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FOCUS June 2020 Volume 100

SDGs and Southeast Asian Migrant Workers

Jefferson R. Plantilla

Migrant workers, who toil in settings that make them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, are entitled to decent work and fair migration. The fair migration principle “takes into account labour market needs while placing the rights of all workers, including migrants, at its core.”1 The International Labour Organization (ILO) stresses two targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—8.8 (Decent work and economic growth - Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers) and 10.7 (Reduced inequalities - orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people)—that specifically mention migrant workers and migration.2 

The recent COVID-19 infection of significant number of migrant workers in Singapore and the reported loss of job or non-payment of salary in Thailand and Malaysia3 illustrate the vulnerability of migrant workers not only to exploitation but also to spread of communicable diseases. The migrant workers should definitely be covered in pursuing other SDGs such as SDG 3 on ensuring healthy lives and promoting the “well-being for all at all ages.”
 
Southeast Asian Workers

The ILO reports that migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos “experience exploitation and abuse because of inadequate protection of their labour rights during recruitment and employment,” “regardless of the documents they hold.”4

Also, “[w]omen face additional challenges in accessing safe and legal migration opportunities, with the type of work available to them often paying less and affording fewer legal protections due to lack of formalization.”5

These migrant workers are mostly “employed in low-skilled, labour-intensive jobs in agriculture, fisheries, domestic work, manufacturing, construction, hospitality, and food services.”6

At the recruitment stage,

[l]ow-skilled  workers  are  particularly  vulnerable  to  falling  prey  to  unscrupulous  actors  in  the  recruitment  process. Research show that recruitment-related abuses include: deception about the nature and conditions of work; retention of passports; illegal wage deductions; debt bondage linked to repayment of recruitment fees; and, very commonly, charging of exorbitant recruitment-related costs and fees.

Resort to irregular means of crossing borders for work is also prevalent. In Thailand, which hosts “some 2,877,000 documented migrant workers” as of 2018 from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos and has memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with these countries governing labor migration,8

38 per cent of the surveyed migrant workers [from the three countries] entered Thailand through the official channels, i.e., the MOU mechanism (36 per cent) [and] the border employment regulation (2 per cent). The rest entered the country irregularly.

The ILO has pointed out that the “costs and fees related to the recruitment of migrant workers should not be paid by the worker” in line with SDGs Indicator 10.7.1 on recruitment cost.9

An ILO survey of workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos done in 2018 and published in early 2020 provides some details on the employment situation:10

Survey respondents reported benefiting from a very limited number of labour rights. None or almost none reported having the ability to join a union, have severance pay, or have (for women) paid maternity leave. Only a small share, about one in ten, have paid annual leave, paid holidays, and paid sick leave. Only 36 per cent kept their ID documents, and slightly less than one in four reported being paid at least the minimum wage.

 

ASEAN Problem

In 2017, the United Nations estimated that out of a total of “9.7 million” “international migrants” working in Southeast Asia, “nearly 6.9 million” are Southeast Asian workers.11 2015 data show that “Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand [were] destinations for 91 per cent” of the Southeast Asian migrant workers.12 On the other hand, “the Philippines, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao PDR are net-sending countries.”13

Member-states of ASEAN have commitments to address the labor migration issue under the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, 2007 (Cebu Declaration) and the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, 2017.

Additionally, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (2012)14 provides that the “rights of … migrant workers … are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” (Article 4)

Two other ASEAN documents (ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children and ASEAN Guidelines for Corporate Social Responsibilities on Labour) alongside “global frameworks especially Sustainable Development Goals and the … Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”15 are part of the ASEAN framework on labor migration.

Migrant Workers Rights and the ASEAN Consensus

The ASEAN Consensus is set against the general non-ratification by ASEAN member-states of three ILO conventions16 related to migrant workers (No. 97, Migration for Employment Convention [Revised], 1949; No. 143, the Migrant Workers [Supplementary Provisions] Convention, 1975; and No. 181, the Private Employment Agencies Convention, 1997) with only the Philippines ratifying two of them, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families [1990] that only the Philippines and Indonesia ratified.

These international conventions provide more rights and obligations than those provided in the ASEAN Consensus (see Annex A).

A meaningful implementation of the ASEAN Consensus at the national level requires support from existing domestic laws, regulations, and policies that affect the migrant workers. A civil society baseline study of the existing laws, regulations, and policies is a good start in this direction.17

Finally, concern about compliance by ASEAN member-states with their commitment under the ASEAN Consensus arises since it is not a treaty and has no sanction against member-states that fail to respect and protect the rights it provides.18

Implementing the ASEAN Consensus

The key ASEAN body leading the implementation of these instruments is the ASEAN Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACMW). A range of regional partners are involved in migration governance, including the ASEAN Confederation of Employers (ACE), ASEAN Trade Union Council (ATUC), and the Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers (TFAMW).19

To implement the 2007 Cebu Declaration, ASEAN established in 2009 the ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) which “brings together key stakeholders in labour migration… [namely,] … government, employers’ and workers’ organizations – as well as the ASEAN Secretariat, civil society and international organizations.”20 AFML holds its annual forum as part of the ACMW Work Plan.21

Concrete measures that would protect the migrant workers from exploitation and abuse have been recommended by AFML since 2010, including the following:22

1.  Promote effective recruitment practices and regulation;
2.  Enhance policy on and protection of migrant workers through data sharing, and adequate access to the legal and judicial system during employment, including effective complaint mechanism;
3.  Improve awareness and information services to protect the rights of migrant workers and to promote understanding, rights and dignity of migrant workers in countries of destination;
4.  Strengthen return and reintegration programs and develop sustainable alternatives in countries of origin;
5.  Strengthen social protection for migrant workers;
6.  Work towards achieving decent work for domestic workers; and
7.  Use digitalization to promote decent work for migrant workers.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian non-governmental organizations came up in 2018 with a detailed set of recommendations on the implementation of the ASEAN Consensus.The civil society organizations can use their recommendations in lobbying the ASEAN member-states on implementing the ASEAN Consensus.23

Achieving SDGs and ASEAN

A study by the United Nations ESCAP reveals that the realization of SDG 8 in Southeast Asia in 2018 had regressed since 2000, while that of SDG 10 was unclear due to insufficient data. Additionally, the realization of SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) was also unclear due to insufficient data.24 In this context, the faithful implementation of the ASEAN instruments related to migrant workers, despite their limitations, would have a significant impact on the achievement of the SDGs in the subregion.

The existing AFML-proposed concrete measures, and those of other stakeholders,25 should push the ASEAN member-states to seriously fulfil their SDGs commitment by protecting the rights of migrant workers.

Jefferson R. Plantilla is the Chief Researcher of HURIGHTS OSAKA
For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.


Annex A: Rights of Migrant Workers and Obligations of States

ASEAN Consensus (2017)

 

Fundamental rights to

Sending state obligations

Receiving state obligations

1.     Visit by family members (8)

 

 

2.     Hold passports and original government or personal documents (9)

 

Take action against employers who willfully destroy, mutilate or confiscate a migrant worker’s passport and work permit (32c)

3.     Enjoy rights equal to those of nationals of Receiving state in case of imprisonment or detention (10)

 

 

4.     File grievances with relevant authorities (11)

 

a. Take actions against employers who

- illegally detain migrant workers

-           - willfully destroy, mutilate or confiscate a migrant worker’s passport and work permit

-           (32)

b.   Make employers liable for illegal employment of  migrant workers (32)

c.   Facilitate migrant workers’ access to legal recourse and assistance, including language interpretation if necessary (42a)

d.   Facilitate the exercise of consular functions by consular or diplomatic authorities (42b)

5.     Freedom of movement (12)

 

 

Specific rights to

 

 

1.     Access information on matters pertaining to employment and employment-related conditions (13)

a.  Organise a pre- departure orientation/education programme (21)

 

b.  Ensure migrant workers meet the health requirements of the Receiving State before departure (25)

 

Provide adequate information within reasonable timeframe among others of their rights and responsibilities, occupational safety and health measures, avenues of assistance after their arrival (34)

2.     Employment contract or proper documentation (14)

a.  Ensure workers are informed and aware of terms and conditions of contract (22)

 

b.  Set reasonable, transparent, and standardised fees for passport issuance and other relevant documents (23a)

 

c.   Prohibit overcharging of placement or recruitment fees by any parties (23b)

a.   Prohibit overcharging of placement or recruitment fees by any parties (33)

b.   Issue guidelines prescribing the terms and conditions of employment that must be included in employment contracts or proper documentation (36) and (37c)

c.   Ensure migrant worker has a copy of employment contract  or proper documentation for  their  work (37b)

3.    Fair treatment in the workplace (15)

 

Ensure fair treatment in the workplace (30a) regarding

a.   Working condition and remuneration;

b.   Occupational safety   and   health protection;

c.   Protection  from  violence  and  sexual harassment; and

d.   Gender and nationality (40)

4.     Adequate or reasonable accommodation (16)

 

Ensure  adequate or reasonable accommodation (39)

 

5.     Fair and appropriate remuneration and benefits  (17a)

 

a.   Ensure fair and appropriate remuneration and other benefits (37)

b.   Regulate the employment of migrant workers by ensuring clear employment terms and conditions, such as wages, employment benefits, working conditions, health and safety, employment dispute mechanisms and repatriation (36c)

6.     Benefits after leaving Receiving state (17b)

Develop a comprehensive reintegration and also employment programme (26)

Ensure fair and appropriate remuneration and benefits (37)

 

7.     Transfer earnings and savings in any modes of transfer (18)

 

 

8.     File a complaint or make a representation under the law and  allowed to stay pending complaint resolution (19a)

Provide information on accessing legal recourse and assistance in Receiving state (21)

a. Provide information on accessing legal recourse and assistance (34

b. Facilitate migrant workers with access to legal recourse and assistance, including language interpretation if necessary) (42a)

9.     Obtain relief for loss of rights arising from employment contract (19b)

 

 

10.  Join trade unions and associations (20)

Ensure right of returned migrant workers to establish associations (28)

Recognize the right of migrant workers to join trade unions and associations (38)

 

 

 

Endnotes

1 For the components of fair migration principle, see “Box 1. Fair migration agenda”  in International Labour Organization (ILO), Promoting Decent Work for Migrant Workers, Thirteenth Coordination Meeting On International Migration, Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations Secretariat, New York, 12-13 February 2015, page 4, www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/events/coordination/13/documents/backgrounddocs/GFMD_ILO_Discussion%20Paper_Promoting%20Decent%20Work%20for%20MWs.pdf.
2 “Relevant SDG Targets related to Labour Migration,” ILO, www.ilo.org/global/topics/dw4sd/themes/migration/WCMS_558577/lang--en/index.htm:
-    8.8 Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment, and
-    10.7 Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.
3 For more information, see "Issue briefs," ILO, April 2020, www.ilo.org/asia/publications/issue-briefs/lang--en/index.htm.
4 TRIANGLE in ASEAN, International Labour Organization, www.ilo.org/asia/projects/WCMS_428584/lang--en/index.htm.
5 Ibid.
6 The future of work and migration, Thematic background paper for the 12th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML), International Labour Organization 2019, page 7. Full report available at www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/---sro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_733923.pdf.
7 The future of work and migration, ibid., page 19.
8 Recruitment fees and related costs: What migrant workers from Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Myanmar pay to work in Thailand, International Labour Organization 2020, pages xiii and 81, www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_740400.pdf.
9 Recruitment fees and related costs, International Labour Organization, ibid., page xiii.
10 Ibid., page xvi.
11 The future of work and migration, op. cit., page 6.
12 Marius Olivier, Social protection for migrant workers in ASEAN: Developments, challenges, and prospects, International Labour Organization, 2018, page 23. Full report available at www.social-protection.org/gimi/RessourcePDF.action?id=55654.
13 TRIANGLE in ASEAN Quarterly Briefing Note (October–December 2019), www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/documents/genericdocument/wcms_735103.pdf.
14 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, full text available at https://asean.org/asean-human-rights-declaration/.
15 "ASEAN moves forward on migrant workers’ safety and well-being," ASEAN, https://asean.org/asean-moves-forward-migrant-workers-safety-well/.
16 See page 19, Fair Migration - Setting an ILO Agenda, ILO, 2014, www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_242879.pdf.
17 See Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) Indonesia, Migrant Workers’ Rights in ASEAN Region: A Baseline Study, 2018, Jakarta, available at https://hrwg.org/2019/01/14/migrant-workers-rights-in-asean-region-a-baseline-study/.
18 See PROJECT REPORT - "Regional CSOs Consultation Meeting on the Implementation of ASEAN Consensus on the Rights of Migrant Workers," pages 14-19. Full text of the document available at www.spf.org/global-image/units/upfiles/51281-1-20181115134539_b5becf9f38f491.pdf.
19 TRIANGLE in ASEAN Quarterly Briefing Note, op. cit.
20 See "Participants to the AFML," The ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML), Background information booklet (4th edition), International Labour Organization 2019, pages 3-4, www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/---sro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_733912.pdf.
21 The ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML), Background information booklet, ibid., page 1.
22 Ibid., pages 13-49.
23 See recommendations of the Southeast Asian civil society on adoption of a legally binding treaty on the rights of migrant workers, "Regional Civil Society Recommendations on the Implementation of the 2017 ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers," Annex 3, PROJECT REPORT - "Regional CSOs Consultation Meeting on the Implementation of ASEAN Consensus on the Rights of Migrant Workers," ibid., pages 14-19.
24 See ANNEX 1 – FIGURES ON SDG PROGRESS ACROSS ASIA-PACIFIC BY SUBREGION, Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2019, United Nations ESCAP, 24 May 2019, page 35, www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/Annex1_Asia-Pacific_SDG_Progress_Report2019.pdf.
25 "Regional Civil Society Recommendations on the Implementation of the 2017 ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers," op. cit.
 


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