4 Industries in Southeast Asia That Benefit the Most from Migrant Workers

fishing boat

It may surprise some that while Asia is home to a significant number of labor emigrants, a lot of this labor migration happens within the region. In Southeast Asia, for example, it is quite common to find labor migrants crossing borders from neighboring countries into those that need them. Very few labor migrants actually come from other regions like Africa and the Middle East. While there exists a number of a push and pull factors that influence labor migration in Southeast Asia, a key influencer has been the growing labor shortages experienced in the region in specific industries. These mainly involve industries where jobs are considered as “dirty, difficult, and dangerous”. The local labour force is less and less inclined to work in those as the local labor markets offer better opportunities in the service-oriented industries and in big cities where pay is much better. The industries facing labour shortages include agriculture, fishing, domestic work, and construction. In Southeast Asia, countries that are increasingly experiencing labor shortages include Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Countries in the region that have surplus workers ready to migrate include Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines.


The bigger portion of migration in agriculture tends to be seasonal and irregular. This is due to the fact that employers need a greater number of workers only during specific seasons. With a lot of countries in Asia moving away from agrarian-based economies to more industrialized ones, developing and advanced economies in the region have already been experiencing significant impacts from this shift for a decade or so already. Thailand for example, once a predominantly agrarian- economy, has shifted to become a more industrialized nation as its population became more educated and skilled. Declining birth rates mean that the labour force is not growing anymore either. While this has led to significant growth in other industries and sectors, the country’s agricultural industry – which is still rather large and economically important - has taken a few blows from the lack of workers to fill in labor gaps. The country currently has around 158,000 migrant workers working in agriculture and livestock. It is estimated that migrant workers contributed around THB 27.23 billion in 2014. This is important for both Thailand and the world, as Thailand is one of the biggest rice producers of the world, and the country is uniquely well suited to rice production.


With close to 5 million migrant workers currently working in Thailand, the country has been faced with a lot of criticism for its human rights violations and poor monitoring of labor rights violations of migrant workers residing in Thailand. The fishing industry is a significant contributor to the country’s economy, with a majority of its products being exported to America and Europe.  While the country has faced threats of these exports being banned by major buyers in Europe, the government and international organizations have continued to tackle the labor rights violations that persist in this –largely informal - industry. It is estimated that for fisheries alone, migrant workers contribute around THB 2.78 billion to the total value of the industry.

Domestic Work

Malaysia is a major receiving country of domestic migrant workers from Indonesia given its geographical closeness to Malaysia along with its cultural and linguistic similarities. It is estimated that there are around 3-4 million migrant workers in Malaysia. While manufacturing and agriculture industries contain significant numbers of migrant workers, female migrant workers from Indonesia mainly seek domestic work employment. In 2013, it was estimated that there were around 180,000 documented migrant domestic workers in Malaysia. Also considered an “informal sector”, domestic work in Malaysia has also been affected by the  growth of other industries and sectors that have attracted local workers away from the low income and poor working conditions in the this industry.  Similarly in Singapore, it was recorded that the majority of migrant workers doing domestic work were women (230,000 officially recorded). Throughout the region, the majority of migrant workers in this industry are female and given the informal nature of the industry, monitoring of workers rights has suffered and has resulted in some negative consequences for both sending and receiving countries. This is mainly because they are not protected under local employment acts. 


The construction industry in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand are dependent on young male migrant workers from Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao DPR. In Singapore, the number of migrant workers documented in the construction industry amounted to around 250,000 in 2011 and it is estimated that this will grow to around 300,000 by 2030. In Thailand, the construction industry also sees a significant contribution from its 327,151 migrant workers. While agricultural activities still saw the biggest value added contribution by migrant workers, non-agricultural industries, of which construction is a major industry, saw a contribution of around THB 225.57 billion. The construction industry has also seen a significant increase in the number of female migrant workers.

While the above mentioned industries benefit the most from migrant workers in the region, they also contain the most number of labor rights abuses faced by migrant workers, some in the most extreme forms. The region has been cooperating with international organizations to tackle some of these labor rights abuses but progress in some countries has been slow. Additionally, closer engagement with employers and recruitment agencies in the promotion and protection of migrant labor rights is needed through stewardship and best management practices.

In the end, though, this issue goes quite beyond the realms of policy, bilateral agreements and institutional arrangements. It is, at heart, also a political and cultural issue, with many people having instinctive misgivings about immigration. This is not unique to the region but can be seen around the world. While such feelings of fear about immigration are instinctive, they are often based on wrong assumptions about the economic importance of migration and the problems that would ensue if it was severely restricted. What is needed is a more honest public discourse on migration to ensure that the broader public is aware of the significant contributions that migrant workers make to their countries and that the best way forward is to create a more enabling environment to transform the informal economy into a more formal one.