A big step forward for migrant workers in Asean



THE phenomenon of labor migration is closely intertwined with the economic development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region. Asean member countries – which are either sending or receiving countries for migrant workers – have profited greatly from foreign labor.

According to a 2015 World Bank study, of the approximately 10 million foreign migrants living and working in Asean, around two-thirds, or some 6.8 million workers, are estimated to have come from within the region. In fact, among the Asean countries, the Philippines deployed the biggest number of workers to other member-states, ahead of Indonesia, based on International Labor Organization (ILO) data.

Meanwhile, the top destination countries in Asean for migrant workers, including overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

This is why the Asean Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers—which was signed by the leaders of the member states during the recently concluded 31st Asean Summit in Manila last week—ought to be considered as a watershed moment for the regional organization.

The consensus (or “instrument,” as many of my colleagues in the Asean sectoral committees prefer to call it) details the general commitments made by member-states in the “Asean Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers” adopted in January 2007 in Cebu – more famously referred to by the Asean migrant labor advocates as the “Cebu Declaration.”

Whereas the declaration merely contained “motherhood statements” on the obligations and commitments of Asean member states to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers, the consensus embodies the specific rights of migrant workers, such as the right to hold their own passport, the right to file a labor complaint, and the right to freely move in the destination country, among others.

The consensus also enumerates the particular obligations of both sending and receiving countries to migrant workers such as the obligation to prohibit the overcharging of placement or recruitment fees, to issue regulations and guidelines prescribing clearly the terms and conditions of employment, to provide fair working conditions and remuneration, and to provide protection against violence and sexual harassment.

Some analysts find the inclusion of undocumented workers in the consensus an extraordinary accomplishment, with receiving states being obliged to “resolve the cases” of workers “who became undocumented through no fault of their own.”

As President Rodrigo Duterte proudly describes it, the consensus is a “landmark document that would strengthen social protection, access to justice, humane and fair treatment, and access to health services for our people.”

It is indeed a landmark agreement considering that it took the regional bloc a little over 10 years to finalize the consensus. Negotiations on the document have been deadlocked for years on some key issues.

To push the talks forward, the Philippines, through the Department of Labor and Employment led by Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd, hosted three “retreats” to tackle the consensus: the Asean Labor Ministers’ Retreat (February 19-20, 2017 in Davao City), the Asean Special Senior Officials’ Retreat (March 20-21, 2017 at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel in Pasay City) and the finally, the Asean Senior Labor Officials’ Retreat held on August 25-26, 2017 at the Conrad Hotel in Pasay City, during which time the consensus was finally concluded.

There were also some backchannel discussions between top Asean labor officials to break the impasse in the negotiations. Unknown to the public, Bello even traveled to Indonesia in order to persuade his counterpart to sign off on the consensus.

Given the effort put in by many nameless and faceless Filipino officials over the past decade, the agreement should truly be considered a centerpiece of the country’s chairmanship of Asean. But it is an achievement not only of the Philippines but of all Asean member-states. Even the European Union (EU), which has been held up as a model for regional integration, has not been able to adopt a regional agreement for migration, let alone migrant rights.

Of course, there are the critics who deride the instrument for not being legally binding. The Asean member-states, however, have always worked together “in the spirit of consensus.” What is important, Bello says, is that the parties are aware of their specific obligations.

Besides, he explained, the consensus can be the impetus and foundation for forging bilateral agreements between Asean countries in order to give the accord more teeth.

To be clear, the battle for migrant rights does not end with the consensus. After the agreement, the Asean labor ministers’ task is to develop an action plan “to translate the Asean Consensus into concrete actions.”

From my perspective, this should include the creation of common or uniform labor and working condition standards for all Asean countries. The challenge, therefore, is for the regional bloc to create such an action plan before another decade ends.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.


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