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July 2004, Volume 11, Number 3

Southeast Asia: Maids, Countries

Maids. Women from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India often go to Middle East oil exporting countries as well as Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong to be domestic helpers. There are regular reports of abuse of maids, especially in the Middle East, but the general absence of labor law protections and women who do not know how or where to turn for help makes it hard to know how widespread the abuses are.

However, it is clear that recruitment agencies in both sending and receiving countries make money from moving women over borders, and that some employers of maids treat them more as slaves than as live-in help.

Malaysia. Malaysia has 1.2 million registered foreign workers, and a rising share are employed by contractors or labor-supply companies, and then deployed to Malaysian factories and plantations. The government wants to reduce the number to one million by stopping the use of contractors to bring guest workers into the country, requiring employers to apply for approval from the ministry to hire foreign workers based on need; closely monitoring companies planning to introduce voluntary separation schemes to prevent them from being used to lay off local workers and hire migrants; requiring employers to advertise vacancies for at least two consecutive days in major local dailies to allow local workers to learn about the jobs; and encouraging flexible work hours or piece-meal work schemes where portions of a job can be given to full-time housewives.

Malaysia has been signing MOUs with labor-sending countries. For example, the Malaysia-Indonesia MOU requires Malaysian employers to deal only with licensed Indonesian recruiting agencies, guest workers to be aged 18 to 40 and able to communicate in English or Malay, and payment of prevailing wages and provision of accommodation.

Thailand. Thailand has about 400,000 registered foreign workers in 49 provinces, and perhaps 600,000 to 800,000 unregistered or illegal foreign workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos. The government announced a three-phase decentralized policy to legalize and manage migrants.

During Phase 1 in July 2004, migrant workers 12 and older can register directly at district offices, kamnan or village headmen's offices by paying a 3,800 baht fee (including Bt600 for the health check and 1,300 Bt for health insurance) and receive one-year work permits; migrants must complete medical checks at designated hospitals by the end of October 2004. Migrants can also register their family members, and thus be entitled to the minimum wage of 135 baht a day ($3.35), health care and education for children.

During Phase 2, the migrants' countries of origin are to certify the citizenship of registered migrants, and to issue them home country identification. [Some Burmese migrants are reportedly afraid to register and have their names sent to Burmese authorities, since leaving Burma illegally can bring a three-year prison term]. There is also to be stepped-up enforcement including using the army to find employers and their unauthorized migrants as well as public officials who tolerate continued unauthorized employment.

In Phase 3 of the new Thai labor management program, the Ministry of Interior will for the first time issue two-year renewable work permits to unskilled foreign workers who were registered in July 2004, and had their citizenship certified by their country of origin. Registered workers will be able to change Thai employers, who in turn will be able to request replacement foreign workers. Thailand's Economic Cooperation Strategy is billed as aid to neighboring countries to promote economic development in border areas; it is to include contract farming for Thai companies.

The Thai government intends to place a country-wide ceiling on the number of migrant workers, likely to be 500,000, and to allocate this quota to provinces based on their shares of registered migrants in 2001-03. A committee chaired by the appointed governor in each province will allocate provincial quotas by sector, and if employers want to hire migrants, the bilateral MOUs call for Thai employers to advertise the jobs they would like to fill with migrants for at least 15 days, specifying the skills needed to fill the job. The labor-sending country is to select migrants who will travel to Thailand without their families to work for an initial two years, with the possibility of a two-year renewal followed by a mandatory three-year stay at home. While in Thailand, migrants are to contribute 15 percent of their earnings to a savings fund, with these forced savings refunded with interest to migrants who return at the end of the contract.

The Public Health Ministry has earmarked Bt1,300 in costs per person, per year, for migrant workers, plus an estimated Bt600 per health check. The Labor Ministry has sought and received government approval to spend Bt451 million in order to regulate existing migrant workers and seal borders to prevent a future influx.

Thailand apprehended 280,937 illegal foreigners at 54 checkpoints in 2003, including 189,486 irregular foreign workers-- 115,633 were Burmese, 54,738 Cambodians and 19,115 from Laos.

There is internal migration from Thailand's north and northeast to the Bangkok area in search of higher wages. The Thai government announced a plan to plant 400,000 acres of rubber trees in northeast Thailand over the next five years to spur development there.

Philippines. There are an estimated 7.5 million Filipinos overseas, including 2.7 million living in North America or Australia for at least a decade. Some 1.7 million overseas Filipinos were entitled to register to vote in May 2004 presidential elections, but fewer than 400,000 did so, and even fewer voted, in part because of rules that require Filipinos voting to return to the Philippines for good within three years or lose the right to vote overseas in the next election.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo won a full six-year term in May 2004 elections, and promised to create six to 10 million new jobs by 2010. She promised to provide loans to three million entrepreneurs; create a million agriculture-based businesses; provide power and potable water to every village; put every child in school; decongest Manila; develop Subic and Clark, the former United States military bases, into important Asian economic hubs; computerize the election process; forge a peace agreement with insurgents; and provide cheap medicine and affordable housing.

There may be links between education and emigration in the Philippines. In 2000, about 18 percent of Filipinos with college degrees were in the US, and 60 percent of these college-educated Filipinos were women. Almost three-fourths of the Filipinos in Philippine higher education are in private institutions and, since salaries for the college-educated are relatively low, this suggests that many Filipinos enrolling in college have decided to emigrate, and are studying subjects such as nursing that make emigration easier.

A Filipino migrant or overseas foreign worker was taken hostage in Iraq, and the Philippine government agreed to the kidnappers demand to withdraw its humanitarian mission of 50 soldiers in exchange for release of the hostage. About 4,100 Filipinos have been hired at $500 a month by private contractors to support the coalition forces in Iraq.

Indonesia. The IMF required Indonesia to tolerate unions in order to receive a $14 billion rescue package in 1998. The number of unions grew to at least 70 national trade unions and 10,000 factory unions. Many employers responded by turning to contract workers supplied by intermediaries who are the workers' employer- these workers can be fired without notice or cause.

Unions have pushed up wages to 671,550 rupiah ($75) a month, but many union workers have lost their jobs. It is estimated that a 16 percent rise in wages is associated with a 10 percent fall in formal employment.

Richard C. Paddock, "For Filipinos, Thoughts of a Paycheck Outweigh
Dangers," Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2004. Jane Perlez, "Asian Maids Often Find Abuse, Not Riches, Abroad," New York Times, June 22, 2004. Sa'odah Elias, "Government to tighten hiring rules of foreign workers," The Star, May 6, 2004.