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July 2007, Volume 14, Number 3

Southeast Asia

Thailand. The Thai government manages migrant workers by requiring their employers to register them, paying the equivalent of one month's wages for a one-year work permit and health insurance. Most employers deduct the registration fee from migrant worker wages, encouraging some to run away because they can earn more as unauthorized workers.

Networks that move migrants into Thailand are a big business- if two million migrants a year arrive, and each pays 5,000 baht or $150 to recruiters-smugglers, the migrant business generates 10 billion baht or $275 million a year.

Thailand hosted an international meeting on migration in April 1999 that decried illegal migration and called for comprehensive, coherent and cooperative policies to manage labor migration. Thailand signed MOUs with Laos (2002) and Cambodia and Burma (2003) that envision legal guest workers arriving in Thailand to work for two years, followed by at least three years at home. Returns are to be encouraged with a 15 percent forced savings fund paid to the migrant at home with interest. As of May 2007, some 4,000 migrants had been newly admitted under these MOUs; all are from Cambodia and Laos.

In response to complaints that migrants are increasing the crime rate, Phuket provincial authorities in May 2007 announced that the 32,000 registered migrants would have to register their mobile phones and would be prohibited from riding motorcycles and leaving their accommodations at night. In Ranong, migrant workers are prohibited from gathering in groups of five or more unless they are working; similar restrictions on migrants are planned for Chiang Mai.

Registered migrants pay 1,300 baht a year for health insurance. The Ministry of Public Health completes required medical exams of migrants and provides health care to both registered and non-registered migrants. The Ministry of Education, on the other hand, has been much slower to facilitate and encourage the children of migrants to attend Thai schools despite a July 2005 Cabinet resolution entitling all children to attend Thai schools.

Thailand's Labor Protection Act of 1998 specifically protects registered migrants, granting them equal wages, but labor inspectors do not ordinarily initiate inspections, typically responding only to complaints, and most migrants do not complain. Many migrants do not feel the need to register because, if their employers retain the original documents, which many do at least until fees are repaid from wage deductions, migrants with copies are not protected in the event of encounters with police.

The Ministry of Labor reported 668,576 registered migrant workers in 2006, 85 percent Burmese, including 460,014 whose work permits expire June 30, 2007 and 208,562 whose work permits expire February 28, 2007. (These migrants arrived after the 2004 registration.) Thai employers of both sorts may renew their work permits for an additional year.

Malaysia. Malaysia has a People's Volunteer Corps (RELA) of 500,000 to help enforce laws, including laws against unauthorized foreigners. RELA volunteers are allowed to enter workplaces and homes without warrants, carry firearms, and make arrests after receiving permission from RELA leaders. Migrant activists say that RELA volunteers have become vigilantes, planting evidence to justify arrests of foreigners and using excessive force in their policing.

There are an estimated 1.7 million migrant workers in Malaysia, including 1.2 million who are registered. The Malaysian Finance Ministry projects that the number of migrant workers will decline to 1.5 million by 2010, when there will be 250,000 foreign workers in the manufacturing sector and 200,000 in the construction sector.

In November 2006, Malaysia and Indonesia signed an MOU to cover the recruitment of domestic workers (a 2004 MOU covered other workers). Under the 2006 MOU, Indonesian recruiters charge domestic workers a maximum M$1,300 ($38), and Malaysian agents charge the households seeking Indonesian domestic workers M$2,415. There are too few Indonesians arriving under the MOU, which allows Malaysian agents to collect extra fees from households, up to M$4,000.

Indonesia. Indonesia sent over 640,000 migrant workers abroad in 2006, mostly women going to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia to be domestic helpers in private homes. At least half of the outflow is unauthorized, as when Indonesians travel as tourists or slip into Malaysia by boat and use pilgrimage visas to travel to Saudi Arabia. Total remittances are believed to be at least twice officially reported remittances of $3.4 billion in 2006. Indonesia's goal is to increase the number of migrants in order to increase remittances.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called migrants "foreign exchange heroes," and recognized that the recruitment process winds up overcharging migrants and encouraging illegal migration. A new business-oriented government agency with 800 employees, BNP2TKI, was created in 2007 to act as a one-stop shop for migrants and simultaneously promote and protect Indonesian migrant workers. Many NGOs are skeptical, given government participation in and tolerance of recruiters who charge migrants high fees while leaving and re-entering the country.

Visiting the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, Yudhoyono decried corruption at Indonesian offices abroad: "I am not happy to see officers asking for tips from migrant workers, while instead they should give them good services." The embassy says it has only 15 staff to serve the 2,000 Indonesians who seek services every day.

The Philippines raised the minimum wage for its "supermaids" going abroad on January 1, 2007 to $400 a month. Indonesia followed in summer 2007, raising the minimum wage for its domestic helpers going abroad from $125 to $470 a month. There are about 510,000 Indonesian and 240,000 Filipino domestic helpers in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabian employers have protested. In addition to the monthly salary, they must pay a SR2,000 ($533) visa fee. Some Saudis said that they would recruit domestic workers in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Philippines. The New York Times on April 22, 2007 profiled labor migrants from the Philippines, where a million Overseas Filipino Workers left in 2006, equivalent to six 747s a day. Migration is the new "civil religion," with most teens considering whether to go abroad, TV shows exploring the tensions associated with family separation, and the Central Bank displaying remittance numbers publicly.

Filipino presidents welcomes migrants home at Christmas, calling them "modern heroes" because they remit over $1 billion a month, a record $12.8 billion in 2006; June 7 is celebrated as Migrants' Day. Evangelist Rick Warren called Filipino guest workers the Josephs of today, toiling in the homes of modern Pharaohs to liberate Filipinos at home.

The dangers facing migrants abroad are so well known that many migrants say they are leaving to "try their luck." About 10 percent of the Philippines 90 million people are abroad, including 3.6 million who are OFWs. About 30 percent of the OFWs are in Saudi Arabia, and the next leading destinations for temporary migrants are Japan, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.

Ferdinand Marcos encouraged labor emigration in 1974 ("to facilitate and regulate the movement of workers in conformity with the national interest)" and 360,000 Filipinos were deployed in 1984. By 1990, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) was deploying over 700,000 migrants a year. In 2005, the POEA deployed 734,000 workers to land-based jobs and 248,000 to sea-based jobs.

The major challenge for the Filipino government is to ensure the safety of Filipino migrants. In 1995, Flor Contemplacion, a Filipina maid in Singapore, was hanged after killing another Filipina maid and a Singaporean child. President Fidel Ramos was unable to win additional time to investigate the case, prompting the enactment of Republic Act 8042, the so-called migrant workers' Magna Carta.

Act 8042 regulated the recruitment and deployment of Filipino migrants and obliged the government to take steps to protect migrants abroad. When the Filipino president visits foreign countries, imprisoned Filipino migrants are sometimes released in a gesture of good will.

Specific incidents of abuse abroad have led to more protective government policies. The Israeli-Lebanon fighting in summer 2006 resulted in the return of migrant domestic helpers who complained of mistreatment. The Israeli-Lebanon fighting in summer 2006 resulted in the return of migrant domestic helpers who complained of mistreatment. As a result, the government proposed a "Supermaid" program that requires some training before maids go abroad and a minimum wage of at least $400 a month. Workers who run away from abusive employers, as well as employers who do not pay their salaries, are met at the Manila airport and offered free training at the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) so that they qualify for jobs in the Philippines.

The social costs of emigration are often discussed in the media. Most studies suggest that children with parents abroad benefit enough from remittances, in the form of less poverty and better health, than they lose from the absence of a parent, especially if, as is usual, the migrant's extended family takes on child care responsibilities.

The April 22, 2007 article contrasted the treatment of refugees and migrants. A refugee in many industrial countries can often have children taught in the local or mother tongue, while a migrant in Middle East oil exporters with a Bible can be deported.

On June 7, 2007, government-owned LandBank unveiled a mobile phone-based banking service that allows migrants abroad to send remittances via text messages to relatives in the Philippines. Remittances are stored on computers, and those with the correct pin can withdraw funds at an ATM or use their phones to pay for goods and services. Migrants can use text messages to make monthly contributions to the Social Security System, Philhealth and PAG-IBIG.

Vietnam. Vietnam had over 400,000 migrant workers in 40 countries and territories in 2006, including 100,000 in Malaysia and 90,000 in Taiwan. Vietnamese migrants have some of the highest debts when they go abroad, often having to work the entire first year of their three-year contracts to repay the loans they assumed to go abroad.

Vietnamese labor migrants must pay one month's salary as a tax to the government (2.7 percent); the tax is collected by recruitment agencies from migrants during their first six months abroad. Indeed, the effort to recoup fees from migrants early in their foreign work prompts up to 25 percent of Vietnamese migrants run away from the employer to whom they were assigned, since they can have a chance to earn more as unauthorized workers. In response, the Vietnamese government has proposed to punish runaways when they return to Vietnam.

The Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) in May 2007 announced that it aimed to send 320,000 migrants a year abroad by 2010, including two-thirds who would be trained in the host country language; by 2015, it expects one million Vietnamese abroad. In 2006, Vietnam sent 78,800 workers abroad, and aims to send 80,000 abroad in 2007. Most are in low-skilled jobs, earning about $200 a month.

Singapore. Singapore, a country of 4.5 million, is luring "foreign talent" such as professionals and foreign wealth with bank secrecy laws. Singapore does not tax income earned outside Singapore, and levies a maximum 20 percent tax on Singapore-earned income.

Jason DeParle, "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves," New York Times, April 22, 2007.