Sitting in a small restaurant in bustling Bangkok, being served by a 21-year-old Cambodian waiter triggered a lot of emotions for me. The waiter came from Banteay Meanchey, a province bordering Thailand. He has been working there alongside a few friends from the same province, unaware of the potential dangers and his vulnerability of being away from home if his job stopped tomorrow.

This is not a unique story as Thailand is both a key destination for migrant workers from neighbouring countries, and a country of origin for migrant workers to other countries. There are migrant workers across ASEAN-from Cambodia to Thailand, from Thailand to Malaysia, and from Malaysia to Singapore. While labour migration contributes to both the country of origin and country of destination, the lack of protection and rights for these migrant workers have been a major concern.

Earlier this month, it was good to see social protection gaining policy momentum in Southeast Asia with ASEAN members having the courage to challenge the conventional assertion that universal social protection systems are not affordable. In Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022, under Cambodia’s chairmanship, ASEAN included social protection in its Joint Communique of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM). Now Cambodia is entrusted with the key role to lead the development of ASEAN Regional Guidance on the Role of Social Work and Service Workforce Strengthening in social protection. This illustrates Cambodia’s and ASEAN’s growing commitment to elevate social protection to new levels of multinational investment and cooperation. Potentially, it will benefit millions of people by addressing this previous under-investment and lack of coverage in the Southeast Asian bloc.

This milestone marks a significant upturn in interest and commitment to social protection. Among Southeast Asian member states, only Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand are considered to have strong social protection systems. As long ago as October 9, 2013, the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection was adopted with commitments to build interlinked and mutually reinforcing regional political, economic and cultural communities. The ASEAN Joint Communique in 2020 again referred to these commitments, so it was disappointing that in the 2021 Joint Communique there was no mention of social protection despite the tremendous impact of Covid-19 on the livelihoods of millions of people within the region. This was a regrettable step backward in ASEAN’s joint effort.

However, now in 2022 Oxfam hopes this cooperation among the ASEAN member states will benefit millions of migrant workers and their families. It means that 2.8 million registered migrant workers in Thailand (2019), 1.98 million migrant workers in Malaysia (2019), 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore (2019), or 6.9 million migrant workers in ASEAN bloc, will have a greater chance of accessing social protection benefits. This workforce makes an important economic contribution to both sending and host countries. In Cambodia, migrant workers sent their families a total of $3 billion in remittances in 2021 alone. In Thailand in 2020, financial remittance was reported to be $7.88 billion and the Philippines reports $34.88 billion annually. At the same time, host countries benefit from billions of dollars in tax revenue and the increased labour force.

There will be a long journey ahead with difficult negotiations but with this cooperation, ASEAN member states can work towards better, more coordinated social protection policies and legislation that provides migrant workers and their families with access to social protection.

This cooperation will also make ASEAN better prepared for the increasing risk of climate change and global epidemic.

A 2021 World Bank study found that Covid-19 has added 88 million to the estimated total of 150 million people globally now living in extreme poverty. This means that 150 million people are living on less than $1.90 per day. Here in Cambodia we have been hit hard with a report of economic growth in 2020 contracting 3.1% and those living in poverty increasing to 17.8 per cent in 2019-2020 (compared to 13.5 per cent in 2014).

This economic challenge increases with climate change which is now “on our doorstep’’. In a recent study, scientists estimate that up to 132 million people will be falling into extreme poverty in 2030 due to climate change. Cambodia is highly vulnerable to the risks and impacts of climate change – ranking 46th out of 163 countries.

A stronger social protection system and multinational cooperation across ASEAN will help to prepare for the unprecedented climate change and pandemic impacts. In the worst-case scenario, farmers can access compensation for lost crops, youth and women can access unemployment benefits when they lose their jobs and senior citizens can access pensions and healthcare in the absence of available support from their families.

This cooperation will contribute to ASEAN being better prepared for the rapidly ageing population who are the most vulnerable and the least protected.

Thailand’s ageing population is expected to reach 22.8 per cent in 2035, Singapore’s over 65s will be 26.6 per cent of the population in the same year. Vietnam estimates to have 20 per cent of its population ageing by 2038 and here in Cambodia, we are not immune with the Kingdom’s population older than 65 years estimated to be 7.7 per cent of the total population by 2035.

Oxfam and partners are committed to working with the Cambodian government and countries in the ASEAN bloc to advance these commitments and make them a reality for the people of the region.

Let us make ASEAN a better home, our home, a home for all.

Sophoan Phean is National Director of Oxfam in Cambodia.

The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s own.