July 2012 Volume 19 Number 3
Burma/Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi visited Burmese migrants in Thailand in May 2012, spotlighting the fact that over a million Burmese work in Thailand. The ILO in June 2013 agreed to lift sanctions on Burma after receiving pledges that the government will eliminate forced labor in the country by 2015; sanctions were imposed in 2000 because of the military's use of forced labor.
Opening to the world is bringing investment and tourists to Burma's 55 million residents, but corruption, crumbling infrastructure and lack of skilled labor may slow the gold rush. Wages are typically $100 a month in Burmese garment factories, but property prices in Yangon have risen sharply in anticipation of foreign investment. Some foreign operators of labor-intensive shoe and garment factories say that the "best" workers have migrated to Thailand, and that those who remain are not motivated by higher wages.
Indonesia. The Indonesian government in April 2012 ratified the 1990 UN Convention on International Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, making it the 54th country to do so.
In July 2012, a government task force called for halting the deployment of Indonesian domestic workers to Middle Eastern countries until governments there take steps to provide them with effective protection. There are an estimated 30,000 Indonesian domestic workers in Jordan despite a ban on deployments there.
Malaysia. Malaysia introduced the country's first minimum wage on May 1, 2012, requiring workers to be paid at least $M900 ($300) a month on the Malaysian Peninsula and M$800 in Sabah and Sarawak by the end of 2012. Foreign workers employed outside private homes are covered by the new minimum wage. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have minimum wages.
There were 1.8 million registered migrant workers in Malaysia in spring 2012, including 700,000 employed in manufacturing. The government said it would reduce the number of migrants by 10 to 20 percent by 2020: "We need to ensure that, as we cut down our dependence on foreign workers over time, we will be able to find substitution in the local workforce." The higher minimum wage, estimated to affect three million workers, could attract more local workers into "migrant jobs."
The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) complained of the high cost of migrant workers, saying that employers pay RM4 billion ($1.3 billion) a year in levies to the government for the privilege of hiring guest workers. Paying both levies and the minimum wage makes migrants expensive, according to the MEF, and justifies the government goal to reduce the share of migrants in the labor force from the current 10 percent to five percent by 2015.
NGO Tenanganita was in the news in May 2012 after asserting that Malaysia is not safe for migrant workers because enforcement agencies such as the volunteer group RELA stop migrants and check their IDs. Some migrants report that they are searched by RELA volunteers who refused to show identification and that their money is taken from them.
Malaysia has five million hectares of palm oil plantation and estimates that they require about 500,000 workers, that is, one worker for each 10 hectares. Rubber is more labor-intensive, requiring 275,000 workers for 1.1 million hectares. Minimum wages for harvesting palm oil fruit are M$900 in peninsular Malaysia and M$800 in Sabah and Sarawak, the newly announced minimum wage. Many of the workers employed on plantations are migrants from Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Philippines. There are up to 10 million Filipinos abroad, and June 7 is celebrated as Filipino Migrants Day or "Araw ng Pasasalamat" to mark the signing of the Republic Act 8042 or the˙Migrant Workers Act of 1995.
The government said it has signed 70 bilateral labor agreements with countries in which Filipinos work. Hans Leo Cacdac, head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, announced in July 2012 that the POEA was banning lawful deployment of Filipino workers to 15 countries, including Lebanon, Nepal, and Zimbabwe. The POEA is reviewing the status of deployments to Libya and Iraq.
The POEA may approve deployment only to countries that have "existing labor and social laws protecting the rights of workers; is a signatory to and/or a ratifier of multilateral conventions, declarations or resolutions relating to the protection of workers; and has concluded a bilateral agreement or arrangement with the government on the protection of the rights of OFWs."
Singapore. Singapore had 5.2 million residents in 2011, including 3.3 million citizens, 532,000 foreigners who have permanent residence status, and 1.2 million foreign workers.
Thailand. Employers complained about the minimum wage hike on April 1, 2012 to 300 baht ($10) a day in Bangkok and most industrial areas, and expressed fears of a labor shortage if Burma attracts foreign investment and Burmese workers stay home. Some Thai employers ended meal allowances and other bonuses after the minimum wage rose, prompting protests from Burmese migrant employees.
In one case, the minimum wage at a shrimp exporter rose from 147 baht to 247 baht a day on April 1, and the firm eliminated a 20-baht-a-day food allowance and reduced a bonus for perfect attendance. Construction and food-related industries are most concerned about the minimum wage hike; food processors say that a third of their workers are Burmese. Food manufacturers are discussing labor-saving mechanization and moving some factories to Burma to cope with higher labor costs.
The Thai government manages labor migration by requiring employers to register their foreign workers periodically. In exchange for fees equivalent to about a month's wages, the government issues one-year work permits that also provide health insurance. Many employers pay registration fees and deduct them from migrant wages, and hold worker permits until the fees have been repaid. This makes even registered migrants "illegal" when stopped by police, since copies of valid work permits are not accepted.
The government in 2009 began a nationality verification process that required migrant workers to obtain passports from their countries of origin, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, so that work permits could be inserted in passports that are retained by workers. Nationality verification, which costs 1,050 baht if workers are brought to centers by their employers and 2,000 to 2,400 baht if verification is done via the 60 approved middlemen, was to have been completed by early 2011, then extended until early 2012, and in June 2012 extended again to December 14, 2012.
There are an estimated two million migrant workers in Thailand. The Thai government said that extending nationality verification would affect 886,507 migrant workers, including 565,058 Burmese, 222,430 Cambodians and 99,019 Laotians.
Future migrant workers are to arrive in Thailand with passports and visas at a cost of 4,500 baht ($143) ? Bt1,900 for a work permit, Bt600 for a physical examination, and Bt2,000 for visas. The Thai Ministry of Labor in June 2012 announced plans to require female foreign workers who become pregnant to return to their countries of origin.