Region: Temporary Overseas Labour Migration: A Challenge for Southeast Asia


Michele Ford

Large-scale temporary international labour migration has been expanding in Southeast Asia since the early 1980s, and now involves almost all countries in the region. Wealthier Southeast Asian economies, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, rely heavily on the labour of foreigners to sustain economic growth. In Malaysia, foreign workers account for a significant proportion of the factory and plantation workforces, as well as working in the informal service sector and as domestic helpers. In Singapore's case - as in a number of East Asian countries - foreign workers have also become indispensable because of its ageing demographic profile. Low birth-rates and out-migration, along with the lack of state-supported aged care, means foreign workers are increasingly required to tend to the elderly, as well as the very young.

Poorer countries in the region, including Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines - but also the countries of Indochina - have increasingly relied on overseas income from migrant workers, and encourage their citizens to work abroad to alleviate pressure on their own labour markets. The Philippines is the premier labour-sending country in the region, although Indonesia is fast catching up. Filipinos and Indonesians head to East and Southeast Asian destinations of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as to the Middle East. Filipino citizens, who are the most educated group of overseas migrant workers in the region, also find work in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, Thailand is both a sending and receiving country: Burmese, Cambodians and Laotians come to work in Thailand, while Thais leave for Singapore and Malaysia, as well as for destinations further afield.

Both men and women migrate for work within the Southeast Asian region. Many men shift into industries like manufacturing, construction and plantation agriculture. Some women also work in manufacturing and on the plantations, but a large proportion of them become 'domestic helpers'. Foreign domestic workers have become a key part of the economies of many wealthy countries in East and Southeast Asia, where an increasing number of women work outside the home. As well as keeping the house clean, foreign domestic workers plug the gap left by a minimalist social welfare system by providing child and aged care.

When temporary overseas labour migration is managed well, it provides individuals with an opportunity to change their life circumstances, while at least partially breaching an artificial barrier in the labour market created by national boundaries. However, it also brings challenges not only for the migrants themselves, but for sending and receiving countries. Where many people leave the same village to work overseas, there can be devastating consequences not only on family structures, but on the social structures of the entire community. Meanwhile, temporary labour migrants provide receiving countries with a cheap, expendable workforce which are not influential politically, and do not make demands on social services. However, the presence of such a large, vulnerable group of workers has implications for the host society. For example, temporary labour migrants are an easy target for political and community scapegoating: in Malaysia and Singapore, they have been blamed for public immorality and rising crime.

A big part of the problem foreign workers face in receiving countries is that they do not have the same labour rights as citizens of the host country because their rights under local industrial relations laws are limited by their immigration status. This problem is most serious in the case of undocumented foreign workers, who have no legal status at all, but it is also an issue for foreign workers who have entered the host country lawfully and continued to abide by their visa conditions. In Malaysia, for example, the right to join associations is limited by the foreign workers' employment permits. Thus, even though industrial relations legislation allows them to join unions, their work permits may not. Temporary migrant workers' already tenuous position is exacerbated by their lack of labour rights, leaving them even more vulnerable to exploitation.

WATCHPOINT: Trade unions and NGOs in the region are starting to work together to better protect temporary labour migrants' rights.


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