Global Policy Forum

ASEAN Assumes Migrant Rights Duties


By Stella Gonzales

Inter Press Service
August 2, 2007

Rights of migrant workers have been strengthened with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) foreign ministers approving two documents at a recent meeting of the regional grouping in the Philippines capital.

The 10 ministers, who met on Jul. 30 for two days, agreed to the establishment of an ASEAN committee that would implement a declaration - signed by ASEAN leaders last January - that sought to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers. In addition, they approved the guidelines for the provision of emergency assistance to ASEAN nationals in crisis situations in third countries. The bloc, which marks its 40th anniversary this month, comprises of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Philippine Foreign Affairs secretary Alberto Romulo said the two documents were a "significant stride forward". "We are taking pro-active steps to protect our nationals within and outside the region. For this demonstration of the deep and enduring human ties that bind us, and for the vision and follow through actions, our region's peoples can only be thankful," Romulo said. However, Ellene Sana of the Philippines-based Center for Migrant Advocacy, a member organisation of the Migrant Forum in Asia, pointed out that the committee that would implement the ASEAN leaders' declaration is not independent and would still use the ASEAN policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member-states. "We nevertheless still view these announcements as positive and forward looking," she said.

The committee, to be composed of representatives from each member country and the ASEAN secretariat, is supposed to work towards the development of a regional instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers. In their January declaration, the region's leaders listed certain obligations of labour-receiving states and labour-sending states for promoting the dignity of migrant workers although subject to the laws of the respective member countries. While laying down that labour-receiving and labour-sending states must resolve the cases of migrant workers who, through no fault of their own, have subsequently become undocumented, the leaders stressed that their declaration should not be interpreted as implying the regularisation of undocumented migrant workers.

Labour-sending states are tasked to set up policies that would eliminate malpractices by ensuring legal and valid contracts, and regulating and accrediting recruitment agencies. They must also provide suitable alternatives to the migration of workers. Labour-receiving countries, on the other hand, are to promote job protection, payment of wages and access to decent working and living conditions for migrant workers. They are to provide victims of discrimination and abuse access to their legal system.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are among the most important Asian receiving countries. In Singapore, migrants make up 28 percent of the labour force while in Malaysia, they constitute 12 percent. The Philippines is the largest supplier of labour in the region. The ILO has calculated that remittances from migrant workers from the Philippines constituted 8.6 percent of the country's gross national product (GNP) in 2003. In Indonesia, it was 4.7 percent, while in Thailand it was 1.8 percent.

Some ASEAN countries have their share of controversies involving migrant workers.

According to an Amnesty International (AI) report, migrant workers in Thailand, especially those from Burma and from the Hmong ethnic group in Laos, have suffered human rights violations, including forcible return to their countries, inhuman treatment in immigration detention centres and unsafe working and living conditions. In Malaysia, AI said, some migrant workers charged under the immigration act are denied fair trial and are sentenced to imprisonment and whipping.

The second agreement signed by the foreign ministers formalises an ongoing practice among ASEAN states to assist the bloc's nationals in third countries during emergency situations. This arrangement was already made in the case of migrant workers in Lebanon during the height of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in 2006 when Thailand sought the assistance of the Philippine embassy in Beirut to help repatriate its citizens. Romulo said the guidelines "underscore ASEAN's recognition of our shared responsibility to uphold our people's rights and welfare given the rapidly changing conditions in our region brought about by globalisation".

While some migrant NGOs welcome the signing of the two documents, they also continue to lobby for more definite declarations from the ASEAN that would help protect migrant workers. Sana, of the Center for Migrant Advocacy, said they are pushing for the adoption of an ASEAN Charter that would facilitate the creation of a regional human rights mechanism. Within this, she said, would be a "clear mechanism" that would address the protection of the rights of migrant workers.

During their meeting, the ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to instruct a high-level task force that would draft the Charter to include a provision for a human rights body. The ministers hope that a consensus on the Charter would be reached in time for the next ASEAN summit, which will take place in Singapore in November.




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