Advocating for ASEAN migrant workers’ rights

Rizal Faisal

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a task force was formed to address issues on ASEAN migrant workers. Raising awareness on the rights and welfare of women migrant workers is one key area advocated for by Project Women Brunei, a non-profit social enterprise committed to promoting the development of women and girls.

Founder and Executive Director Nur Judy binti Abdullah said that Project Women Brunei is assisting the Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers (TFAMW) to share its statement that supports the 36th ASEAN Summit outcome document to include information on how ASEAN aims to enhance cooperation to increase the promotion and protection of the rights of migrant workers during and beyond the pandemic.

Titled COVID-19: Key Issues during and beyond pandemic to protect the rights of the migrant workers and their families, taskforce members brought up the challenges for the health and social care of migrant workers faced by ASEAN member states during the pandemic.

Members of the TFAMW asked and discussed, “could ASEAN implement activities, based on labour rights and gender perspective, to prevent exploitation of migrant workers, and effectively implement social protection for all migrant workers?”

“Migrant workers play a key role to ASEAN’s economic development. But despite their importance, many lack social protection coverage such as unemployment support, retirement funds, accidental coverage, sufficient paid-leave and family care,” said the members in their statement.

“The ASEAN Community has yet to achieve fair treatment and effective protection of migrant workers from abuse, exploitation and violence. There is an absence of coordinated social protection, making migrant workers vulnerable to discrimination in laws and practices of both countries of origin and destination.”

The members said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the existing discrimination, inequality in access to decent work, healthcare, and better job opportunities. “ASEAN vulnerable people, migrant workers, are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, as they are on the front lines, workers in low-wage, high-contact, essential jobs in sectors such as healthcare, retail, and government services. In addition, may be less likely to have access to medical testing.”

“ASEAN migrant workers may suffer for the worse as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. If the ASEAN governments had deployed more effective, timely, and coordinated response to contain the pandemic, as well as protecting the rights of migrant workers and their families – the impact on migrant workers would have been lower! Even before COVID-19, many migrant workers were already facing a number of challenges including labour and human rights abuses.”

They also said that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing issues, and stated that most ASEAN migrant workers are employed in low and semi-skilled work, many women migrant workers are in domestic work, low-wage jobs, to support their families.

The pandemic has forced a large number of migrant workers to return home with no prospect of finding decent jobs back in their home countries. More than 60 per cent of the workers in Southeast Asia are already working in the informal sector without any job security, healthcare and social protection.

“Migrant workers families will be hit hard as many depended solely on remittances. With limited or no income, they slide back into poverty without any social protection.” The TFAMW members also noted that some ASEAN member states have introduced economic stimulus plans and workplace measures to protect the health and the income of workers during pandemic.

“The key is effective implementation of these measures. However, the problem often in ASEAN is the gap between the agreements and the actual implementation,” they said. “Governments from both sending and receiving countries need to cooperate, effectively and timely, to ensure the rights of migrant workers. But undocumented migrant workers are left out with little or no protection at all. In Southeast Asia, there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrant workers – with very low wage and bad working conditions, – with no social protection.”

The TFAMW said it welcomes the ASEAN Labour Ministers Joint Statement on the 9 Action response to the impact of COVID-19, without discrimination, to provide support for the livelihood and health of all workers, including migrant workers, to facilitate access to essential health care services.

In solidarity, ASEAN member states will support migrant workers affected by the pandemic in each other’s country or in third countries to effectively implement occupational safety and health standards, and social protection systems. “ASEAN Labour Ministers will need to enhance cooperation with tripartite partners, civil society, and international organisations to continue knowledge sharing and best practices and lessons learnt on measures and action taken to help at-risk workers,” it was shared. “TFAMW encourages Civil Society Organisations to continue to engage the ACMW and to help to find answers to challenges faced by migrant workers during the pandemic and beyond to effectively implement the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.”

The Civil Society Organisations are encouraged to refer to the following CSO Proposals: The 2009 Civil Society Proposal: ASEAN Framework Instrument on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which provides relevant recommendations on Migrant Worker Health (No 49 to 50) and Migrant worker accommodations and living conditions (No 52 to 54); as well as the 2018 Civil Society Proposal to Develop the ASEAN Consensus Plan of Action (PoA) at Regional and National Levels, which is the outcome document of the Regional Civil Society Consultation on the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of the Migrant Workers, Bangkok, Thailand, May 3-4, 2018.