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The State of Labor Migration in South East Asia

Migration of people to other countries in search of employment has occurred throughout history, and is by no means a new occurrence.  This phenomenon has become prevalent in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines for instance, human resource is the main export.  In just the year 2000, more than 1 million…

Migration of people to other countries in search of employment has occurred throughout history, and is by no means a new occurrence.  This phenomenon has become prevalent in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines for instance, human resource is the main export.  In just the year 2000, more than 1 million Filipinos left home to seek work abroad as sailors, maids, nurses, and in other low-paying jobs.1  More and more South-east Asians have become wandering workers, moving out of their countries to work for their better-off neighbors.

The case of the Philippines

Many overseas workers eventually return to their home countries—but not before sending home substantial sums.  In the case of the Philippines, remittances from abroad account for over 10% of its GDP, enough to compensate for the opportunity cost of having over 8 million of its best and brightest workers abroad.  From January to November of 2006, remittances summed up to $11.4 billion, up 18% from the same period during 2005.2   This does not include the wads of cash returning in workers’ luggage.  Although poverty and unemployment are still a source of serious concern in the Philippines and many other labor-exporting countries, their situation would be far worse if the outflow of bodies and immense inflow of capital did not occur.

Labor migration in South East Asia

Out of the ten ASEAN countries, the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia export labor while Singapore and Brunei import it.  TheUN’s International Labor Organization believes that the total labor force of the worker exporting countries should grow by about a third within the next ten years.  However, labor migration, both legal and illegal, is growing twice as fast.  A 2005 study estimated that over 8.4 million Southeast Asians worked outside their home country.3  This figure fails to include the large number of illegal and undocumented workers. To combat the growing problem of illegal and undocumented workers, the leaders of ASEAN met on January 13th and signed an agreement to aid and regulate migrant workers.  Although the agreement is full of loopholes, it is a first step for governments to guarantee workers’ rights and welfare services. 4

Negative reception by the locals

Labor-importing nations are terrified that attempts to improve immigrant circumstances will only encourage more masses to enter their countries.  Competition for jobs is creating a negative response to the establishment of welfare structures for immigrant workers in these nations.  Malaysians believe that foreign workers have worsened crime rates. Additionally, over 59% of Thais believe that their government should stop admitting foreign workers, and even in Singapore, over half of the population opposes more foreign workers. 5


Opinions might change if the public received a more balanced picture of the pros and cons of importing labor to do the jobs that none of the locals would everconsider taking.  Locals need to realize that their economies are dependent on the foreign workers for stability.  These large migrations should not be thought of as a transient or temporary phenomenon.   Therefore, labor receiving countries should attempt to formulate a suitable migration policy based on longer run considerations of their labor market needs and basic human rights of migrant workers rather than ad hoc decisions.  Incentives and taxes may be levied on enterprises to discourage the perpetuation of unproductive non-competitive industries based on cheap unskilled foreign workers. At the same time, migrant-exporting countries should attempt to reduce undue dependence on overseas employment through efforts to reduce labor-outflow pressure at home.  It is a delicate balance that Southeast Asia has yet to strike.

Source: www.asiaecon.org |



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