Asian nations relying on migrant workers must develop policies that respect human rights, writes Asia Sentinel’s Philip Bowring

East Asia’s economic growth has brought in its train large-scale migration of temporary workers from poorer to richer states.

The policies directed towards such migrants have varied from state to state, and these discrepancies have now been highlighted by a recent controversy in Hong Kong – the request by a handful of foreign domestic helpers to be granted permanent residence in Hong Kong. Whatever the outcome of their lawsuit, the request by the work-visa holders for permanent residence could have region-wide implications.

Filipina maids crowd the phones to call home at a shopping mall on their day off in Singapore. Pic: AP.

The positive aspects of temporary migration in Asia are well enough known: For the supplying countries, migrants relieve unemployment and provide a remittance stream of foreign exchange which supports consumption. For the receiving countries, such policies provide low-paid workers who do undesirable jobs, enable middle-class wives to work, and hold down manufacturing costs, helping industries remain internationally competitive – all without burdening state education and health budgets. Negatives include the breakup of families in the supplying countries and the creation of a dependency culture among remittance receivers.

There are negative economic and ethical implications for the recipient countries as well. In Hong Kong’s case, there are some 250,000 such temporary workers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, and they constitute 7 percent of the working population. Singapore is even more reliant on this group for construction, manufacturing as well as domestic employment. Work permit holders, mostly those with low skills, are about 29 percent of the working population. Maids alone number about 200,000, or one for every five households. Indonesia is the largest source followed by Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Maids in Singapore are excluded from various protections under the Employment Act with no compulsory rest days, maximum working hours, minimum wage or termination notice, and they have no right to legal aid. Some employers use closed-circuit cameras to monitor their maids. Although violent abuse is vigorously prosecuted when reported, authorities suspect much goes unreported. Last year 2,530 Indonesian maids fled their employers and sought embassy refuge. A suggestion by a government minister that they be given a compulsory rest day was met with a howl of protest in the media. Pay averages about US$3,500 a year – at least according to a case brought by the government against maid agencies for wage fixing. Per capita GDP in Singapore is the equivalent of US$43,000.

Nor is the large-scale temporary migrant phenomenon confined to the highly developed, rich city-states. In Malaysia there are about 1.9 million legal temporary migrants and perhaps another 1 million or more “undocumented workers,” the euphemism for illegal ones. Bangladesh, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines, is a major source for Malaysian plantations, construction sites, restaurants and households. Cases of abuse are frequent with the undocumented workers particularly vulnerable. Thailand relies heavily on Burmese and Cambodians for dirty and dangerous work. As of 2009 there were 1.29 million registered workers, but the actual total could be double that. Of the registered ones, 129,000 were domestic helpers. Migrants have replaced Thais as domestic helpers in many middle-class Bangkok households. Taiwan and Japan have much less reliance on temporary foreign labor; Taiwan employs some 90,000 from the Philippines, mostly in domestic work, but the 350,000 Filipinos in Japan are mostly in entertainment-related industries.

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