Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


October 2009, Volume 16, Number 4

Southeast Asia

Thailand. A million foreign workers registered during the July 2009 registration program. Those registering with the Ministry of Interior were 73 percent Burmese, 14 percent Cambodians and 11 percent Laotians. To complete the process, Thai employers must also obtain work permits for the migrants they employ from the Ministry of Labor that allow them to remain in Thailand for a year or two (registered migrants remain technically illegal, but their deportation is delayed for the duration of their permits).

One-year work permits cost 1,800 baht, plus a 100 baht registration fee; health fees are 1,900 baht, making the total cost 3,800 baht ($112) or about one month's Thai wages. In many cases, Thai employers pay registration fees and deduct them from migrant wages.

Some 379,2000 migrants with work permits renewed them in June 2009, and 196,500 of the million migrants who registered in July 2009 had obtained work permits by mid-August 2009. There are an estimated two million migrants in Thailand.

Most of the million migrants who registered in July 2009 do not have passports. In order to obtain two-year permits to work in Thailand, migrants must have their nationality verified and obtain passports from their country of origin; the Thai government then inserts a work visa into the migrant's passport.

Nationality verification has been problematic for Burmese migrants. Myanmar on July 15, 2009 began to verify the nationality of Burmese migrants at three centers just inside the Burmese border with Thailand. Burmese working in Thailand are to report to these centers with proof of Burmese nationality and receive Burmese passports valid for two years.

However, many Burmese migrants in Thailand refused to give their exact Burmese address to Burmese authorities after reports that their families were pressured to pay taxes on the remittances they send home or their investments in Burma. There were also reports of local headmen demanding fees to issue the letters required to obtain Burmese passports, and of scams in which people claiming to be Burmese authorities visit migrants at Thai workplaces, help them to complete applications for nationality verification, collect money and disappear.

Malaysia. Malaysia had 2.2 million registered migrant workers at the end of 2008; their number fell by 300,000 to 1.9 million in August 2009 as expiring work permits were not renewed. There were about 32,000 registered layoffs in the first half of 2009.

Some employers complained of labor shortages; the wages of manufacturing workers rose from M$450 ($130) a month in 2008 to M$650 ($185) in summer 2009. At one firm that had requested permission to hire 3,000 foreign workers, the increased wage attracted over 500 local workers. Malaysia has no national minimum wage.

The Malaysian government in July 2009 allowed electronics and textile firms to resume recruitment of foreign workers, but added that "no foreign workers will be allowed in the services sector or frontline jobs, except for cooks, cleaners and resort island staff." All foreign workers except maids can remain in Malaysia up to five years, after which they are to return home for at least a year.

The government's goal is to reduce dependence on migrant workers over time by giving employers incentives to substitute capital for labor; it also aims to encourage more consumer self service to eliminate the need for migrants in service jobs. Malaysian employers must try to recruit local workers for two months before getting permission to hire foreign workers, up from one month, and in manufacturing pay an annual levy of M$1,200 ($350). The levy can no longer be deducted from worker earnings.

Almost 2,000 irregular Bangladeshi workers a month were returned from Malaysia in the first half of 2009. There are three major reasons for these deportations: in some cases, brokers promised non-existent jobs to Bangladeshi migrants, some Bangladeshis who passed medical tests in Bangladesh failed them in Malaysia and thus did not get work permits, and some Bangladeshis overstayed tourist visas and worked.

Malaysia has been teaching science and math in English since 2003. However, in July 2009, the Malaysian government, citing a decline in math and science grades in rural areas, ordered that the language of instruction be returned to Bahasa Malaysian in 2012; Chinese and Tamil can be used in classes for Chinese and Indian students.

Singapore. Singapore has 4.8 million residents; the population has doubled since 1990. The government plans to allow immigration to raise the number of residents to seven million. Net immigration has averaged 100,000 a year for the past five years, and was not slowed by recession in 2008-09.

Singapore had 1.25 million foreign workers in summer 2009. About 535,000 are foreigners who are considered permanent residents; the others are low-skilled foreign workers, including 200,000 maids, who are not allowed to settle in Singapore.

Indonesia. The Indonesian government June 26, 2009 banned the deployment of domestic helpers to Malaysia after another reported case of abuse. The ban was lifted in September 2009 after tentative agreement to pay Indonesian domestic helpers a minimum wage of M$600 ($170) a month, guarantee that they can keep their passports to expedite the filing of complaints against their employers, and receive at least a day a week off.

These new protections for domestic helpers are to be incorporated into an MOU between Indonesia and Malaysia and included in the contracts of domestic helpers. There are an estimated 300,000 Indonesians employed as domestic helpers in Malaysia, and at least 50 a year report severe abuse at the hands of their employers.

About 4,000 Indonesians a month normally travel legally to Malaysia to work as domestic helpers. Under a 2006 MOU, the maximum fees to be levied on Indonesians going to work in Malaysia were to be RM3,600 ($1,000); however, in August 2009, typical fees were reportedly RM7,000 ($2,000).

There were 4.4 million Indonesians legally employed in 42 countries in September 2009, according to the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Overseas Labor (BNP2TKI), and an additional two to four million unauthorized Indonesians abroad. They remitted $8.2 billion in 2008.

The Indonesian government seeks to protect would-be migrants by requiring them to utilize one of the 506 licensed overseas employment agencies, and to receive pre-departure training; 350 agencies have training facilities, where migrants sometimes run up debts. The government hopes to create community-based training centers in the villages the migrants come from.

BNP2TKI, an independent board, blames the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry for failing to regulate recruitment effectively, but the Ministry says that national and local police departments have not eliminated unlicensed worker-recruitment agencies.

Returning migrants must pass through Terminal TKI at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, where exchange rates are reportedly low and rates for minivans to return migrants to villages are high. Private vehicles are not allowed to pick up migrants because of too much crime committed against migrants returning to their villages with cash earned from years overseas.

Philippines. Remittances to the Philippines rose to $8.5 billion in the first half of 2009, a surprise amid predictions that the global recession would reduce remittances. Labor Secretary Marianito Roque said: "our workers are getting jobs and sending home more money than ever. They are keeping the boat stable." Remittances are a seventh of GDP.

However, more Filipinos are discussing the social costs of sending workers abroad, including the reluctance of some in families that receive remittances to accept jobs in the Philippines.

Departing migrants pay a $25 fee to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to provide services in the event of death or illness abroad. The OWWA has posted staff in 38 sites abroad to provide services to migrants.

The Filipino ambassador to the UN between 2003 and 2007 was charged with abusing his household helper in New York. Lauro L. Baja Jr. brought Marichu Suarez Baoanan to New York in 2006; she charged that she was required to work more than 100 hours a week without pay. Baja, who disputes the charges, invoked diplomatic immunity, but a federal judge in June 2009 said that because Baoanan's duties were "unrelated to Baja's diplomatic functions," her suit could proceed.

A July 2008 Government Accountability Office report identified 42 cases of abuse of household help by foreign diplomats in the US over an eight-year period, but emphasized that there were likely more such cases. The GAO cited 19 trafficking investigations involving foreign diplomats from 2005 to 2008, but no indictments. The US Department of State has not yet revoked a diplomatic visa because of an abuse allegation.

Corazon Aquino, who replaced Ferdinand Marcos as president in 1986, died in August 2009, prompting reflections on the past 23 years of developments in the Philippines. Political instability continues. Since Aquino left office in 1992, there have been three presidential elections, two attempts at impeachment, two apparent attempts to stay in power through constitutional change, and one popular uprising that ousted an elected president and another that failed.

Some say that politics diverts attention from the country's economic problems, including poverty--30 percent of the 90 million residents are living below the poverty line.

Dewi Kurniawati and Hera Diani, "The Misery of Indonesia's Migrant Workers," Jakarta Globe, August 19, 2009.