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October 2011, Volume 18, Number 4

Southeast Asia

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said in a July 2011 interview that ASEAN's 10-member nations want more economic integration by 2015, but not a free flow of workers from one country to another or a single currency. ASEAN nations have 600 million people and a GDP of $1.7 trillion, the sixth-largest global economic block.

Freedom of movement is expected to begin with skilled workers such as accountants, but Pitsuwan said: "We can't allow the free movement of people like in Europe because it would lead to a lot of problems with economic migrants."

The Philippines sent 1.1 million land-based migrant workers abroad in 2009, Indonesia 635,200, Thailand 79,800, and Vietnam 73,000.

Indonesia. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono decried the June 18, 2011 beheading of an Indonesian maid in Saudi Arabia who killed her employer. The Indonesians complained that the Saudis did not notify the Indonesian embassy in advance of the execution. With another 23 Indonesians on death row in Saudi Arabia, Yudhoyono imposed a moratorium on sending additional domestic workers to Saudi Arabia effective August 1, 2011.

The Saudi government responded by stopping the processing of visas for Indonesians and Filipinos in July 2011. An estimated one million Indonesians are employed in Saudi Arabia, a fourth of the four million Indonesians abroad; 90 percent are domestic workers or private drivers. Almost 45 percent of Indonesia's $5 billion in remittances in 2010 were from Saudi Arabia.

Some migrant advocates predicted that the ban on sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia would increase smuggling and trafficking. The National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy (Jala PRT) said: "These domestic workers [scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia] have already made an investment in skills and language training. Why would they stay here when they know they can get better [wages] abroad? They have nothing to lose and much to gain. This ban isn't going to stop them."

There are 500 private recruiting agencies in Indonesia. The government wants to cut the number of recruiters to 250 to improve the enforcement of recruitment regulations and create a new commission to monitor domestic workers going abroad.

Indonesian migrant advocates welcomed a Malaysian decision in July 2011 to allow Malaysian households to hire Indonesian domestic workers directly, thus cutting out recruiters who charge $2,000 or more for jobs that pay $200 a month. Some Malaysian households invite relatives of Indonesian domestic workers already in Malaysia to visit with 30-day visitor visas, and then complete the paperwork to hire them as domestic workers. About 77 percent of the 247,000 foreign domestic workers in Malaysia in December 2010 were Indonesian.

Indonesia's Embassy in Malaysia condemned direct hiring, saying that a 2004 Indonesian law requires domestic workers to go abroad with the help of recruitment agencies. It accused the Malaysian government of encouraging Malaysian households to violate Indonesian laws.

Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are the top two destinations for Indonesian migrants, followed by Hong Kong and Taiwan. An October 2011 Indonesian government assessment concluded that these four countries have acceptable protections for Indonesian migrants.

Malaysia. The Malaysian government allowed unauthorized foreign workers to register during an August 2011 registration period via the "6 Ps" (in Malay), registering, legalizing, pardoning, monitoring, enforcing and deporting those who fail to register. Unauthorized foreigners had to pay a RM300 ($95) fine and a special visa fee of RM100 to receive a biometric ID. After registration, migrants can leave Malaysia without penalty or obtain work permits at a cost of RM2,000 and RM3,500 if they have a Malaysian employer.

The government required migrants to provide fingerprints in 2011 to deter foreigners from registering, leaving without punishment, and subsequently returning with a new identity. Migrant advocates complained that the 330 firms appointed by the government to facilitate the registration process charged high fees.

About two million migrants registered in August 2011, including 1.2 million or 60 percent Indonesians. There were often discrepancies between Malaysian and sending government estimates. For example, Malaysia reported that 280,000 Nepalis registered in August 2011, and estimated that another 33,000 Nepalis did not register. However, the Nepalese government estimated that there were 500,000 to 600,000 Nepalis in Malaysia.

The unauthorized migrants accumulated in Malaysia after the government encouraged smaller employers to obtain migrants via outsourcing companies in 2007 and 2008. Many of the migrants brought to Malaysia with calling visas issued on behalf of an outsourcing company never received work permits; many worked illegally.

Philippines. A record 1.5 million Filipinos were deployed to foreign jobs in 2010, up from 1.4 million in 2009 and 1.2 million in 2008. In 2010, some 1.1 million land-based workers and almost 350,000 sea-based workers went abroad. Remittances were $18.8 billion in 2010, up from $17.4 billion in 2009.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) is often considered a model government agency for organizing and regulating the deployment of migrant workers. The POEA is a one-stop agency that allows Filipino migrants to obtain passports, health checks, contract verification and pre-departure training at one location.

The POEA also regulates recruitment, ensuring that recruiters are registered and do not charge more than a month's foreign earnings in recruitment fees. Migrants can complain to POEA of excessive fees paid in the Philippines and about unpaid wages abroad, since Filipino recruiters are jointly liable with the foreign employers to whom they send workers for adherence to the contract that was approved by POEA.

The number of worker complaints about illegal recruitment activities rose slightly to 1,648 in 2010 from 1,462 in 2004; 12 people were arrested in 2010 for violating recruitment regulations and six recruiters were closed. Some critics say that POEA is slow to resolve worker complaints against recruiters.

Philippines- Saudi Arabia. The Filipino government is trying to establish minimum wages for Filipino migrants abroad. In negotiations with Saudi Arabia in 2011, the Philippines demanded a $400 a month minimum wage, while Saudi Arabia agreed to $200.

When negotiations stalled in March 2011, Saudi Arabia stopped processing applications from Filipinos for work permits. There are about 1.2 million Filipinos in Saudi Arabia. Most have two- or three-year contracts, so that 300,000 Filipinos a year arrive in the country.

The Filipino government in July 2011 announced a P2 billion business loan program for Filipino migrants who were barred from entering Saudi Arabia. Individuals can borrow P300,000 ($7,000) to P2,000,000 with no collateral, paying 7.5 percent interest and repaying their loans to the state bank that issued them, the Land Bank of the Philippines or the Development Bank of the Philippines.

Singapore. There are 201,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore, meaning that a sixth of households in the country include migrants. A third of foreign domestic workers are Filipino.

The People's Action Party, which has governed Singapore since independence in 1965, won elections May 7 and August 27, 2011, but with lower majorities than in the past. In response to complaints that the influx of foreign professionals was raising housing prices and increasing competition for university admissions, PM Lee Hsien Loong during National Day celebrations in August 2011 said that his government would focus on "putting Singaporeans first." Beginning in July 2011, the levy that Singapore employers must pay for each foreign worker they hire was raised, as was the minimum salary for foreign professionals who can bring their families to Singapore.

Almost 20 percent of the students in Singaporean universities are foreigners. The PAP government promised to expand the quota for Singaporeans at local universities.

Thailand. The Thai government manages labor migration by periodically allowing employers of migrants from neighboring Burma, Cambodia and Laos to register their migrant worker employees for fees equivalent to about a month's wages. In return, work permits are issued to migrants that allow a year or two of lawful employment and access to health care. Most Thai employers pay the registration fee and recoup it in deductions from migrant wages.

In 2004, all migrants in Thailand were allowed to register, whether they had Thai employers or not. Some 1.2 million registered, although only 820,000 followed up and paid additional fees to obtain work permits. There were additional registrations every year or two until 2009, when the 1.3 million migrants who registered were instructed to have their nationality verified by their countries of origin, meaning that they had to get passports into which Thai authorities could paste work visas.

Only 930,000 migrants who registered in 2009 completed nationality verification by February 2010, meaning that there were likely more unauthorized than registered migrants in Thailand in 2010-11. The government announced another employer-led registration between June 15 and July 14, 2011 that added 996,300 migrants to registration rolls, including 649,000 Burmese (65 percent), 242,400 Cambodians, and 105,000 Laotians. Over 40 percent of those who registered in summer 2011 were in Bangkok and its surrounding areas.

Registered migrants received two-year renewable work permits. With almost two million registered migrants in summer 2011 and easier migrant access to health and other social services, conditions for migrants are improving. However, registered migrant workers continue to be denied benefits for work-related injuries under the Thai Workmen's Compensation Fund, prompting a proposal to create a private work-related insurance fund for migrants with premiums paid by employers.

Thais on July 3, 2011 gave a majority of the 500 seats in Parliament to the Pheu Thai party headed by the youngest sister of populist ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed by the military in 2006. Analysts attributed the result to rural Thais, two-thirds of Thais, who in the past accepted a Bangkok-knows-best patriarchal system. Thailand is unusual in having a higher share of Thai workers employed in agriculture, about 45 percent, than migrants, about 25 percent.

During the 1990s, township administrative organizations or local councils gave rural Thais some experience with government, leading to the election of Thaksin. Thaksin rewarded his rural supporters with low-cost health care, debt moratoriums and grants to villages. In 2009-10, so-called red-shirts who supported Thaksin demonstrated in Bangkok. They were opposed by yellow shirts who supported the military coup that ousted him.

One of the first priorities of the newly elected government is to raise the Thai minimum wage, about 160 baht ($5.35) a day in Bangkok and other high-cost areas, to at least 300 baht ($10) a day. Many migrants from neighboring Burma report that they do not receive the current minimum wage of 160 baht a day. Some analysts predict that a higher announced minimum wage will drive more migrants into underground employment. In September 2011, the newly elected government announced that the minimum wage for government workers would be raised from 10,000 baht a month to 15,000 baht a month.

Thais also emigrate for jobs; most Thai migrants are from rural areas in the poorer northeast. Until the 1990s, many rural Thais migrated to Bangkok and southern Thailand to work seasonally in construction and fisheries. Employers preferred Burmese migrants who did not return to their farms for the harvest, pushing more Thais abroad, especially to Israel and Taiwan.