The lockdown measures imposed by Asean member states during the Covid-19 pandemic have disrupted migrant workers' mobility in the region. It has also been a powerful reminder that the member states are strongly interdependent through migrant workers' contributions.
The Movement Control Order in Malaysia, as an effort to slow down a surge in infections, has barred its citizens from travelling overseas, including 300,000 workers who commute to Singapore daily. As a result, the government of Singapore had to step up to make accommodation arrangements for the Malaysian workers, ensuring that they could continue work as usual in the city-state.
The lockdown measures in Thailand have caused tens of thousands of jobless migrant labourers to return to their hometowns in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. It immediately raised concerns about prolonged unemployment and supply chain disruptions.
Migrant workers are crucial to the Asean economy. The World Bank highlights that migrant workers contribute significantly to GDP in countries receiving remittances: 10% of GDP in the Philippines, 7% in Vietnam and 5% in Myanmar.
In those countries receiving imported labour, a 10% net increase in low-skill immigrant workers in Malaysia, for example, would increase GDP by 1.1%. Thailand could see its GDP fall by 0.75% without migrant workers' input. Failure to manage migration better can hamper welfare improvement and undermine Asean's regional connectivity aspirations, the World Bank argues.
But despite their significance, they still lack social protections. Asean estimates that 60% of migrant workers are employed in informal industries without social protections, such as unemployment support, retirement funds, accidental coverage, sufficient paid-leave and family care.
Also, human trafficking practices in the sending countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines are still prevalent. Those who are facing termination because of the Covid-19 crisis can potentially look for any other jobs out there, albeit the recruitment process is illegal.
Promoting fair treatment of migrant workers and protecting them from abuse, exploitation and violence are goals the Asean community has yet to achieve.
Trafficking and illegal recruitment persist without law enforcement from the national government in the sending countries. Meanwhile, compliance with social security laws is still unsatisfactory in the receiving countries. Besides, migrant workers are often stigmatised and abused by their employers, not to mention the other hardships they face such as separation from their families and language barriers in the workplace.
Although bilateral initiatives and MOUs on protecting rights of migrants workers exist, there is still an absence of coordinative social protection, making migrant workers vulnerable to discrimination in the laws and practices of both countries of origin and destination. According to the International Labour Organization, the asymmetrical nature of social security coverage between Asean member states frequently creates barriers for coordinated efforts, for instance, some countries cover pension-oriented funds, while others provide lump-sum payments.
Meanwhile, the Asean Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Worker as the only regional agreement is not yet legally binding. Talks continue on what social benefits should be covered by law, as well as how to handle undocumented migrant workers effectively and to what extend support for dependents should be provided.
But Asean has always been committed to advancing governing mechanisms on migrant workers. The 10-member grouping promoted the Asean Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) as a platform to review, discuss, and exchange ideas between governments, civil society, as well as employers and labour's organisations. In recent meetings, AFML had raised concerns not only on social protections but also on employment challenges amid supply chain disruptions and demographic shifts.
What AFML has anticipated is becoming a real test now. Covid-19 has exposed migrant workers to the double whammy of deficiencies in social protections and future uncertainties in a time of crisis. Given these challenges, the Covid-19 crisis should inspire us to develop better ways to improve migrant workers' social protections.
Asean has made a responsive move by coordinating collective efforts through the Asean Covid-19 Summit. While sharing information, continuing trading activities and setting up Asean Covid-19 funds to purchase medical supplies have been prioritised, concrete steps to protect migrant workers remain to be seen.
There are many opportunities to be explored along with the Covid-19 responses, such as expanding migrant workers' healthcare access and utilising information and communications technology to improve transparency in the recruitment process. Vietnam, as one of the main remittance-receiving countries in the Asia Pacific region and as the Asean Chair promoting a "Cohesive and Responsive Asean", could initiate a substantial action on this issue.
Melinda Martinus is a lead researcher in Socio-Cultural Affairs at the Asean Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.