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January 2007, Volume 14, Number 1

Asian Labor Migration 2006

East Asian economies generally grew fast in 2005, and unemployment declined in the major economies that attract foreign workers. Some countries reported labor market mis-matches. For example, Malaysia reported labor shortages in construction and agriculture, but also 60,000 college graduates seeking jobs; a quarter of Malaysia's workers are foreigners.

China, the fastest-growing Asian economy, is undergoing significant changes. China became the world's factory by fostering investment in coastal provinces that hired migrants from rural China to produce goods for export. Even though the 750 million Chinese in rural areas remain much poorer than their 500 million urban counterparts, earning an average $400 a year compared to $1,200 in the cities, the sustained economic boom has put upward pressure on wages, with coastal factories raising wages to bolster recruitment efforts.

China is also a significant labor exporter, with over 550,000 workers abroad in 2005. Many of these Chinese migrants are employed by state-owned firms that have contracts for construction projects abroad, so that Chinese migrants are more akin to workers posted abroad than migrants employed by local employers. There are also Chinese employed as trainees in Korea and Japan, and Chinese students working part time and settling after graduation in Japan, Australia, the US and other countries.

One of the most interesting migration developments is in Hong Kong, which traditionally feared being overrun by mainland Chinese. There is still family unification, as Hong Kong residents marry mainland Chinese and bring spouses and children to Hong Kong. More Hong Kong residents have moved to nearby Shenzhen, sometimes commuting to jobs in Hong Kong.

Students are still leaving Taiwan for Australia and the US, while almost 325,000 unskilled workers from Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam work in Taiwanese construction, manufacturing, and as domestic helpers. Immigration is expected to accelerate as especially rural Taiwanese men marry mainland women; a third of Taiwanese brides were foreign in recent years.

Malaysia has the most unskilled migrants in southeast Asia, 2.6 million in 2006. Under a recent legalization, Indonesians working in Malaysia without authorization had to return to Indonesia and re-enter Malaysia legally, paying fees in both countries. Thailand has a similar policy of registering unauthorized foreign workers and collecting fees from them, but does not require them to return to their countries of origin and re-enter legally. In both Malaysia and Thailand, the number of registered and thus legal migrants has increased, but both countries still have a significant number of unauthorized foreigners.

Efforts to regularize migrants have several motivations, ranging from the desire to protect migrants to raising money for the government in the form of fees. In both Malaysia and Thailand, registration of unauthorized migrants was accompanied by new MOUs with the major countries of origin. Under the Malaysian MOU, employers receive approval to employ migrants and obtain them through recruitment agencies that certify skills and provide migrants with contracts- Malaysian employers are responsible for transportation to the workplace, but migrants pay recruitment costs in the country of origin.

The MOUs call for government supervision of recruitment in the migrant country of origin and supervision of employment abroad, but these policies aimed at protecting migrants are very difficult to implement in practice. Instead, policies that, for instance, fine recruiters if the migrants they sponsor "run away" can lead to violations of migrant rights, as recruiters hold passports and other documents to ensure they do not have to pay fines.

Skeldon, Ronald. 2006. Recent Trends in Migration in East and Southeast Asia. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal. Vol. 15. No 2. 277-293.