3 Ways Asia Can Better Protect its Migrant Workers

Opinion18.04.2017
migrant worker

A major part of migration in Asia occurs in the form of labor migration. Migrants in the region choose to leave their countries of origin in search of higher incomes, following friends or relatives, or in some cases fleeing armed conflict and persecution. In the past decade or so, sending countries of migrant workers have had to deal with challenges surrounding the exploitation of their migrants, some quite extreme. Receiving countries in both advanced and developing economies in the region have also become dependent on migrant workers from neighboring countries. Migrant workers not only help to fill in growing labor gaps in different industries like agriculture, domestic services, construction and manufacturing, but also contribute to the economic growth of their own countries through remittances and skill development. However, the region still suffers from a lack of proper protection for migrants and migrant workers. These take various forms, from labor trafficking to being forced to work in slave-like conditions. With organizations like the International Organization for Migration and the International Labor Organization working with other international organizations and governments, these issues are being tackled with some success. There are numerous conventions and bilateral agreements that countries are encouraged to join. Some areas for improvement that governments can focus on primarily include strengthening labor standards enforcement, reducing the demand for exploited labor, and education and training for migrants.

Strengthening Labor Standards Enforcement

While regional cooperation has ensured that proper labor standards have been put in place in countries where labor exploitation is most pressing, enforcement has been weak. The truth is that labor trafficking and exploitation is still a very lucrative “business” for a number of players who are involved in the illegal trafficking of workers and allowing them to work in receiving countries. These include middleman/exploitative agencies, employers in receiving countries, and local authorities who can profit from turning a blind eye. This is indicative of the weak implementation of enforcement strategies. However, practices that have worked include creating communities of compliance around big employers who take on more self-regulation initiatives to strengthen their own labor standards compliance. Local authorities would benefit from tackling migrant worker exploitation at the local level by partnering with major employers in main receiving industries. Licensing to labor providers/agencies has also proven to be useful in encouraging fair practices and encourage quasi-legal agencies to join the formal economy.

Reducing Demand for Exploited Labor

More often than not migrant workers in Asia take up work in industries where labor gaps are due to the unavailability of local workers to fill in these gaps. These are usually in industries where work is not considered decent paying and work conditions can be challenging (like farming, domestic work, and fishing). Labour migration arouses fierce debate all over the globe. However, with regard to economic benefits, research has indicated that in major receiving countries the net contributions of migrant workers is significant. However, since there is still a significant portion of migrant workers who are exploited, the various costs tied to this are often unaccounted for. While major sending countries have made progress in reducing demand for exploited labor, more needs to be done at the local level to criminalize the illegal trafficking of workers by employers and middlemen/agencies. This, however, needs to be coupled with easier processes of legal migration to address the real demand for migrant labour. Since this is politically sensitive, it needs to be accompanied by more public information about the need for immigrant labour and the benefits to society. If this is coupled with criminalization practices that involve expensive fines, legal processing, and fees, employers are often discouraged from engaging in exploitation of migrant workers. However, this requires both a significant policy change as well as a high level of accountability on the part of local authorities in charge of enforcement. But again, building communities around compliance can help in addressing the demand for exploited labor.

Education and Training for Migrants

Perhaps the easiest to implement is the education and training of migrant workers by sending countries. With major sending countries relying on the economic contribution from remittances, it is often beneficial to local governments to establish education/training programs that go beyond skill development. These include things like identifying and reporting unfair practices, understanding local labor laws and regulations in receiving countries, dealing with exploitive work environments, and language skills, to name a few. Countries like the Philippines have already successfully rolled out these types of programs for their migrant domestic workers who end up working in some of the most exploitative work environments. With the majority of migrant workers coming from poor backgrounds, these programs are not only lifesaving but also help empower migrant workers in situations where they would not necessarily know what to do. This also helps ensure compliance by employers, hiring agencies, and local authorities in charge of enforcing labor standards.

Migration and labor migration is a major economic activity for Asia given the significant number of people who migrate for work. While historically forced migration due to political unrest and armed conflict has been a major driving factor, today economic incentives are a major motivation factor for migrant workers. It is also clear that both sending and receiving countries benefit from migration in the form of labor migration. However, there are still major policy implementation challenges that governments need to address with the growing number of migrant workers in the region. By combining policy change at the macro level with bottom-up strategies that focus on local level strategies, enforcement of labor standards, criminalization of bad labor practices, and education and training of migrant workers, the situation of migrant workers can be significantly enhanced and the benefits for receiving countries can be increased.