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FOCUS September 2007 Volume 49

ASEAN Committee on Migrants Workers

Ma. Lorena Macabuag*

* Ms. Ma. Lorena Macabuag is the Project Coordinator of Migrant Forum in Asia.

Southeast Asia is confronted with many challenges regarding migrant workers. Within the subregion, there are countries of origin and destination, with some countries playing both roles. The migrant workers of Southeast Asia constitute an important component of the social, political and economic conditions of the countries in the subregion. Yet they face serious problems.

Undocumented / Irregular Migration

Undocumented migrant workers suffer from arrest/detention/deportation/punishment, exploitation by employers (including non-payment and underpayment of wages), inability to join or form associations and trade unions, and restricted access to social services (health and reproductive health care, among others).

Malaysia, among the major countries of destination for migrant workers in Southeast Asia, holds regular crackdowns on undocumented migrant workers. It initiated an annual crackdown or deportation of undocumented migrant workers in 2002. In 2005 it announced that it would crack down on around 800,000 undocumented migrant workers[1] to enable them to return home and register as documented workers.

Thailand, both a country of origin and destination, also holds regular deportation of undocumented migrant workers, who come mostly from other Mekong countries such as Burma/Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Deportations and crackdowns on undocumented migrant workers have not proved to be viable solutions to the issue of undocumented migration. The workers being deported are needed in the various countries of destination.

Lack of recognition of domestic workers as workers

Domestic workers constitute one of the bigger sectors of migrant workers in Southeast Asia. In most countries of destination in Southeast Asia, domestic workers are not recognized under the labor laws and thus afforded with little or no rights. In some countries, domestic workers are not given holidays or rest days. There are also cases where the passports of foreign domestic workers are withheld or kept by their employers.


A large number of women migrants are vulnerable to trafficking. Some of them end up being trafficked through a host of deceptive, coercive, violent and exploitative acts. Women are deceived about job type, terms and condition of work, and treated as forced labor, when they are placed in slavery-like work conditions.

Feminization of labor

Due to changes in the demands of the international labor market, there has been an increase in the type of jobs traditionally awarded to women. This is particularly true in the service sector (domestic work, caregiving, nursing and entertainment). This is also identifiable in the increasing number of women seeking work independently outside their country of origin.

ASEAN and Migrant Workers

The 1990 United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Family (UNMWC) came into force in July 2003. Among the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), only one country (the Philippines) has ratified UNMWC while two countries (Indonesia and Cambodia) signed it. ASEAN does not yet have a legal instrument on migrant workers in the subregion.

ASEAN undertook through the years several initiatives related to the migrant workers issue including the following:

  • ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime (1997)
  • ASEAN Vision 2020 (1997) - promotes the evolution of rules of behavior and cooperative measures to deal with problems that can be met only on a regional scale, including trafficking in women and children
  • Hanoi Plan of Action (1998) - stresses the use of the ASEAN Foundation to support activities and social development programs aimed at addressing issues of unequal economic development, poverty and socio-economic disparities and the strengthening of ASEAN collaboration in combating the trafficking in women and children
  • Bangkok Declaration on Irregular Migration (1999) - declares that migration, particularly irregular migration, should be addressed in a comprehensive and balanced manner, considering its causes, manifestations and effects, both positive and negative, in the countries of origin, transit and destination
  • ASEAN Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons Particularly Women and Children (2004) - establishes, among others, a regional focal network to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, particularly women and children, in the ASEAN region
  • Bali Concord II (2003) - provides for the full utilization of the existing institutions and mechanisms within ASEAN with a view to strengthening national and regional capacities to counter transnational crime including trafficking in persons
  • Vientiane Action Programme (2004) - includes the plan to elaborate an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers.

At the 12th ASEAN summit in Cebu in January 2007 the ASEAN Heads of State adopted the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.[2] Though non-binding, the Declaration is considered a milestone in the struggle for the rights of migrant workers in the region. The Declaration came after years of struggle and active lobbying by Civil Society Organizations [CSOs] (migrants organizations, grassroots organizations and human rights networks). The Declaration aims to

  1. Promote decent, humane, productive, dignified and remunerative employment for migrant workers;
  2. Establish and implement human resource development programmes and reintegration programmes for migrant workers in their countries of origin;
  3. Take concrete measures to prevent or curb the smuggling and trafficking in persons by, among others, introducing stiffer penalties for those who are involved in these activities;
  4. Facilitate data-sharing on matters related to migrant workers, for the purpose of enhancing policies and programmes concerning migrant workers in both sending and receiving states;
  5. Promote capacity building by sharing of information, best practices as well as opportunities and challenges encountered by ASEAN Member Countries in relation to protection and promotion of migrant workers' rights and welfare;
  6. Extend assistance to migrant workers of ASEAN Member Countries who are caught in conflict or crisis situations outside ASEAN in the event of need and based on the capacities and resources of the Embassies and Consular Offices of the relevant ASEAN Member Countries, based on bilateral consultations and arrangements;
  7. Encourage international organisations, ASEAN dialogue partners and other countries to respect the principles and extend support and assistance to the implementation of the measures contained in this Declaration; and
  8. Task the relevant ASEAN bodies to follow up on the Declaration and to develop an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers, consistent with ASEAN's vision of a caring and sharing Community, and direct the Secretary- General of ASEAN to submit annually a report on the progress of the implementation of the Declaration to the Summit through the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.

Despite being a non-binding instrument, the civil society in Southeast Asia welcomed the Declaration as it recognizes the responsibilities of both countries of origin and destination in protecting the rights of migrant workers in the region. Furthermore the Declaration calls for clear commitment to protect the rights, dignity and welfare of migrant workers entering countries of destination, by among other things, providing access to services, fair and just employment and conditions of work, access to legal justice, and promoting tolerance between migrant communities and populations of the receiving state.

Migrant CSOs felt that the 2006 ASEAN Declaration on migrant workers is an important first step in terms of achieving the goal of protecting the rights and well-being of migrants in the region. However there is still a need to call on the member-states of ASEAN to put the declaration into action.

During the 40th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (Manila, 21 July - 2 August 2007), the ASEAN Ministers adopted the Statement for the Establishment of the ASEAN Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.[3] The Committee is tasked to ensure the effective implementation of the commitments made by ASEAN member-states under the Declaration and to facilitate the development of an ASEAN instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers. Part of the Committee's functions include the following:

Promote bilateral and regional cooperation and assistance on matters involving the rights of migrant workers;

Facilitate data sharing on matters related to migrant workers, for the purpose of enhancing policies and programmes to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers in both sending and receiving countries;

Encourage international organisations, ASEAN Dialogue Partners and other countries to respect the principles and extend support and assistance to the implementation of the measures contained in the Declaration;

Promote harmonisation of mechanisms between both sending and receiving countries that promote and protect the rights of migrant workers to implement the ASEAN commitment reflected in paragraph 17 of the Declaration.

The setting up of the Committee is a step towards the adoption of a binding ASEAN instrument for the protection of the human rights of migrants, as stated in the VAP and the Declaration. There are reports that despite the agreement to establish the Committee, some ASEAN member-states have reservations on the purposes and functions of the Committee. But the Philippine government asserted that there was strong consensus within ASEAN on the establishment of this very important structure.[4]

The development of a binding instrument for the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers becomes the major output expected from the Committee. It is thus necessary that the ASEAN member-states and the civil society in the subregion work earnestly to ensure that this instrument has the proper provisions for migrant workers particularly those with irregular or undocumented status and includes fundamental human and labor rights standards based on the seven core international human rights instruments particularly the 1990 UN MWC and the core International Labour Organisation standards.

For further information, please contact: Migrant Forum In Asia, 59-B Malumanay Street, Teachers ' Village West, Quezon City 1104 Metro Manila, Philippines; ph (632) 433-3508; fax (632)433-1292; e-mail:;


1. Lawrence Bartlet, Massive crackdown on migrants sparks rights fears. Alliance France Press (AFP) January 31, 2005.

2. For the full text of the declaration please see the fol-lowing link:

3. For the full text of the declaration please see the fo.llowing link:

4. Please see: