keep them in "3D" (dangerous, dirty and difficult) jobs that do not provide appropriate compensation for and protection from the nature of the work being done.

d. social and family consequences

Migrant workers suffer from the separation from their own families and communities. New and indifferent environment cause worries and anxieties. Women who are separated from their families suffer even more.

The families left behind are reportedly not getting a better treatment either. Materialistic and consumerist values develop, children grow up without proper guidance, spouses become unfaithful - all creating problems that negate whatever economic benefits are obtained from working abroad. The psychological, familial, social and economic costs are quite high for the migrant workers whose primary aim in the first place is a better and more financially-secured life.

Human rights questions

While many migrant workers have returned home safe and much better off economically, there are a significant number of them who have suffered without redress.

Men migrant workers suffer from the exploitation of their employers through changes in contract of employment, non-payment of wages, unhealthy working conditions, long working hours, and exposure to unnecessary risks. Even worse situation occurs for the illegal migrant workers who are almost under the total control of exploitative employers. Physical injuries sustained at work or inflicted upon them by the employers have been reported.

Women migrant workers who work as domestic help tell of psychological, sexual, and other physical abuses by the employers. They are sometimes deprived of agreed amount of salary as well as other benefits such as day-offs, and medical treatment. Those who are in the entertainment industries are exposed to syndicates which force them into prostitution. Physical injuries, and even death for some, have occurred.

The suffering extends outside the workplace as the migrant workers become targets of discrimination by the host community. Treated as occupying low social rank, they have problems of getting access to social, medical, legal and cultural institutions that can help assuage their alienation and depression borne out of oppressive working conditions.

Governments are likewise violating human rights as the police and immigration authorities arrest, detain and sometimes summarily deport them without due process of law. There are reported cases of abuse by the immigration authorities causing physical and psychological suffering for the migrant workers in their custody. There are also inadequate government policies, facilities and programs to protect the rights of the migrant workers.

The basic conditions that create the need for migrant workers and the corollary industry that highly benefits from the labor trade lead to human rights violations. Labor as a commodity becomes subject to trading that eventually bargains away rights, benefits and services for the migrant workers. Low regard for women place them either in risky, difficult jobs or in the sex industry. Trafficking in women, an illegal component of migration, suits this economic scheme of things.

The slow ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990) and the lack of enforcement (in case they have been ratified) of relevant ILO conventions by most Asian countries is a telling sign of the general resistance to protecting the rights of migrant workers.

The saga of the migrant workers is another sad human rights story that deserves attention.

(References omitted due to space limitation.)