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October 2012, Volume 19, Number 4

Southeast Asia

The 10-nation ASEAN plans a common market and freedom of movement by 2015. The main labor flows are from Burma, Cambodia and Laos to Thailand, Indonesia to Malaysia and Singapore, and Filipinos to other ASEAN nations and around the world.

Burma. The Burmese Department of Labor told Parliament that four million of the country's 60 million citizens were abroad, and that 137 recruiters were licensed to deploy Burmese abroad. Most are in neighboring Thailand, where many are employed in agriculture and fisheries, garment manufacturing and service jobs.

Burmese authorities said they are working with their Thai counterparts to make it easier for Burmese workers to send money home and to obtain skills and training in Thailand that will be useful after they return. Burmese workers in Thailand have until December 14, 2012 to register with Burmese offices in Thailand to verify their nationality and receive Burmese passports.

Indonesia. Jakarta's airport contains a special terminal for returning migrant workers, the Selapajang Terminal, that has long generated complaints of overcharges from migrants seeking transport to their home towns. The government does not allow family and friends to meet returning migrants, reportedly to protect them from con artists and scams. However, the minivan drivers permitted to transport migrants home have been accused of charging high fees and occasionally robbing their passengers.

The terminal for returning migrants was created to protect them, but has turned into a place where migrants are abused, according to both activists and the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI). The Manpower and Transmigration Ministry is responsible for the operation of the migrant terminal.

Indonesia is a country of about 17,508 islands including Bali, one of the richest. Migrants from the main island of Java must have special ID cards to enter Bali by ferry. The Bali police in August 2012 were checking the IDs of newly arrived migrants to prevent too many internal migrants from seeking higher wages in Bali. Almost a million workers in Bali have part-time jobs, which often pay more than full-time jobs in Java.

Philippines. The government is debating proposals to stop sending domestic or household service workers (HSWs) abroad in 2013. The head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Hans Leo Cacdac, argued against a ban on the deployment of HSWs, who include maids, nannies, gardeners, private tutors and family drivers. He noted that those employed in European countries earn high wages and are protected.

Beginning in 2007, Filipino HSWs employed abroad had to be at least 23, be paid at least $400 a month, and could not be charged recruitment or placement fees.

Almost 100,000 Filipino HSWs were deployed abroad in 2011. About 30 percent went to Hong Kong, followed by 60 percent to the Middle East. The POEA says that some of them are credentialed nurses and teachers who can earn more abroad as HSWs than at home in their professions.

Saudi Arabia ended an 18-month ban on the entry of Filipino HSWs in September 2012, accepting the $400-a-month minimum salary set by the Philippines and the POEA-developed Standard Employment Contract that establishes standards and protections for HSWs.

Some 28 recruiters who send migrants abroad to work on land, and five that send workers abroad for employment on ships, signed the Commitment to Ethical Conduct and Best Recruitment Practices in August 2012. The signatories agreed not to collect placement fees and comply with all Filipino laws on recruitment.

The Philippine economy is expanding rapidly. Unlike other fast-growing Asian economies, the Philippines has faster-than-average population and labor force growth; over 60 percent of residents are 15 to 64. The Philippines surpassed India in 2011 as the leading provider of voice-based outsourcing services like customer service call centers, with almost 700,000 mostly young Filipinos employed.

The 9.5 million Filipinos outside the country remitted $20 billion in 2011, up from $7.5 billion in 2003.

Singapore. The government tightened immigration rules in response to popular discontent with "too many foreigners." Since 1990, Singapore's population has almost doubled to 5.2 million, and the government says that skilled foreigners continue to be welcomed. Some 18,500 foreigners a year become naturalized Singaporean citizens.

There were 1.2 million foreign workers in Singapore at the end of 2011. Starting September 1, 2012, foreign workers must earn at least S$4,000 ($3,150) a month to bring their spouses and children with them to Singapore, up from S$2,800. In another effort to "moderate the growth of Singapore's non-resident population," marriages of convenience to obtain immigration privileges were made criminal offenses.

Singapore citizens currently make up 63 percent of the population, down from 91 percent in 1990, reflecting the growing number of foreigners in the country. Many of the newcomers are from mainland China. Even though most Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, the newcomers from mainland China are accused of stealing jobs and driving up housing prices. Almost a third of marriages involve a Singaporean and a foreigner, prompting accusations that mainland Chinese are "stealing" Singaporeans.

Singapore has no minimum wage, but some migrant-sending countries establish minimum wages for their nationals in Singapore. For example, Filipina maids must receive at least $400 (S$500) a month, and Indonesian maids are to receive at least $360 (S$350) a month. Domestic workers are entitled to four days off a month. If they work on a rest day, they are to be paid at least $14.

Thailand. The Thai government continues to struggle with the presence of an estimated two million migrants from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. In June 2012, the government reported that 905,000 migrant workers were registered, suggesting that over half are not registered with Thai authorities.

Registration within Thailand requires that migrants have their nationality verified by consular officials from their country of origin and then pay fees for temporary Thai work visas. Initially, Burma refused to issue passports to its nationals in Thailand, but later changed its policy.

There are now eight Burmese offices in Thailand where Burmese can obtain passports, and the Thai labor ministry in October 2012 reported that 1.3 million of the 1.7 million migrant workers in the country have completed nationality verification at a cost of 3,000 baht for verification fees, work permits, health check-ups and a two-year renewable visa. The Thai government threatened to deport the remaining 400,000 migrants if they have not completed nationality verification by December 14, 2012.

Thailand's minimum wage was raised to 300 baht ($9.50) a day in 2012.

The Thai Ministry of Labor, which in June 2012 announced that female foreign workers who become pregnant must return to their countries of origin to give birth, reversed itself in July 2012 and said that female migrants could give birth in Thailand, with costs covered by the social security system to which migrants contribute, if the worker's embassy issued birth certificates to the babies deeming them Burmese, Cambodian or Laotian.

The Thai government in October 2012 announced that more migrants from neighboring countries would be admitted under government-to-government agreements. The National Fisheries Association of Thailand requested permission to recruit 50,000 Bangladeshis, which the government said it would grant if the NFA developed a plan to prevent them from moving to other Thai jobs.

Vietnam. Vietnamese migrants are considered hard workers abroad, but some run away from the employer to whom they were assigned or overstay their visas. Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan in August 2012 urged cities and provinces that are home to more than 300 workers who have become illegal in South Korea to develop appropriate "punishments" so that Korea does not reduce Vietnam's migrant quota. Nhan suggested that the Vietnamese government consider intercepting some worker remittances and having the Korean employer pay the worker's last month salary to the Vietnamese government in order to induce migrants to return.

There were about 75,000 Vietnamese migrants in Korea in mid-2012, including 80 percent in manufacturing and 10 percent each in agriculture and construction.

A Vietnamese migrant who returned from Korea in 2005 after three years in an auto-related factory reported saving a total of $33,000, about $1,000 a month. He tried to return to Korea, but the labor brokers to whom he paid money did not get him the promised contract.

The Institute of Labor Science and Social Affairs and the Department of Overseas Labor in 2010-11 reported that workers who were in Japan saved the most, an average $15,000, workers in South Korea were second, returning with an average $11,600, and workers in Taiwan returned with an average $7,000. Most of these savings are spent to repay debts and improve housing; less than 10 percent is used to begin a new business in Vietnam. Fewer than 10 percent of returned Vietnamese guest workers were employed in the same sector that they worked in abroad.

Vietnam, which experienced rapidly rising property prices, is poised for an adjustment as stocks and property prices fall sharply. At least 10 percent of the loans made by banks are not being repaid, a legacy of free-flowing credit to state-owned corporations that wanted to build condos and buyers who wanted to flip them for profit. Housing prices and office rents are falling, in some cases by up to half of levels of three years ago.

Markus Junianto Sihaloho, "Abuse Still Rife at Soekarno-Hatta's TKI Terminal," Jakarta Globe, September 15, 2012.