Is Asean doing enough for migrant workers?
Labor mobility has been a key feature of the socioeconomic landscape of Asean economies from the 1980s. With the launch of the Asean Economic Community in 2015 seeking a more integrated regional economic strategy, migration is only expected to increase. Contributory factors to this intraregional mobility include demographic transition, huge income gaps between economies, the porosity of borders and natural disasters.
Despite the positive economic impacts migrant workers bring to destination countries, myths about them remain widespread and deeply ingrained in host societies. These prejudices — explicit or implicit — manifest in the ways migrant workers are treated at workplaces and during encounters with the health and legal systems. Forget about the skyscrapers they build, or the “dangerous, dirty and difficult” jobs they do, causing regular injuries and deaths, to keep the destination country thriving. Migrant workers are still largely perceived as criminals, freeloaders and threats — a misperception with no solid basis. Newspapers are more interested in making sensational headlines on how migrant workers “cause troubles” than explaining the reasons for migration or irregularity. And all too often, politicians are happy to build on the populist trope of the dangerous “other.”
Here are some facts. Low-skilled migrant workers often seek opportunities in higher-income countries out of desperation and poverty resulting from massive inequity or natural disasters in their home countries. Contrary to the perception that being “irregular,” “illegal” or “undocumented” is a matter of choice (and therefore, their fault), a large number of migrants fall into the “undocumented pool” due to trafficking and deception, the confiscation of documents by employers or law enforcers, labor market inflexibilities (e.g., locked-in work contracts), and corruption along the labor supply chain. As a result, many migrant workers face insurmountable challenges to avail themselves of basic social and health services and live a life of dignity.
Asean has made tremendous progress on the issue of Universal Health Coverage (UHC). However, UHC also often translates to citizen entitlements, with migrant workers still largely left behind. Beyond the vexing issue of cost, they are subjected to harassment and intimidation by employers, health services staff and law enforcers, making them reluctant to seek attention until it is too late. And there are little or no effort to make whatever care they receive culturally sensitive. From the public health point of view, this can have disastrous outcomes. The tendency to avoid contact with government or health officials can easily facilitate the spread of communicable diseases, especially in times of pandemic emergencies. Likewise, the practice of having immigration counters inside public hospitals, as seen in some places in Malaysia, is against the basic rights to health care and health interests of the wider community, not to mention the doctors’ code of ethics.
The social protection of migrant workers should continue to be among Asean’s top priorities. No doubt, there have been positive developments such as Thailand’s Compulsory Migrant Health Insurance Scheme, the Philippines’ policy to require its outward-bound migrant workers to enroll with PhilHealth, and the Malaysian Foreign Workers Hospitalization and Surgical Insurance Scheme and Social Security Organization (which recently included migrant workers). Nevertheless, numerous problems remain with these schemes, especially with regard to coverage adequacy, benefits, eligibility, enforcement and implementation. A lot of work is yet to be carried out to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of these existing programs.
Given the repeatedly trumpeted 2030 SDG Agenda slogan of “Leaving No One Behind,” Asean’s member countries should pose an honest question to themselves: Have we done enough not to leave the roughly 7 million migrant workers in the region behind?
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Raudah Yunus is a researcher, writer and social activist based in Kuala Lumpur. Gideon Lasco is a physician, anthropologist and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist.
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