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July 2011, Volume 18, Number 3

Southeast Asia

ASEAN leaders, during a 2007 meeting in Cebu, Philippines, adopted a Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. After concluding their 2011 meeting, NGOs complained that ASEAN leaders had done little to implement the ten-country agreement reached in Cebu.

Indonesia. An Indonesia-Malaysia migrant worker MOU signed May 30, 2011 allows Indonesian domestic helpers to once again travel to Malaysia to work. Indonesia suspended deployments of domestic helpers in June 2009 after several well publicized cases of abuse. There are about 300,000 domestic helpers in Malaysia, mostly Indonesians. Some Malaysian recruiting agents turned to Cambodia to obtain domestic helpers after recruitment in Indonesia was banned.

The 2011 MOU replaces one signed in 2006 and grants Indonesian domestic helpers in Malaysia a day off a week (or extra pay if they work seven consecutive days) and the right to keep their passports. Maximum recruitment fees of M$4511 ($1,500) are established, and Malaysian employers are allowed to deduct up to M$1,800 ($600) from domestic helpers for recruitment fees, provided the helper receives at least half of her promised wages after any deductions.

Singapore, which in 2011 capped the amount that can be deducted from domestic helper wages for recruitment costs at two-months salary, tests foreign domestic helpers after arrival before they are allowed to work. In June 2011, an Indonesian maid committed suicide after she failed Singapore's English test three times, which meant she would have to return to Indonesia. Indonesia requires private recruiters to give domestic helpers training in homemaking skills and English before their departure, and the Indonesian government said it would step up inspections of recruiter training in the wake of the suicide.

Domestic helpers in Malaysia have the right to call home and to contact Indonesian authorities. Malaysia, which has no minimum wage, refused Indonesia's demand for a minimum wage for domestic helpers, most of whom earn less than $250 a month.

In June 2011, after an Indonesian domestic worker was beheaded in Saudi Arabia for killing her Saudi employer, Indonesia announced a stop to deployments of additional domestic workers to Saudi Arabia effective August 1, 2011. The Indonesian government said the deployment ban would be lifted when a new MOU that better protects Indonesian migrants is signed. There are over a million Indonesians employed in Saudi Arabia, most as domestic workers, and deployments averaged 30,000 a month in 2010. Indonesia continues to ban the deployment of domestic helpers to Jordan and Kuwait.

House Speaker Marzuki Alie, an ally of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in February 2011 blamed domestic helpers for some of the abuse they endure abroad. He said: "Some of them can't iron properly, so it's natural if the employer ends up landing the hot iron on the migrant worker's body." Indonesia's audit agency, BPK, agreed that many issues faced by Indonesian migrants abroad begin at home when recruiters send unqualified migrants abroad.

The Indonesian government repatriated 2,349 migrants in April and May 2011 who had overstayed visas or left their employers. Many complained that they were abused by their employers or paid less than promised. The National Board for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers (BNP2TKI) in June 2011 said that the government should not continue to collect $15 from each departing migrant to fund efforts to help migrants abroad, and that help for migrants abroad should be covered by general tax revenues.

Indonesia's economy is booming. Foreign investment of over $16 billion in 2010 helped to fuel a six percent expansion of the economy in 2010; similar growth is expected in 2011. Rapid economic growth is exposing the limits of Indonesia's infrastructure, exemplified by traffic gridlocks as more of Indonesia's 240 million residents move up from motorcycles to cars.

Malaysia. Malaysia had 1,817,871 registered migrant workers in 2010, when the government's five-year plan asserted that easy access to migrant workers has deterred investment and slowed productivity growth, leaving Malaysia in a middle-income development trap. The five-year plan anticipates fewer migrants, but employers complaining of labor shortages want more rather than fewer.

Malaysia in July 2011 temporarily stopped the arrival of migrant workers while it considered a plan to legalize some of the estimated one to two million unauthorized foreigners in the country. Unauthorized foreigners with Malaysian jobs are to be given biometric IDs so that employers can legally hire them. Employers say that lack of labor is deterring foreign investment.

About 20 percent of all workers in Malaysia, two-thirds of construction workers, and 80 percent of workers on plantations, are foreigners.

Philippines. The 2010 Migrant Workers Act (Republic Act 10022) requires Filipino embassies abroad to certify countries as "migrant friendly" before Filipino recruiters can recruit migrants to fill vacant jobs. The four criteria for migrant-receiving countries include having labor and social laws that protect the rights of migrant workers; signing and ratifying multilateral migrant workers' conventions; having a bilateral agreement with the Philippines covering migrants; and/or taking "positive measures" to implement the first three criteria.

Most Gulf oil exporters do not cover domestic helpers under their labor laws, and few have signed migrant worker conventions. Recruiters nonetheless continue to send Filipino migrants to Gulf countries by arguing that Gulf governments are taking positive steps to improve migrant protections.

A major issue is domestic helpers, the largest single occupation for Filipinos in the Middle East. Since 2008, Filipino domestic helpers must be paid at least $400 a month and undergo training before leaving for foreign jobs. There is no Filipino-set minimum wage for waitress, gardener, and similar jobs, so some Filipinos leave to work as waitresses or gardeners for $250 a month and are "reprocessed" once abroad as domestic helpers.

Singapore. The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) won May 7, 2011 elections with 60 percent of the vote, the lowest share since independence in 1965. One reason for the turn against the PAP is the high level of immigration; 36 percent of the five million residents are foreigners.

Singapore has a "welcome the skilled and rotate the low-skilled" migration policy. Foreign professionals earning at least S$2,800 ($2,240) a month are eligible for E-Passes that permit them to bring their families, obtain permanent residence and naturalize. Skilled workers can obtain S-passes if they earn at least S$2,000 ($1,600) a month; most are in Singapore without their families. Most construction workers, who generally live on building sites where they work and are provided with meals, earn $700 ($560) a month plus overtime pay.

The million foreign workers are almost a third of workers in Singapore. Union leaders say that the government policy of one foreign worker for every two Singaporeans is optimal, and that the number of foreigners should not increase even if employers complain of labor shortages.

Thailand. The Thai government announced a new migrant worker registration program between June 15 and July 14, 2011. The Thai Department of Employment ( established centers for foreign workers in 17 provinces.

The Thai government manages labor migration from neighboring Burma, Cambodia and Laos by periodically allowing Thai employers to register the unauthorized workers they employ. In return for 3,800 baht ($126) in fees, equivalent to a month's wages, migrant workers undergo a health check and receive one-year work permits and health insurance. In most cases, Thai employers pay the fees and deduct them from worker wages. After the registration period ends, employers of unauthorized migrants can be fined 100,000 baht, and unauthorized migrants can be sentenced to five years in prison.

In August 2009, the Thai government announced its "final" registration program. After several extensions, some 1.3 million migrants from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos registered by February 2010, and the Thai government launched a campaign to arrest and deport migrants who had not registered in June 2010. However, in September 2010, the Thai Board of Investment allowed firms that received government incentives to invest to employ migrants if they complained of labor shortages. There was discussion of admitting workers from Bangladesh and Indonesia to fill jobs vacated as unauthorized migrants from Burma, Cambodia and Laos were removed.

The 2009-10 registration program added a requirement for registered migrants, nationality verification (NV). Most migrants in Thailand do not have passports. NV required migrants to obtain passports from their countries of origin, thus clarifying to which country migrants would return at the end of their period of employment in Thailand. NGOs noted that many Burmese migrants avoid contact with the Burmese government and reported that NV became another way to extract fees from migrants.

The reason for the new 2011 registration program is that only 845,100 migrants who first registered in 2009-10 renewed their registration in 2011. Of these, only 550,000 obtained passports from their countries of origin, including 353,000 Burmese and 104,000 Cambodians. NGOs estimate that there are two million migrants in Thailand, meaning that less than half were registered in 2011.

Thai labor migration policy aims to admit temporary foreign workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia and Laos under the terms of MOUs signed in 2002-03. However, the costs of migrating legally under the MOUs was higher than paying a smuggler. Only 30,000 migrants were admitted between 2002-03 and 2011 under the MOUs, including 1,500 from Burma, while unauthorized migration continued.

A 24-seat bus with 90 passengers was hit by a truck in April 2011, killing at least 15 Burmese migrants on their way to a food processing plant south of Bangkok and raising questions about the enforcement of traffic safety laws.

The International Organization for Migration released a report in May 2011 that urged the Thai government to develop a database for migrants employed in the fishing industry. There are allegations that some migrants on Thai fishing boats are held in conditions verging on slavery.

Thais went to the polls on July 3, 2011. In the run-up to the elections, several critics of the US-born King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, were arrested for violating the lŠse-majest‚ law, which bans anyone from defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen and crown prince. Some of the Thais arrested for insulting King Bhumibol were born in Thailand and naturalized abroad. Their crime was to post articles on the internet critical of the royal family.

Ridwan Max Sijabat, "RI, Malaysia end standoff on migrant worker rights," Jakarta Post, May 31, 2011. Bruce Gale, "Ouch, Not Another Gaffe From the House Speaker," Straits Times Indonesia, April 29, 2011.