Migrant Workers

A Year of Growing Momentum to Protect Migrant Rights in Southeast Asia

18 December 2017

By Julia Batho, Research Fellow, IHRB

Today, International Migrants Day, 18 December 2017, is a timely moment to review recent efforts in Southeast Asia on labour migration governance, ethical recruitment, and protection of migrant workers’ rights, particularly in the context of supply chains.

This International Migrants Day also marks the fifth anniversary of IHRB’s Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity, which set out expectations for employers and recruiters at every stage of a migrant worker’s journey - from recruitment through employment, to the end of contract. Now re-launched at www.dhaka-principles.org, the Dhaka Principles are available in 18 languages, including Bahasa Indonesian, Urdu and Thai.

IHRB’s Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity set out expectations for employers and recruiters at every stage of a migrant worker’s journey from recruitment through employment, to the end of contract

The past year has seen renewed focus on migration in Southeast Asia through a variety of inter-governmental initiatives and multi-stakeholder networks. There is growing recognition throughout the region of the need for collaborative efforts to fight the abusive recruitment and exploitative employment of migrant workers, and to promote safe and beneficial labour migration.

Promoting dialogue

In May, the member countries of the Colombo Process - a government-driven, consultative forum on the management of overseas employment and contractual labour for migrant sending countries - met in Bangkok to advance ethical recruitment policies and practices. Among the actions to be pursued, governments identified key priorities in three main areas, namely: strengthening national regulatory frameworks, improving cooperation with migrant receiving countries, and strengthening cooperation with the private sector.

Ethical recruitment, transparency in supply chains and protection and redress mechanisms the most urgent issues requiring joint action

In August, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime launched a new collaboration platform between business and governments to combat labour exploitation in supply chains. At the launch event in Perth, Australia, members of the newly established Bali Process Government and Business Forum identified ethical recruitment, transparency in supply chains and protection and redress mechanisms as the most urgent issues requiring joint action. The three topics were selected as the key priorities for the Forum’s 2017/2018 workplan.

A few months later, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. Although not legally binding, this agreement by ASEAN members stipulates general principles to safeguard the interests and welfare of migrant workers, including by prohibiting the overcharging of recruitment fees and confiscation of passports by recruiters or employers, and by ensuring migrants are able to join trade unions and associations.

At the sub-regional level, the six member states of the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT Process) convened in Thailand to develop a set of non-binding guidelines for fair recruitment, which are also expected to be used as reference for the development of bilateral agreements against trafficking.

2017 has also seen wider intergovernmental consultations and negotiations, including input from non-governmental stakeholders and business, as part of the development of the UN led Global Compact for Migration which aims to strengthen state cooperation in ensuring safe, regular and orderly migration between countries.

A framing for action

While some may argue that non-binding principles and recommendations - as enshrined in the ASEAN Consensus and the COMMIT guidelines - are likely to have limited impact at the national level, the crucial role of regional dialogue in advancing state policy-making is undeniable.

Closer interaction between all stakeholders and new political commitments expressed by governments in Southeast Asia represent vital steps in enhancing understanding of existing problems and promoting cooperation in the development of practical solutions to address migrant workers’ issues. The growing momentum also provides a timely opportunity for business-led initiatives, such as the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, convened by IHRB, to influence policy change and advocate for the effective regulation and monitoring of the recruitment industry along recruitment corridors and at the national level.

Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment members have identified Southeast Asia - in particular Thailand and Malaysia - as key targets for engagement over the coming years

Indeed, in light of these developments, Leadership Group members have identified Southeast Asia - in particular Thailand and Malaysia - as key targets for engagement over the coming years. Through collaboration with other initiatives and advocacy with local governments and inter-governmental processes, the Leadership Group is committed to achieving concrete progress in increasing the demand for and supply of ethically sourced labour in the region.

The need for consistent messages

Regional consultative processes have the potential to enhance mutual trust and improve policy convergence and harmonisation, a crucial element in the fields of labour migration and ethical recruitment. The dissemination of consistent key messages and approaches across the region, as well as through business leaderships, can help minimise divergences between labour sending and receiving countries and develop common ground for action in Southeast Asia.

The promotion of internationally recognised standards and frameworks for action, such as the Dhaka Principles and the Employer Pays Principle - will help ensure that consistent messages are communicated across the region (and beyond).

The promotion of internationally recognised standards and frameworks for action, such as the Dhaka Principles and the Employer Pays Principle - will help ensure that consistent messages are communicated across the region (and beyond).

The growing momentum of strengthened regional dialogue in Southeast Asia is undoubtedly encouraging, and represents an important step for improving labour migration governance and advancing responsible recruitment and migrant rights protection in the region.

It is now time to focus on meaningful participation and engagement of all relevant actors in policy development and implementation. Regional talks will only have long-lasting impacts and bring real change to the lives of migrant workers if they are translated into effective collective action on the ground. 

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