ASEAN’s proposed free movement of labour and rights of migrant workers

Discussion on labour mobility within the forthcoming ASEAN Economic Community generally focusses on the facilitation of the movement of seven categories of professionals through “Mutual recognition Arrangements.” However, noting that more than 6 million citizens of ASEAN member countries, mostly unskilled, are already migrant workers in another ASEAN country, Indonesia’s Habibie Center conducted an “ASEAN Dialogue” on the implications for migrant workers' rights on 11 December in Jakarta.

Dr Muhammad Iqbal, President of Union Migrant Indonesia (UNIMIG), pointed out that 60% of ASEAN's migrant workers are employed in the informal sector and are not fully covered by labour laws and social protection measures.  He said ASEAN migrant workers face powerful agents and weak government; resulting in police targeting workers not employers.

Another complication is ASEAN’s sensitivity to the issue of “undocumented migrant workers”. Dr Iqbal explained that the ASEAN regional mechanism for migrant workers “is a guideline, not legally binding and called for greater civil society participation.

Ms Kartini Isabelle Pouchous, Project Development Officer for the International Organization for Migration, (IOM) agreed that there was a need for more protection of migrant workers, particularly th4e low-skilled, in the sending and receiving members of ASEAN.  She observed that ASEAN holds a regular Forum on Migrant Workers but there is a lack of multi-sectoral dialogue, standardisation, development and recognition of skills. She suggested that there should be greater data and information sharing on the supply and demand of labour markets in the region and greater application of “good practices rather than best practices.”

Examples of “good practices” nominated by Ms Pouchous are free pre-employment orientation seminars conducted in the Philippines, labour attaches at the embassies of Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, and Migrant Resource Centres set up in the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.