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AEC ‘won’t spur labour flow’

Migrant workers from the Philippines play bingo on their day off in Hong Kong's central business district
Migrant workers from the Philippines play bingo on their day off in Hong Kong's central business district. BLOOMBERG

AEC ‘won’t spur labour flow’

Despite the increased integration of ASEAN economies, cross-border flows of skilled migrants will be minimal when the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) takes shape in 2015, an economist from the Asian Development Bank said yesterday.

Speaking at a conference at the bank’s Phnom Penh headquarters, Jayant Menon, lead economist at the ADB’s office of regional integration, said that he expected the 2015 integration deadline to achieve little in terms of skilled labour mobility and that more attention is needed on low-skilled migration policy, which is not a focus of the AEC.

“We won’t see a tangible major transformation as in the EU, where skilled workers and non-skilled workers hop around all over the place quite easily,” Menon said.

The AEC aims to establish a single market for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In theory, on December 31, 2015, borders will fall and trade, labour and services will flow. But it’s not that straightforward.

The AEC migration strategy focuses on skilled workers only with a handful of professions agreed upon by member states to move freely over borders. These include accountants, architects, dentists, doctors, engineers, nurses, surveyors and tourism industry workers.

“The day where Cambodian trained doctors will be able to jump on a plane and go and work in Malaysia or Singapore will be a long, long way away,” Menon said.

Secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, Pan Sorasak, said that, with time, improvements to training and increased technical know-how from foreign companies would enable Cambodia to contribute more highly skilled professionals to the regional workforce.

“[This] allow people to be better qualified, so that they can go across borders to provide services to other countries such as Singapore, Thailand or Malaysia at lower wages,” he said.

While government data show the number of Cambodian migrant workers abroad in 2013 was 22,300 – down 36 per cent from 34,804 in 2012 – the figures leave out the number of illegal Cambodian emigrants who have sought work abroad.

Rights groups estimated in 2012 that 160,000 illegal Cambodian migrants were working in Thailand alone.

Cambodia’s outflow of workers is not unique to the region; however, the issue of illegal migration – which development agencies say ASEAN cannot ignore – has been left off the 2015 AEC agenda.

“ASEAN is dealing with this through bilateral negotiations, but I think it can try and address it regionally, which is what it has to do,” the ADB’s Menon said.

While efforts to coordinate regional policy on illegal migration continues in the shadows of the AEC, rights groups say that it is taking far too long, with many migrants left vulnerable.

In 2007, the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which outlines decent working conditions and protection from abuse for intra-ASEAN workers, was adopted by member states.

The challenge, however, remains that an ASEAN framework instrument needs to be created to enforce those protections. The instrument has been in draft form for years as member states struggle to reach a regional consensus.

“The majority of ASEAN is happy and want to cover the protection of migrant workers families and include the undocumented migrant workers, but one or two country do not want this,” said Ya Navuth, executive director of the Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility Cambodia.

Navuth said he would like the framework instrument adopted before the AEC is established and for it to be legally binding, requiring ASEAN members to align their laws.

Manuel Imson, a senior program officer at the International Labour Organization, is also concerned with the slow progress and is expecting an agreed instrument to be put in place before year-end.

“The fact remains that labour mobility is concerned with protection of migrant workers, which is the very essence of that instrument, and therefore we would like to think that the ASEAN instrument will put strong provisions that will strengthen the protection of migrant workers after 2015,” he said.

ASEAN officials did not immediately respond to an email request yesterday.

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