Category Archives: ASEAN

The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers

The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers signed at the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines.

Following the signing of the ASEAN Consensus, an action plan will be developed by the ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers.

For the full document, click here.


ASEAN leaders sign commitment protecting migrant workers

The consensus is a followup document to the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers adopted in January 2007 in Cebu.

PROTECTING MIGRANTS. Southeast Asian leaders do the trademark ASEAN handshake after signing the ‘ASEAN Consensus on the Protection of Migrant Workers’. Screenshot by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – After a decade, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has finally made progress in ensuring the protection of migrant workers.

Southeast Asian leaders closed their 31st ASEAN Summit, which coincides with the golden anniversary of the community, by signing the “ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers” on Tuesday, November 14.

President Rodrigo Duterte, representing the Philippines as ASEAN chair, presented the signed document to ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.

This consensus is a followup document to the “ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers” adopted in January 2007 in Cebu.

It includes the following provisions:

  • Fair treatment of migrant workers with respect to gender and nationality
  • Visitation rights by family members
  • Prohibition against confiscation of passports and overcharging of placement or recruitment fees
  • Protection against violence and sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Regulation of recruiters for better protection of workers
  • Right to fair and appropriate remuneration benefits and their right to join trade unions and association

It also serves as a commitment by ASEAN member-states to formulate a plan of action to implement the rights specified. This plan will be made during next year’s meetings under the chairmanship of Singapore.

The creation of the consensus took more than 10 years because parties could not agree on the legal nature of the document, the protection of undocumented workers and the coverage of migrant workers’ families.

Philippines and Indonesia, both source countries, wanted a legally-binding framework. Singapore and Malaysia only wanted the document to be a guide to avoid the increase in the number of undocumented migrants. Both countries are migration hubs for workers.

Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Silvestre Bello III earlier said they opted not to spell out whether or not the document is legally-binding since signatories are already aware of their commitments.

Silence on undocumented workers

Despite being a landmark gain, the consensus was still silent on the issue of undocumented workers. There are around 10 million migrant workers in the region, many of whom are staying in foreign countries without proper papers. Philippine statistics, meanwhile, show that there are around 212,435 overseas Filipino workers (OFW) in Southeast Asia.

Left-leaning OFW group Migrante said these OFWs are those whose work permits were not renewed or who were forced to leave their employers due to abuse and exploitation.

Migrante also urged ASEAN to create a body that will oversee violations and concerns of the migrant workers, whether as a consultative body or a tribunal.

“Because there is a lack of support mechanisms in both sending and receiving countries, the tendency is always to deport or repatriate victims of abuse and exploitation resulting in the denial of justice and non-persecution of perpetrators,” said the labor organization.

Aside from this commitment, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, the people-centered pillar of the association, also adopted the:

  • ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Ending All Forms of Malnutrition
  • ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Anti-Microbial Resistance
  • ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Disaster Health Management
  • ASEAN Declaration on the Gender-Responsive Implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and Sustainable Development Goals
  • ASEAN Declaration on Culture of Prevention for a Peaceful, Inclusive, Resilient, Healthy and Harmonious Society
  • ASEAN Joint Statement on Climate Change to the UNFCCC COP-23
  • Joint Statement on Promoting Women, Peace and Security in ASEAN

By: Patty Pasion,

Published on: 14 November 2017

Asean urged to ease rules on workers

Migrants good for growth, report says

The World Bank is urging Asean member countries to ease labour restrictions so migrant workers can earn money overseas to boost welfare and deepen economic integration.

Migration is growing at a faster rate in Asean than within any other region globally, according to one of the bank’s cartoon-filled reports released Monday entitled Migrating to Opportunity.

Between 1995 and 2015, 6.5 million migrants workers in the Asean bloc left their homeland to find better opportunities in neighbouring countries, the report showed.

People from Myanmar, Lao and Cambodia were most likely to head to Thailand while Malaysians and Indonesians tended to venture to Singapore, it said.

Their total remittances in 2015 stood at US$62 billion, accounting for 3% of the value of GDP in Cambodia, 5% in Myanmar or 10% in the Philippines.

Yet the World Bank report states the region could have reaped more benefits if hurdles had been cleared including the high cost of labor mobility, restrictions on workers, and welfare-related problems.

“With the right policy choices, sending countries can reap the economic benefits of out-immigration while protecting their citizens who choose to migrate for work,” said Sudhir Shetty, the World Bank’s chief economist for the East Asia and Pacific Region.

“In receiving countries, foreign workers can fill labour shortages and promote sustainable economic growth if migration policies are aligned with their economic needs,” he added.

“Inappropriate policies and ineffective institutions mean that the region is missing opportunities to gain fully from migration.”

Critics say restrictions lead to costly and lengthy recruitment processes.

“We are talking about more than 10 steps for migrant workers to deal with. We are talking about redundancies of agencies and processes,” said Mauro Testaverde, a World Bank economist and lead author of the report.

“No matter where workers wish to migrate to in Asean, they will face mobility costs several times the annual wage,” he said.

“Improvements in the migration process can ease these costs for prospective migrants and help countries respond better to their labour market needs,” he added.

By reducing the cost of mobility, the report found, welfare could rise 14% for highly skilled workers and 29% overall.

The report suggested some policy changes including more oversight of recruitment agencies and a streamlining of registration processes.

Countries can also learn from one another, for example taking a cue from the Philippines, which has good social support and network systems that help migrant Philippine workers adjust and get better protection when working overseas.

The bilateral agreement between Malaysia and Bangladesh to reduce the cost of mobility is another good example of how illegal migration can be curbed because migrant workers from these countries have no need to use illegal job recruitment agents.

The report suggested Indonesia could streamline its official agencies while Vietnam could promote a better migrant worker policy

Singapore could do more to enhance welfare and help migrant workers assimilate, it said, adding Thailand should formalise undocumented workers and make the entry process cheaper.

Thailand should also improve welfare and protection for migrant workers, the report said.

It also urged governments to change their attitude toward migrant workers.

Mr Shetty said such restrictive policies result from fears that migrant workers steal jobs from locals. In contrast, the report said Thailand’s GDP would drop 0.75% without them.


By: Anchalee Kongrut, Bangkok Post

Published on: 10 October 2017


Immigrants in Taiwan welcome Asean languages programme

LIKE MANY immigrants in Taiwan as well as their children, Manida Tarnsuwan – a 45-year-old woman from Thailand, welcomes the New Southbound Policy.

Initiated by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the policy prescribes educational development for children of new immigrants to be implemented between 2016 and 2020.

“Opportunities I’ve found here make me feel equal, even though I was not born here,” Manida said.

Married to a Taiwanese man and settled in Taiwan, she is also known as Manida Lai.

At present, she has been receiving training on how to serve as an assistant teacher for Thai-language classes.

Starting in 2019, every primary school in Taiwan will include seven Asean languages as elective subjects in response to the New Southbound Policy. The languages are Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Burman, Indonesian, Cambodian and Filipino.

“One in 10 primary students in Taiwan are children of immigrants. We think it necessary to let them learn the mother language of their parents,” Taiwan’s Education Minister Pan Wen- chung  said.

He believed it was also useful for children whose parents were both Taiwanese to learn Asean languages.

Manida said the New Immigrants Learning Center at Zhanghe Junior High School had taught Asean languages for several years already.

Taiwan’s capital Taipei has been home to about 100,000 foreign spouses and children of Taiwanese nationals. The biggest immigrant group is Vietnamese followed by Indonesian, Myanmar and Thai.

Yen-che Gu, senior specialist of the New Taipei City Government, where the New Immigrants Learning Center is located, said the languages would connect children with their ethnic roots.

“If they have opportunities, they may be able to go back to the home country of their parent and contribute to its development,” Gu said.

Wen-Ching Ho, principal of New Taipei Municipal Zhanghe Junior High School, said his school had already started offering |Asean languages as electives.

His school conducts classes for children from kindergarten up to junior secondary education. Students include children of Cambodian, Vietnamese and Indonesian origin, not just those born to Taiwanese couples.

“Of all three Asean-language choices, we began teaching Vietnamese already because we successfully recruited a Vietnamese teacher. She moved to Taiwan after marrying a local man here,” Ho said.

He added that the teacher had also received teacher training from Taiwan’s Education Ministry.

Increased job opportunities

Another Vietnamese woman from Kaohsiung Taiwan said she felt glad the Taiwanese government had offered free teacher training to interested immigrants.

“I have received 36 hours of free training and received a certification to serve as an assistant teacher now. My field is the Vietnamese language,” she said.

The assistant teacher said she was happy children of immigrants had an opportunity to learn the mother languages of their parent and for children of Taiwanese parents to have an opportunity to learn Asean languages.

“If you can speak an Asean language, your job opportunities grow,” she said.

Deng Jin Ti, a Vietnamese woman living in Taiwan, said the government’s Asean-language project had enhanced her status as a teacher of Vietnamese. “Although I can speak Vietnamese fluently, it’s not easy to teach others without training. With the proper training, I have acquired teaching techniques and skills,” she said.

Married to a Taiwanese man for 12 years, she has taught Vietnamese to Taiwanese investors who were interested in expanding their businesses in Vietnam.

Ker-Wei Yu, a professor in the Department of Marine Engineering at the University of Science and Technology of Kaohsiung, said his institute had already trained so many teachers through the Second Generation of New Immigrants Overseas Empowerment programme.

“We have provided training so as to produce teachers for the Asean courses that will start in 2019,” he said.

A schoolboy said he could speak Vietnamese because his mother came from Vietnam.

“If the government will offer Vietnamese language course, I will definitely join the class so that I can learn Vietnamese reading and writing,” he said. “If possible, I will apply for jobs in Vietnam after my graduation.”

Wanpen Huang, who has spent the last 30 years in Taiwan after marrying a Taiwanese man, admitted that she did not teach Thai to her children or grandchildren.

“But if the government offers Thai language courses, I will definitely persuade my grandchildren to enrol,” she said.


By: Chularat Saengpassa, The Nation

Published on: 9 October 2017


ASEAN treaty on migrant workers: Can PH make it happen in 2017?

PART 3: All eyes are on the host Philippines to see if it could usher in an ASEAN treaty on migrant workers’ protection after a decade-long impasse

Part 1: Undocumented migrant workers: Hidden and helpless in ASEAN
Part 2: The bleak future of undocumented migrant workers in ASEAN

MANILA, Philippines – A decade ago, the Philippines was pivotal in the signing of the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers on its soil. But to date, there is still no legally binding instrument or treaty to implement the commitment.

This still haunts the Philippines, as it hosts the 50th year celebrations of the ASEAN in 2017, which also coincides with the 10th year anniversary of the declaration. The country, as a major labor sending state, is one of the key proponents of the instrument, as well as of migrant workers’ rights regionally and globally.

For the longest time, intra-ASEAN migration has been on the upswing. In 2012, it generated close to US$40 billion in remittances for the whole region.

But in ASEAN, where consensus is king, there has been a deadlock between receiving states – Malaysia and Singapore – and sending states – Indonesia and the Philippines – on the creation of a legally binding framework. It is complicated. Aside from countries’ differing agenda, ASEAN member-states have varying and inconsistent laws on labor and migration.

For this year, the Philippines chose the theme, “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World.” As host, the country has the power to steer the agenda in the direction they desire.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said 2017 would be the year for a “people-centered” and “people-oriented” ASEAN, touching on the protection of labor migrants.

It was the Philippines, as chair of ASEAN 2007, which pushed for the adoption of the declaration. This year, the country is taking ownership of the issue, as it is still doing the same for the creation of an instrument. The question, however, remains: Will it be a legally binding one, like a treaty, or just a mere guideline to follow?

A legally binding instrument, aside from being obligatory, would put in place redress or dispute mechanisms for migrant workers in the region.

“There is an ASEAN protocol dispute settlement that will allow certain dispute settlement measures to kick in once we agree that the instrument is legally binding, for instance arbitration,” Cacdac said.

“I don’t think it will take away exploitation and abuse but the workers will have at least redress. They would know what their rights are in the receiving state, they can file complaints, they can have access to services guaranteed by all the states,” said Thetis Mangahas, former International Labor Organization (ILO) regional director.

Philippines softens stand on treaty

Hans Cacdac, administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and a decade-long negotiator in the ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers (ACMW) tasked to work on the instrument, said ASEAN labor ministers have already declared their intention to finish the “agreement” by April 2017.

The question is: What kind and how strong of an instrument would it be?

“It is already 85% complete. I can tell you it contains substantial points that are clearly protective of migrant workers across ASEAN. In areas such as access to justice, protection during recruitment process, humane treatment of migrant workers – things like these are already in the 85% text so I think there’s already a lot to gain alone. However, we need to seek consensus the ASEAN way,” Cacdac told Rappler.

Early February, Cacdac flew to Kuala Lumpur to meet with his Malaysian counterparts from the Ministry of Human Resources to discuss the declaration, the Philippine embassy said. Details of the meeting, however, were not divulged.

There are 3 main contentious issues that have delayed the establishment of an instrument: the legal nature of the document, inclusion of migrant workers’ families, and protection of undocumented workers.

For sending countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, they are in favor of everything. But receiving countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, oppose them, as they just want a mere guideline.

At present, there is only one remaining issue left. But senior officials would not want to divulge it yet.

Foreign Affairs undersecretary for policy Enrique Manalo said the Philippines is set to hold the labor ministers’ retreat from February 19 to 21, to be held in Davao City, to settle it.

“Very briefly, that is one of the priorities of the Philippines this year. There’s really only one major issue remaining and what the Philippines is planning in fact is to host a retreat among labor ministers of ASEAN precisely to look at this issue,” Manalo said.

But some are unconvinced this would actually work.

“A retreat would work if you feel or you see that the major problem is confidence building and therefore they’re assuming that by bonding, that it might reduce the lack of confidence but I don’t think that is so,” Mangahas said.

DFA Assistant Secretary Hellen De la Vega, also the ASEAN-Director General for the Philippines, acknowledged the struggles on creating a legally-binding instrument, citing the different laws and “comfort levels” of each member-state. She also refused to say what the remaining issue is.

“Well I’m sorry I cannot say that. We are looking at the remaining 15%,” she told Rappler in an interview.

Directly asked how confident she is, De la Vega said: “You said the instrument is already 85% ready. I will also put my rating at 85%. All I can say is we will exert all our best efforts, this is all a matter of political resolve. We’ve been working through this, we hope we will be able to reach something. We hope that we’ll be able to reach something that we can give as a gift not only to migrant workers of our country but all in the region.”

Former Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, after the 2016 summit in Lao PDR, said that the Philippines is amenable to a non-binding instrument, as long as 4 parameters would be present. This is contrary to the hardline stance of Indonesia, the Philippines’ ally in pushing for a legal instrument.

Here are the 4 parameters set by the Philippines:

  • the immediate development of an action plan, with timelines to implement the Instrument
  • negotiation of bilateral labor agreements between ASEAN Member States
  • sharing and documentation of best practices
  • designation of national focal points on Instrument implementation in every ASEAN member-state.

Bleak prospect for an ASEAN treaty?

While Philippine officials are mum on the remaining issue, migration experts, who have dealt and negotiated in the ASEAN, said it may have to do with the legal nature of the instrument.

“It’s all about the the binding issue. If it’s optional, why are they so contentious when it is up to them? If there’s a stalemate, it’s got to be that. Most likely it is that issue that is holding it back,” said Mangahas.

Mangahas said Malaysia and Indonesia have the two most polarizing views on the legally binding instrument. Indonesia has an all or nothing mindset, which is understandable as a sending state.

A factor to this is the bilateral relations between the 2 states. Indonesia has condemned Malaysia’s treatment of Indonesian migrant workers, which make up majority of the documented and undocumented workers in Malaysia.

“It is irreconcilable with the other so it’s a question of who gives in between the two. Indonesia doesn’t want to give in on this. Malaysia doesn’t want to give in on this. Indonesia is for a legally binding. They don’t want a diluted instrument. I think they’re all for binding or nothing,” she said.

Indonesia is not keen on backing down. Its strong resolve to push for migrant workers’ rights has all the more intensified under the administration of President Joko Widodo, following criticisms against his predecessor.

“The current Indonesian government has placed the protection of overseas Indonesians as one of its main foreign policy priorities following strong criticism of the previous government’s perceived neglect amidst a number of cases of mistreatment against Indonesian migrant workers,” said Ibrahim Almuttaqi, head of the ASEAN Studies Program at The Habibie Center in Jakarta.

“Despite Jakarta’s influence on the region, it would seem it has struggled to break through the current impasse. That is not to say that Indonesia will give up, it recognizes that this is a complex issue and will take many years to resolve,” he added.

Malaysia Bar Council’s Dato M Ramachelvam also opened the possibility of a “hybrid instrument.”

“In which case, some provisions which have been agreed by all members to be binding and the ones which are in dispute not binding,” said Ramachelvam, also the chairman of the council’s Migrants, Refugees and Immigrant Affairs committee.

But for some, having a non-legally binding instrument would not set a good precedent.

“If you give in, the legally binding instrument would likely never happen because your already agreed to a non-legally binding one. It’s a short-term solution that would be the reference point for the next 20 years. Others would tell the Philippines and Indonesia: ‘We already granted your request for an instrument. If you have this instrument, why do we need a legal document’? It doesn’t give you the opening to pursue it further,” said De Dios, member of the ASEAN Committee on Women and Children and a delegate to the United Nations.

Political will

The issue of migrant workers has been staring ASEAN in the face for a decade now. Some have lost hope while others continue to hang on to it.

For undocumented workers, a regional agreement would help them in their plight in the region.

Erika*,37, and Fe*, 34, want an end to recruitment agencies and employer’s non-compliance to their contracts, which in their case was the main reason they had to run away from their Malaysian employers and become undocumented workers.

STATELESS. Undocumented Filipina migrant worker Erika*, 37, with her 11-month-old son, who has no nationality and citizenship to date. Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

STATELESS. Undocumented Filipina migrant worker Erika*, 37, with her 11-month-old son, who has no nationality and citizenship to date. Photo by Camille Elemia/Rappler

They are hopeful that the ASEAN or their host country would be able to stop these agencies from collecting exorbitant fees from them.

“I hope they can help us, even with the agencies,” Fe said.

It all boils down to the political will of both the sending and receiving countries.

“In our view, the outstanding issues hampering the work are beyond labor and immigration technical issues. It is more about lack of political will,” said Abdulkadir Jailani, former Indonesian negotiator in the ACMW.

Former ambassador Rosario Gonzales, former Philippine Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), said ASEAN was built on the basis of compromise. It’s not enough for receiving countries, she said, to just oppose the instrument, without adjusting its laws or policies.

“It used to be when we founded it, it was about consenus. If a state is not ready, then it should come forward and say what alternatives they are offering. That was consensus building not like this,” Manalo said.

“Singapore and Malaysia – they don’t want to change their national laws. Why are you not changing it? It’s been 10 years. Where’s the political will?” she added.

Rappler reached out to Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs, tasked to formulate and oversee immigration policies; the Ministry of Human Resources, which supervises labor affairs and negotiates in the ACMW; as well as its ASEAN Secretariat, but they all declined interview requests.

“It should be elevated to President Duterte because it has taken so long. He should tell the DFA that he wants this. They should face the summit and tell it to the heads of state,” the former envoy said.

ILO’s Manuel Imson, also project coordinator of the ASEAN Triangle Project on migrant workers, said it all boils down to the nations’ leaders. The ministers negotiating in the committee, after all, just echo what their seniors tell them.

“In the final analysis, it all boils down to political will. Those working on this are really dependent on the country position defined by higher government levels because this is what they echo in the technical meetings. So in a case where there are issues like these, sa taas na ang decisions,” he said.

ASEAN, for its part, is working inch by inch while there is still no consensus – through information sharing, endless meetings, sharing of best practices, and the creation of an Asean Qualification Reference Framework (AQRF), which is a common referencing system for workers in the region.

“So you know that if I am a tourist professional, a tour guide of this level in Cambodia, I’m equivalent to a tourist guide in Manila of this certain level. A common referencing system to promote better mobility of workers,” Mangahas said.

But as ASEAN continues its debate, migrant workers – documented and undocumented – could only rely on their home country’s bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding with other ASEAN nations for protection. –


By: Camille Elemia, Rappler

Published on: 14 February 2017


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