Asean reaches regional consensus over rights of migrant workers
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Asean reaches regional consensus over rights of migrant workers

ALMOST 10 years of policy jostling between Southeast Asian nations has culminated in a pact which pledges to uphold the human rights of migrant workers in the region.

On Nov 14, the 31st Asean Summit in Manila concluded with Chair and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and fellow heads of state signing the Asean Consensus on the Protection and the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The behind-the-scenes story is that from September until some three days before the Nov 13-14 Asean Summit, labour and foreign affairs ministers debated and subsequently approved the contents of this “landmark” document, as Duterte said in opening the Asean Summit.

Like in any region, international migration and rights of migrants is a touchy issue. Since the Asean Declaration on the Protection and the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007, countries that send migrants including Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines; those who both send and receive like Malaysia and Thailand; and indeed Singapore which receives migrants, have been grappling with what a “regional instrument” for migrant workers might look like. A mandate of the Declaration was to host the annual Asean Forum on Migrant Labour, and a regional instrument had remained a point of contention at each forum.

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Migrant workers from Burma clean fishing nets aboard a trawler after a fishing trip in the Gulf of Thailand in Samut Sakhon Province, west of Bangkok, Thailand, on Sept 3, 2013. Source: AP

It is no accident that the Consensus was reached in 2017 in the Philippines, which had also played an important role in achieving the 2007 Declaration. Millions of Filipinos work abroad in Asean and other parts of the world. According to the World Bank, personal remittances accounted for a whopping 10.2 percent of the Philippines economy in 2016.

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When the Philippines took over as Asean Chair this year, it spurred momentum to achieve the establishment of a regional instrument. But last April, at a summit of labour ministers, the Philippines changed tactics and proposed the Consensus’ adoption by saying that it is “not legally binding.”  Indonesia protested and then blocked the immediate adoption of the Consensus.

For better or worse, Asean’s decision-making process for the past 50 years has been based upon consensus rather than majority rule. The regional bloc strictly adheres to the core principles stipulated in its charter: consensus, non-interference, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and unity in diversity.


From left, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia President Joko Widodo and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, join hands during a family photo before the 31st Asean Summit in Manila, Philippines on Nov. 13, 2017. Source: Reuters/Aaron Favila/Pool


As for the migrant workers Consensus, the Asean Secretariat said in a release it is a “living and evolving document.” It at least, however, establishes clear policy guidelines for member-countries on how to handle migrant workers.

The document represents Asean’s version of the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, enacted on Dec 18, 1990. Though not a perfect document, the Consensus now provides the framework for member-states to do formal policy actions surrounding migrant workers. It even adopted a UN-style approach: that member-states should annually give updates on how the countries are adhering to the provisions of the Consensus.

The 24-page document proclaims the rights of migrant workers in both sending and receiving countries including: the right to be visited by family members; retain passports and government-issued work documents; to a fair trial; to file grievances in receiving states; to freedom of movement; to access employment-related information; to be issued an employment contract; to fair workplace treatment; to fair and appropriate remuneration; to remit money using any remittance channel; and to join trade unions and associations.

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Migrant workers from Bangladesh eat at an airport parking lot which has been turned into an immigration depot in Sepang, Malaysia. Source: AP

The Consensus stressed protecting women migrant workers, even if without an explicit reference to domestic workers. Indeed, the tenth Asean Forum on Migrant Labor two weeks before the Asean Summit had approved 19 recommendations to protect domestic workers.

The inclusion of undocumented workers in the mandate of the Consensus was a surprise. Covering those “who became undocumented through no fault of their own,” receiving states are obliged to “resolve the cases” of these workers.

At least 19.2 million Asean citizens are migrants residing overseas, of which 6.7 million are within Southeast Asia itself. Singapore has long grappled with issues relating to migrant workers’ welfare while citizens complain about incoming droves of foreign workers. Malaysia faces similar issues, and undocumented or irregular migration — particularly of Indonesians and Filipinos— to eastern Malaysia has seen frequent raids by immigration authorities. Thailand continues to manage growing labour migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region coming from neighbouring Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.

These ongoing challenges highlight the importance of Asean adopting the Consensus. Incoming Asean Chair and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called it one of three concrete achievements of the Manila summit – the other two being a framework for the code of conduct on the South China Sea, and the Asean-Hong Kong free trade agreement.

SEE ALSO: Asean at 50: Region marches towards peace and development, away from human rights


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hands over the gavel to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a transfer of ASEAN Chairmanship at the closing ceremonies of the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits, November 14, 2017 in Manila, Philippines. Source: Reuters/Aaron Favila/Pool

When Lee, the leader of a migrant-receiving country said the leaders “adopted” the Asean Consensus, it was sweet victory for Asean leaders and migration bureaucrats past and present. Not even the European Union has been able to adopt a regional instrument for migration, let alone migrants’ rights.

Its adoption comes on the third year of formal regional integration – especially economic integration – by Asean. The adoption might have also made leaders realise that migrants’ rights are an economic and political proposition, with labour mobility becoming costly and thus posing barriers to maximising the benefits of migration to both origin and receiving countries.

The world will now watch how Asean countries handle migrants as the Consensus is implemented across these countries. There are early doubts on the effectiveness of this instrument. For now, however, analysts will wonder with awe how come a touchy issue within Asean – a grouping defined by non-interference – led to agreement on migration.

Jeremaiah Opiniano is a PhD student in Geography at the University of Adelaide. He writes for a non-profit media group in Manila called the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) Journalism Consortium which will soon be revived ( He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas.