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Changing the conversation on labour migration in Southeast Asia

A regional study interrogates some of the commonly held assumptions about which factors lead to better outcomes for migrant workers.

© ILO/Jean‐Pierre Pellissier.

According to the United Nations, the number of migrants from Southeast Asia heading to other countries within the region has increased more than fivefold during the last two and a half decades, reaching nearly seven million. And this official data does not capture the millions more who are employed without legal status in the region.

Despite this rapid growth in the number of women and men migrating within Southeast Asia, the outcomes for migrant workers remain poorly understood. While assumptions are often made about the end result of these movements and how best to ensure safe and rewarding experiences for migrants, the collection and analysis of empirical data has been very limited to date. 

Among the consequences of migration that have been more thoroughly examined, remittance flows have arguably received the most extensive attention. But while this topic is undoubtedly important, the heavy emphasis placed on the scale of remittances can come at the expense of a more balanced and migrant-centred understanding of the results of migration. Evidence suggests that the relationship between remittances and development is varied and complex, which raises the question of whether the often-unrestrained euphoria about their potential is actually justified. 

Another prominent framework through which migration experiences within Southeast Asia are understood is human trafficking. An unending series of studies continue to document the large number of migrant workers who are trafficked into exploitation. However, the probity of categorising migrants’ experiences into a simplistic binary of ‘trafficked’ or ‘not trafficked’ has been strongly questioned. In particular, the focus on victimhood and criminality within the trafficking discourse can serve to whitewash the root causes of migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation, diverting attention away from fundamental questions of economic and social justice.

The focus on victimhood and criminality within the trafficking discourse can serve to whitewash the root causes of migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.

To inform their interventions with more nuanced data, the International Labour Organiation and International Organization for Migration collaborated on a large-scale regional survey of over 1,800 returned migrants. The survey results were triangulated with 96 qualitative interviews with returned migrant workers and other stakeholders to obtain greater assurance of their validity and a broader range of perspectives.

A key analytical tool developed for the study was the Migration Outcomes Index, which broadens the way migration outcomes are measured by combining economic and social indicators at the individual respondent level. The result is a single number score, providing an accessible benchmark for comparing differences between groups of migrants, measuring progress over time and identifying the key factors that contribute to positive or negative outcomes. 

Focusing on changes in the lives of migrant workers and their families rather than in remittance flows, and balancing the importance of economic and social elements in the calculus of migration experiences, the Migration Outcomes Index provides a holistic alternative to the prevailing metrics. Much like the intent in establishing the Human Development Index, it was created “to shift the focus from national income accounting to people-centred policies”.

Overall, the study found migration outcomes to be fairly balanced among returned migrant workers, with a normal distribution between very positive and very negative experiences. However, the chances of having a positive result are unequally shared, as the demographic profile of migrant workers was found to be an important determinant of their socio-economic returns on migration. For example, the risk of a negative outcome was found to be higher among women because their work is often undervalued and affords fewer labour rights protections.

To obtain an understanding of how external factors shape migration outcomes, the study traced migrants back through their journeys – testing some of the commonly held beliefs about which practices and conditions contribute to better or worse outcomes. Many development actors place an emphasis on changing the behaviour of migrant workers to prevent exploitation and abuse, particularly through encouraging the use of regular migration channels. The thinking is that migrants are making risky decisions in going abroad irregularly and that is what is putting them in harm’s way. 

But the study data suggests otherwise. The problem is not that migrant workers are making the ‘wrong’ choices; it is that they are very vulnerable to abuse regardless of their decisions. Irrespective of their legal status or the type of work they are employed in, labour rights abuses against migrants are widespread in Southeast Asia. Sectoral research conducted in Thailand and Malaysia has documented that women and men migrant workers face exploitative working conditions in the fishing sector, domestic work, construction, poultry, hospitality, sex work, electronics, palm oil and others. 

The problem is not that migrant workers are making the ‘wrong’ choices; it is that they are very vulnerable to abuse regardless of their decisions.

Because they are typically recruited to reduce the labour costs of employers, wage-related abuses are among the most prevalent types of labour rights violations experienced by migrant workers. The average migrant works 60–70 hours per week, for pay that is well-below the minimum wage in Thailand and Malaysia if overtime is considered.

Therefore, the most important factor for improving outcomes is ensuring that all migrants benefit from basic labour rights such as the minimum wage and overtime pay, including women and men employed in the informal economy. Many migrant workers are employed in sectors of work that are not even covered by the minimum wage rules in Thailand and Malaysia or are not paid a legal wage due to non-compliance by employers.

Conversely, the research findings did not indicate that regular migration is essential to better outcomes, and its impact appears to be heavily dependent upon how effectively policies are implemented in specific migration corridors. Until policies are enacted and enforced that make regular migration a more clearly beneficial choice, it should be carefully considered whether interventions to support behaviour change of migrant workers are justified.

Lack of assurance of receiving labour rights protection contributes to a situation where migration within Southeast Asia is often a considerable gamble for migrant workers and their family members. Migrants currently have limited ability to control whether they have a positive or negative migration experience, regardless of the decisions they make. To a great extent, improving the odds of a positive outcome requires changes to policy and practice by duty bearers – governments, employers and recruitment agencies – rather than to the behaviour of migrant workers.

The full report is available for download on the ILO website: Risks and rewards: Outcomes of labour migration in South-East Asia

About the author

Benjamin Harkins is a migration and human rights specialist who has spent nearly a decade in Southeast Asia working on labour migration, human trafficking and refugee issues. He is currently a Technical Officer with the International Labour Organization’s TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme in Bangkok, Thailand.

Ben welcomes feedback in the comments below or by email at benharkins@gmail.com.


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