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October 2010, Volume 17, Number 4

Southeast Asia

Thailand. The Thai government has managed labor migration from neighboring Burma, Cambodia and Laos between the early 1990s and 2009 by periodically allowing Thai employers to register the unauthorized migrants they employ. Registration required paying fees equivalent to about a month's wages for renewable one-year work permits.

Since few migrants had a month's wages to pay the fees, Thai employers usually paid the fees and deducted them from migrant wages. These deductions sometimes reduced wages below the earnings of non-registered or unauthorized workers, prompting some migrants to leave the employer who registered them. As a result, many Thai employers kept the registration papers of their migrants until fees were repaid, and some took other steps to prevent migrants from leaving them.

In summer 2009, a "final" registration program attracted almost 1.3 million migrant applicants, 85 percent Burmese. However, to "begin a systematic regulation of migrant workers in Thailand," these registered migrants had to obtain passports from their country of origin, a "nationality verification" process aimed at ensuring there is no question about the country to which migrants should return when their work permits expire.

One million migrants who registered in 2009 began the nationality verification (NV) process before the March 31, 2010 deadline; they must complete NV by February 12, 2012. Migrant advocates say that some of the Burmese who began NV provided false information so as not to put their families in Burma at risk. Another 300,000 migrants registered but did not begin NV and have become unauthorized, joining 500,000 to 800,000 migrants who never registered.

Cambodia and Laos sent officials to Thailand to issue passports to their nationals, but the Burmese government required its citizens to return to Burma. Many Burmese migrants in Thailand are ethnic minorities who avoid dealing with the Burmese government; some are not recognized as Burmese by the Burmese government, making them essentially stateless. For example, Burma does not recognize as Burmese the estimated 10,000 children born in Thailand to Burmese parents.

On June 2, 2010, the Thai government created a "Special Center for the Suppression, Prosecution and Arrest of Migrants Working Underground." Five regional task forces that include police, immigration and labor authorities were established to detect and remove unauthorized foreigners. In June 2010, the Center reported arresting almost 1,600 unauthorized foreigners and fining 100 Thai employers.

Migrant advocates noted that almost half of those arrested were Cambodians, even though Cambodians are only about 15 percent of the migrants in Thailand. Some migrants reportedly participated in the red-shirt demonstrations in Bangkok in April-May 2010, sometimes because their employers ordered them to participate.

The Working of Aliens Act 2008 supersedes the 1978 WAA and allows the Ministry of Labor to determine where registered migrants can work in Thailand. However, many Thai employers do not register their migrant workers, citing the usual need to pay registration costs and then try to retain registered migrants while deducting registration fees from worker wages. Furthermore, some migrants question the value of registration, especially if their employers retain their registration papers, making them appear unregistered if stopped by police, or if provincial governments ban even registered migrants from having cell phones, motorcycle licenses, and holding meetings.

Migrant advocates criticized the Thai government's policy of registering and verifying the nationality of foreign migrant workers, and eventually replacing them with migrants who arrive legally under the terms of MOUs negotiated in 2002-03. In September 2010, the Thai government announced that it may re-open registration for some of the estimated million migrants, citing a shortage of labor.

A June 2010 report noted that 250,000 youth join the Cambodian labor force each year, and urged the government to promote and protect labor migration to provide jobs. The Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies reported that the number of Cambodians deployed to Malaysia in the first six months of 2010 was double the number deployed a year earlier.

Malaysia. The Malaysian government in July 2010 said that it was considering a program that would allow employers to hire unauthorized migrants already in the country. Human Resources Minister Datuk S Subramaniam said: "Because of the high demand, illegal immigrants continue to enter the country. We are looking for a suitable mechanism to deal with this effectively."

Malaysia and Indonesia have been struggling to develop an MOU governing the recruitment and employment of the estimated 300,000 Indonesian domestic helpers in Malaysia. After several Indonesians were abused by their Malaysian employers, Indonesia suspended the deployment of domestic helpers to Malaysia in June 2009.

The two countries reached agreement on several issues, including the right of domestic helpers to have a day off each week and to keep their passports, but could not agree on a minimum wage. Most Indonesian domestic helpers earn M$300 to M$400 ($125) a month; Indonesia wants an M$800 ($250) minimum wage, but Malaysia says that, as a country without minimum wages, it does not want to introduce one for Indonesian domestic helpers.

About 1.4 million Malaysians live abroad, half in Singapore. Many are ethnic Chinese, about 30 percent of the 28 million Malaysians, who study and stay abroad, in part because Malays, 60 percent of residents, are favored for admission to universities and for government jobs. About 80 percent of Malaysian workers have only a secondary school education, and there are about two million mostly low-skilled guest workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh and other countries.

Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised Singaporeans on August 9, 2010 that the employment of foreign workers would be regulated. He said: "I understand Singaporeans' concerns about taking in so many foreign workers and immigrants?We will control the inflow, to ensure that it is not too fast, and not too large. We will only bring in people who can contribute to Singapore, and work harder to integrate them into our society."

There are about 4,500 engineering graduates a year in Singapore, but growing worries that the best and brightest students are switching from engineering to law and medicine. One reason is salary growth. Engineers age 20 to 24 earn more than lawyers and business analysts, but engineers 30 to 34 earn less than lawyers and business analysts.

Philippines. Remittances to the Philippines rose from $7.6 billion in 2003 to $20 billion in 2009, when they were over 10 percent of the country's $175 billion GDP. Since 2006, Filipinos leaving to be domestic helpers in private homes abroad are supposed to earn at least $400 a month, receive training in first aid and child care before departure, and pay no recruitment fees. Nevertheless, many Filipino helpers report paying recruitment fees ranging from one to three months of foreign earnings, and some who leave with contracts promising salaries of $400 a month are told to expect new contracts abroad that will reduce their earnings to $200 a month. Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz in summer 2010 ordered a review of the deployment of domestic helpers.

In Mabini, a city of 42,000 about 80 miles south of Manila, 15 percent of residents are migrants. Their remittance spending on housing, private schools for their children, and voluntary contributions for infrastructure improvements support non-migrants. However, local leaders say that guilt-ridden absentee parents give their children cell phones and other gifts, and that children of migrants perform disproportionately poorly in school. Many newly built houses constructed with remittances are empty most of the year.

Some 15,000 Filipinos are employed in Iraq despite a 2004 ban on sending Filipinos to the country that remains in force. The government announced in July 2010 that Filipinos in Iraq would be repatriated without punishment, and the Overseas Employment Administration said it would give them priority if they sought other foreign jobs. In some cases, Filipinos had accepted jobs in Kuwait and other Gulf countries and were sent instead to Iraq.

Indonesia. There are 1.2 million to 1.5 million Indonesians employed in Saudi Arabia. About 250,000 are deployed to Saudi Arabia each year, 90 percent as domestic helpers. In summer 2010, Saudi Arabia recruiters stopped requesting Indonesian migrants, saying that recruitment costs were too high. According to the Saudi recruiters, fees for hiring Indonesian migrants rose from about $750 in 2007 to $2,000 in 2010.

The chair of the Indonesian Labor Placement and Protection Agency (BNP2TKI) said the typical fee was $1,500 and blamed intermediaries in Indonesian villages who charge fees to connect migrants in villages to official recruiters (PJTKIs) in major cities. BNP2TKI wants migrants to register directly with local authorities to go abroad in order to bypass intermediaries.

Indonesia's economy expanded rapidly in 2010. Confidence that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, re-elected in 2009 for a five-year term, will continue to reduce corruption attracted more FDI. Indonesia has many footwear factories; their 640,000 employees produced exports worth $1.8 billion in 2009.

Liz Gooch, "Loss of Young Talent Thwarts Malaysia's Growth," New York Times, October 1, 2010. Norimitsu Onishi, "Toiling Far From Home for Philippine Dreams," New York Times, September 18, 2010.