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October 2014, Volume 21, Number 4

Southeast Asia

The ADB and ILO released a report in August 2014 exploring the potential impacts of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) plans to lower barriers to the free movement of goods, capital and workers at the end of 2015. (www.ilo.org/asia/whatwedo/events/WCMS_300205/lang--en/index.htm) The AEC lowers barriers to the cross-border movement of skilled workers, and the ADB-ILO report projects an additional 14 million jobs in trade, construction and transportation due to closer economic integration by 2025.

Relatively few workers are expected to take advantage of freedom of movement among the 10-ASEAN member states, which is limited initially to accountants, architects, dentists, doctors, engineers, nurses, surveyors and tourism industry workers.

Burma. The Overseas Employment Agency Federation in September 2014 announced that it would begin sending Burmese workers to Taiwan. Burmese migrants are in 15 Asian countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Japan.

The government in August 2014 released the results of a new census that found 51 million people, far fewer than the 61 million extrapolated from the last census in 1983. The March 2014 census found almost two million more women than men, and census takers acknowledged missing over a million people in Kachin and Karen states that are under the control of rebels. Another million or more Rohingya were excluded from the census. Many Buddhists in western Rakine state where Rohingya are concentrated consider these often Bengali-speakers to be unauthorized migrants.

Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu, the leader of the 969 movement, addressed a similar Buddhist Power Force movement in Sri Lanka in September 2014. Burma and Sri Lanka are majority Buddhist, and the movement in both countries attack Muslims, who are in the minority.

Cambodia. Over 200,000 unauthorized Cambodians in Thailand returned after a military coup in May 2014. The Cambodian government, in an effort to encourage lawful migration, designated 50 recruiters to help Cambodian workers to migrate to Thailand legally for $49.

Some of the designated recruiters apparently cheated workers. In August 2014, APTSE & C (Cambodia) Resources charged 187 workers $260 to send them to Thailand, where Thai police said their documents were forged and returned the migrants to Cambodia. The Cambodian government, which acknowledged that it does not monitor recruitment agencies unless it receives complaints, says that 660,000 Cambodians live in Thailand.

Indonesia. In recent years, about 500,000 Indonesians a year have left the country to work abroad, including 300,000 women going abroad to be domestic workers. Remittances of almost $5 billion a year are almost one percent of GDP.

In 2011, the Indonesian government banned the deployment of workers to most Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. In response, many recruiters provided the workers they send abroad with tourist visas to leave Indonesia and enter Gulf oil exporting countries. The government in July 2014 said that 17 recruitment agencies had lost their licenses by defying the deployment ban and attempting to send workers via the tourist-visa route. Some migrant advocates predicted that the recruiters involved would soon be back in business under new names.

The Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI) inspected a training center in September 2014 and found more than 300 migrants in a facility certified for 60. Recruiters are required to train domestic workers before they go abroad, and the 10 recruiters involved in operating the center risk loss of their licenses.

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi) won the July 2014 presidential elections by 53-47 percent, becoming the first president not linked to Suharto, the ex-general who ruled for 32 years before being overthrown in 1998. Indonesia has the world's fourth-largest population, 250 million, and is the world's most populous Muslim country.

Jokowi is the first president who is not from the military or the elite. After the Constitutional Court ruled that Jokowi won, many analysts called Indonesia the most democratic country in southeast Asia, noting that Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore have not had a democratic handover to the political opposition.

Jokowi promised to improve the efficiency of the bureaucracy and reduce corruption through electronic budgeting, purchasing and audits; increase infrastructure spending; eliminate energy subsidies; and address economic inequality. However, Jokowi will have to deal with a House of Representatives in which the opposition controls two-thirds of the seats.

Malaysia. Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Richard Riot Jaem in September 2014 said there were 5.8 million migrant workers in Malaysia, but only 2.9 million or half were properly registered. A third of the jobs offered by the 600,000 small- and medium-sized enterprises in Malaysia are filled by foreigners, mostly migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh.

Most migrants enter Malaysia legally, but many become unauthorized as they are transferred between employers or work extra jobs in Malaysia. Some stay longer than the two years provided by their permits.

JCY International, which makes hard-disk-drive components, stopped production in August 2014 after 800 Nepali migrant workers protested poor living conditions in "purpose-built hostels professionally managed by outside contractors." Workers refused to work and set fire to police vehicles after complaining that the compensation paid to the family of a worker who died was inadequate. Some 55 of the 6,800 Nepali workers in JCY's Tebrau and Kulaijaya factories were arrested.

The Malaysian government suggested to JCY that it appoint Nepali supervisors to serve as a bridge to its workers.

Many countries penalize unauthorized foreigners who try to depart. To avoid such punishment, some unauthorized Indonesians in Malaysia attempted to return home by boat for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, paying smugglers 1,500 ringgit.

Several boats that left Malaysia for Indonesia sank, prompting the Malaysian government to allow unauthorized Indonesians to leave by paying a fine of at least 300 ringgit ($95), but be exempt from jail or caning for being in Malaysia illegally. Migrant activists said that uncertainty about the maximum fine would prompt many Indonesians to continue to depart illegally by boat.

Singapore. Singapore opened the first of nine planned mega-dorms for construction and marine sector migrant workers in summer 2014. The first mega-dorm houses 16,800 workers and includes stores, a food court, and a cinema.

There are 215,000 domestic workers in the city-state, most from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, who are paid $325 to $400 a month. Foreign domestic workers must sign statements promising not to take part in illegal, immoral, undesirable, or political activities, and do not win permanent residence rights if they marry a Singaporean.

Thailand. The Employment Department in August 2014 reported that 185,000 Thai employers registered over a million migrant workers between June 26 and September 2, 2014, including 3,700 fishery employers who registered 32,100 fishery workers. Those registered included 443,000 Cambodians (418,457 workers and 24,594 dependents), 407,000 Burmese (371,726 workers and 26,662 dependents), and 161,000 Laotians (154,083 workers and 7,123 dependents).

The exit of Cambodian migrants has reportedly led to labor shortages at rice export terminals such as Phra Pradaeng port 20 miles south of Bangkok. Migrants carry 50 kg bags of rice from barges to ships. Thailand aims to export 10 million tons of rice in 2014, regaining its title as the world's leading rice exporter. Thailand exported 10.6 million tons of rice in 2011.

The Natural Fruit Company sued British activist Andy Hall for defamation, alleging that he told Al Jazeera TV in January 2013 of poor conditions for migrant workers in the Thai seafood and pineapple industries. Natural Fruit, which as 800 employees, including 500 Burmese, is a major exporter of pineapple.

Thailand has seven million farming households, and reduced rice subsidies combined with a drought have limited their ability to produced two crops of rice at a time when many took out loans in the expectation of continued high rice prices. The government advised farmers in the Chao Phraya River basin in the center of the country not to plant a second crop because of the lack of water in the Bhumibol Dam, the country's largest, which is at 40 percent of capacity.