Migrant worker chaos highlights ASEAN’s policy failures

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Cambodian migrant workers leaving Thailand on a truck

The current migrant worker crisis in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) highlights the ineffectiveness of the bloc in regulating core issues of cooperation in what strives to become a joint labour market in the future, legal practitioners criticised.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam, in the past days were flowing out of Thailand and Malaysia as both countries launched a crackdown on what they label illegal foreign workers without work permit or other proper registration.

The moves come as both countries are trying to improve their rankings on the US’s annual Trafficking in Persons watch list where they are both ranked tier two out of three tiers, and are also aimed at curbing workers’ exploitation and forced labour, mainly in the fisheries and farming sector.

However, they have resulted rather adverse effects.

Thailand saw scores of Burmese and Cambodian workers literally flee to their home countries in fear of the new labour regulations adopted by the military government. The new “Executive Decree on the Management of Migrant Workers” shook up Thailand’s blue collar expat worker community mainly because of the high fines of up to $3,000 and even arrest if found undocumented, and up to $23,500 in fines for employers who hire unregistered foreign workers without permits.

The Thai government asked the workers to go home and return with proper documentation of their identity to be registered in Thailand. However, the decree caused a mass flight, severely impacting the Thai construction, fishery and agribusiness industries.

On July 5, the Thai government announced it will delay the enforcement of the decree by six months “during which time the labour ministry has promised to put everything in order,” the statement noted.

Malaysia on July 1 started the rounding up and deportation of foreign nationals who are in Malaysia without valid work or visitor documents and failed to register by that day at an immigration office. Most of the migrant workers are from neighbouring Indonesia, with large pools of Bangladeshi and Nepalese nationals, as well as Rohingya from Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Bar Council, a body of legal practitioners in Malaysia, through its Migrants, Refugees and Immigration Committee blamed the ASEAN Secretariat for failing to set up a proper framework for migrant workers in the bloc whose motto is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”.

According to the committee’s chairperson M Ramachelvam, an ASEAN declaration to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers was set up already back in 2007 but has since been dormant and its target to “develop an instrument in line with the region’s vision of a caring and sharing community” has not materialised.

Ramachelvam said the present arrangements of bilateral labour agreements did not adequately protect migrant workers or workers’ welfare, or ensure decently paid work for migrants.

“Also, current national laws and regulations of each nation do not provide adequate rights and protection for migrant workers,” he noted, adding that therefore there was a dire need to have a binding ASEAN instrument to look into the problems of migrant workers.

So far, the ASAN Secretariat did not comment or release a statement on the issue. However, there are hopes that the said document, the ASEAN Declaration for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, would be endorsed at the next ASEAN summit in the Philippines in November.

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[caption id="attachment_30180" align="alignleft" width="300"] Cambodian migrant workers leaving Thailand on a truck[/caption] The current migrant worker crisis in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) highlights the ineffectiveness of the bloc in regulating core issues of cooperation in what strives to become a joint labour market in the future, legal practitioners criticised. Tens of thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam, in the past days were flowing out of Thailand and Malaysia as both countries launched a crackdown on what they label illegal foreign workers without work permit or other proper registration. The moves come as...

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Cambodian migrant workers leaving Thailand on a truck

The current migrant worker crisis in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) highlights the ineffectiveness of the bloc in regulating core issues of cooperation in what strives to become a joint labour market in the future, legal practitioners criticised.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam, in the past days were flowing out of Thailand and Malaysia as both countries launched a crackdown on what they label illegal foreign workers without work permit or other proper registration.

The moves come as both countries are trying to improve their rankings on the US’s annual Trafficking in Persons watch list where they are both ranked tier two out of three tiers, and are also aimed at curbing workers’ exploitation and forced labour, mainly in the fisheries and farming sector.

However, they have resulted rather adverse effects.

Thailand saw scores of Burmese and Cambodian workers literally flee to their home countries in fear of the new labour regulations adopted by the military government. The new “Executive Decree on the Management of Migrant Workers” shook up Thailand’s blue collar expat worker community mainly because of the high fines of up to $3,000 and even arrest if found undocumented, and up to $23,500 in fines for employers who hire unregistered foreign workers without permits.

The Thai government asked the workers to go home and return with proper documentation of their identity to be registered in Thailand. However, the decree caused a mass flight, severely impacting the Thai construction, fishery and agribusiness industries.

On July 5, the Thai government announced it will delay the enforcement of the decree by six months “during which time the labour ministry has promised to put everything in order,” the statement noted.

Malaysia on July 1 started the rounding up and deportation of foreign nationals who are in Malaysia without valid work or visitor documents and failed to register by that day at an immigration office. Most of the migrant workers are from neighbouring Indonesia, with large pools of Bangladeshi and Nepalese nationals, as well as Rohingya from Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Bar Council, a body of legal practitioners in Malaysia, through its Migrants, Refugees and Immigration Committee blamed the ASEAN Secretariat for failing to set up a proper framework for migrant workers in the bloc whose motto is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”.

According to the committee’s chairperson M Ramachelvam, an ASEAN declaration to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers was set up already back in 2007 but has since been dormant and its target to “develop an instrument in line with the region’s vision of a caring and sharing community” has not materialised.

Ramachelvam said the present arrangements of bilateral labour agreements did not adequately protect migrant workers or workers’ welfare, or ensure decently paid work for migrants.

“Also, current national laws and regulations of each nation do not provide adequate rights and protection for migrant workers,” he noted, adding that therefore there was a dire need to have a binding ASEAN instrument to look into the problems of migrant workers.

So far, the ASAN Secretariat did not comment or release a statement on the issue. However, there are hopes that the said document, the ASEAN Declaration for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, would be endorsed at the next ASEAN summit in the Philippines in November.

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