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April 2012 Volume 19 Number 2
The 10 countries of Southeast Asia have over 600 million people, of whom 40 percent are in Indonesia. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are the major destinations; Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are the major countries sending workers abroad.<< back
Indonesia. The National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), which has 19 provincial representatives, complained in January 2012 that protecting Indonesians abroad was difficult because many workers left the country illegally. Some Indonesians fly to Batam, and travel by ferry to Malaysia and Singapore or fly to Gulf countries without work permits. Upon arrival, they often work illegally, making it hard to protect them.
The Manpower and Transmigration Ministry wants to change Indonesia's 2004 migration law to increase the emphasis on protecting Indonesian workers abroad; only eight of the 109 provisions in the current law relate to worker protection. The MTM says that its authority to regulate private recruiters known as PPTKIS is limited. Over 90 percent of the PPTKIS are in Jakarta, which is listed as the source of most migrants leaving Indonesia legally since many rural Indonesians come to Jakarta to meet with recruiters and leave the country.
The Domestic Worker Roadmap 2017 aims to stop sending Indonesians abroad as domestic workers by 2017. Most domestic workers are from West Java, where low wages and few job opportunities encourage out-migration. Remittances from all migrants were $7 billion in 2011.
Indonesia stopped sending domestic workers to Malaysia in June 2009, arguing that a bilateral agreement was needed to minimize abuse of domestic workers. Such an agreement was negotiated in December 2011, but without a minimum wage, which Indonesia said should be M$700 ($230) a month. In March 2012, talks were interrupted by Indonesian demands that domestic workers be paid extra if they were asked to clean more than one house or perform more than one task, that is, cooking, housekeeping, taking care of children or looking after the elderly.
There were 150,600 Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong at the end of 2011, and some protested during a March 2011 visit by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The domestic workers complained that they had to pay HK$21,000 to Indonesian agents to get jobs that pay HK$4,000 a month.
Indonesia, with a $1 trillion GDP in 2011, attracted a record $19 billion in FDI, about as much as India; a quarter of this FDI was from Singapore. Indonesia may be poised for sustained economic growth if it can, for instance, improve its infrastructure and conditions in the factories created by FDI. Nike, with over 700,000 workers employed by subcontractors, including 160,000 in Indonesia, agreed in January 2012 to pay 4,500 workers employed by PT Nikomas on Java $222 each to compensate them for unpaid overtime work.
Malaysia. Ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 85, argued strongly against the introduction of a minimum wage in winter 2012. Malaysia has some of the slowest productivity growth in southeast Asia, in part because three million migrant workers are a quarter of the labor force. The government is considering instituting a minimum wage of about M$850 a month; the poverty level income is M$760.
Mahathir says that introducing a minimum wage without raising productivity will fuel inflation. He says that productivity cannot be raised unless employers are weaned from easy access to migrant workers.
Philippines. The Filipino diaspora, equivalent to 10 percent of the 96 million Filipino residents, included 4.4 million Filipinos settled abroad in 2010, 4.3 million temporary overseas foreign workers (OFWs), and 705,000 irregular Filipinos abroad.
Remittances reduced the number of Filipinos in households with incomes below the poverty line to about 26 percent; without remittances, over 30 percent of Filipinos would have been poor. National Statistics Office data show that remittances benefit households receiving them, but upper-income classes in richer areas of the country gain more from overseas remittances than the poorer households, while poorer households gain more from internal remittances than richer ones, that is, from remittances sent from rural Filipinos employed in cities.
One reason for persisting Filipino poverty is a high birth rate. In 1970, the Philippines and Thailand had populations of about 37 million growing at around three percent a year. In 2010, there were 94 million Filipinos and 67 million Thais, the Filipino population growth rate was two percent while the Thai rate was 0.6 percent, and the Philippines was the largest rice importer while Thailand was the largest exporter.
About 1.5 million Filipinos went abroad in 2010, including over 1.1 million to work in land-based jobs and 350,000 to work on ships. The three-leading destinations for land-based OFWs were Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Hong Kong.
The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) reported that Filipinos serving on the world's ships remitted $4.3 billion in 2011, up from $3.8 billion in 2010 (total remittances were $21 billion in 2011, up from $6 billion in 2000). Some 375,000 Filipinos are a fourth of the estimated 1.5 million merchant seamen on the world's ships.
Singapore. A third of Singapore's 5.2 million residents are foreigners, both temporary foreign workers and permanent residents. The government, responding to criticism that it had opened immigration doors so wide that middle-class Singaporeans were adversely affected, announced in February 2012 that it would reduce the inflow of foreign workers by adjusting the ratios of foreign to local workers in manufacturing and services.
Beginning July 1, 2012, manufacturers may have a maximum 60 percent of foreign workers, down from 65 percent; the quota on migrants in services will drop from 50 percent to 45 percent. The dependency ratio ceiling for S-Pass holders in most firms, mostly mid-level skilled foreigners, will be reduced to 20 percent from 25 percent.
In revising the quotas, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said: "We have to reduce our dependence on foreign labor. It's not sustainable. It will test the limits of our space and infrastructure. A continued rapid infusion of foreign workers will also inevitably affect the Singaporean character of our society."
In 2011, the employment of foreign workers rose by 79,800 while the employment of Singaporeans rose by 36,600.
There are over 206,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore. Beginning January 1, 2013, they are to receive at least one day a week off from their work in private homes or be paid extra if they work all seven days. There were many reports of employers complaining about the day-off requirement.
Thailand. In 2009, a peak 1.3 million migrants were registered by 312,000 Thai employers, including 1.1 million Burmese. In 2010, the number of registered migrants fell to 930,000 with 207,000 employers. Many employers and migrants do not see value in paying the equivalent of a month's wages to register. To avoid trouble with police, migrants must have their original permits with them, not copies.
Registered migrants in Thailand are supposed to have their nationality verified by their countries of origin and receive passports into which their Thai work permits can be inserted. The nationality verification process is expanding as Burma opens more offices in Thailand and assigns labor attach‚s to help Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. Nevertheless, many Burmese and other migrant workers are unlikely to finish nationality verification by the new June 14, 2012 deadline.
The flooding that displaced Thai and migrant workers in summer and fall 2011 highlighted the links between brokers and Thai authorities, according to critics who allege that Thailand does too little to protect migrant workers.
Thailand signed MOUs with Bangladesh, Nepal and Vietnam in 2011 to admit migrant workers for labor-short sectors, which include working on fishing boats that stay on the open waters a year or more. The wages of deep-sea fishery workers are uncertain, as workers normally share 30 percent of the value of the catch for sorting the fish that are caught in nets.
A survey of Thai economists found that three-fourths believed migrant workers were vital to Thailand's economic expansion, but two-thirds believed that free movement of labor will not begin within ASEAN by 2015 as scheduled. Three-fourths thought that the problem of managing migrants would likely get worse.
Thailand's minimum wage rose to 300 baht ($10) a day April 1, 2012 in Bangkok and seven provinces.
Vietnam. Rising inflation, over 20 percent, is fueling worker strikes at foreign-owned assembly plants. Most Vietnamese manufacturing workers earn about $100 a month, compared to $300 a month in China.
Some employers want the Vietnam General Federation of Labor to represent workers more aggressively so that employers learn about worker complaints before they turn into strikes. For example, workers at one factory went on strike when their allotment of rice was reduced by the food caterer; the factory owner learned of the reduced portions only when the workers went on strike.