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January 2013, Volume 20, Number 1

Southeast Asia

President Obama participated in the ASEAN summit in Cambodia in November 2012, and also visited Thailand and Myanmar. ASEAN, which plans a free-trade agreement by 2015, announced plans to free up trade with six countries that already have FTAs with ASEAN: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

ASEAN aims to begin freedom of movement for eight occupations in 2015, including engineers, nurses, architects, surveyors, accountants, dentists and doctors. For each occupation, migrants would have to pass tests and receive certificates in the country in which they want to work.

Burma/Myanmar. Burma, a country of 55 million, has some three million citizens abroad, according to the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security. The MLESS said that almost all Burmese abroad were in neighboring Thailand, and that 1.2 million Burmese in Thailand had received temporary passports after having their Burmese nationality verified. Another one million Burmese are in Thailand without Burmese passports.

There are over 100,000 legal Burmese workers in Malaysia (and another 100,000 unauthorized Burmese), and more in South Korea, Japan and the Middle East. Rohinga, a Muslim minority living in western Burma, have been attacked by Burmese Buddhists, encouraging some to flee in boats for Malaysia and Thailand.

Malaysia, which is majority Muslim, is most welcoming to the Burmese who pay about $300 to board boats for neighboring countries. Bangladesh has made it harder for Rohingas to move there, and Thailand tries to intercept Rohinga boats and turn them back to Burma.

Since 2010, the former military dictatorship has allowed multiparty elections and invited foreign investors, prompting the first visit by a US President on November 19, 2012.

Indonesia. There are about four million Indonesian workers abroad, primarily in Malaysia and in Gulf oil exporting states. Two-thirds are women, most of whom work as live-in domestic workers abroad. Remittances were $6.7 billion in 2011, about the same as foreign tourism, prompting some to call Indonesian migrants "pahlawan devisa," or foreign exchange heroes for the money they send home.

Indonesia has stopped the deployment of domestic workers several times after cases of severe abuse abroad. In response, some recruiters are providing households with foreign maids who work from 8am to 8pm and then are housed and fed by the recruiter. In December 2012, almost 100 Indonesian women who had been forced to work as domestic helpers and food stall vendors were found in Kuala Lumpur's port city of Klang. Malaysia arrested 12 people from the recruiting agency.

Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong complained in November 2012 about the debt they incur for training before they leave Indonesia. To protect Indonesians abroad, employment agencies are required to train them before departure. Indonesian recruiters typically charge about $2,000, although the government recently capped recruitment fees at $1,900. Few women leaving to work have this money, so they take out loans at very high interest rates, 60 percent or more. Some advocates say that recruiters make more money from lending money to train women to work abroad than they do from placing them in foreign jobs.

Malaysian employers are to pay a M$4,511 ($1,475) fee to recruitment agencies for domestic workers, including M$2,711 to the agency and M$1,800 as an advance payment to the worker that is recouped via deductions from worker wages.

Jakarta's airport contains a special terminal for returning migrant workers, the Selapajang Terminal, that has generated complaints of overcharges from migrants seeking transport to their home-towns since it was opened in 1999. The government opened the special migrant terminal to protect returning migrants, but it quickly became notorious for slow processing, high-priced food and drink, and high fees charged by the minivan drivers permitted to transport migrants from the terminal to their homes.

The Manpower and Transmigration Ministry, which is responsible for the operation of the migrant terminal, announced that returning migrants could use regular airline terminals beginning December 26, 2012, but they would have to register before arranging public transportation to their hometowns. Most returning migrants are women who have not graduated from secondary school, and many are from regions surrounding Jakarta, including Indramayu, Karawang, Cianjur and Sukabumi.

Indonesia is booming. The economy expanded by over five percent for seven of the past eight years, and the country attracted $32 billion in foreign direct investment. Workers eager for a share of profits went on strike in Fall 2012 for higher minimum wages, which are set by governors. The governor of Jakarta, who took office in October 2012, agreed to raise the minimum wage 44 percent, from 1.5 million to 2.2 million rupiah ($228) a month effective January 1, 2013.

The new minimum wage is 65 percent of the average wage, one of the world's highest rates, and manufacturers in the Jakarta region who employ three million workers said they would have to substitute capital for labor due to higher wages. If manufacturing employment does not decline, out-migration may fall as Indonesians realize they can earn almost as much at home as abroad. For example, monthly wages for domestic workers are 2.3 million rupiah a month in Malaysia, but higher in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Indonesia is known for corruption, collusion and nepotism ("KKN").

Malaysia. The 6P program aimed to legalize migrant workers in Malaysia but many migrants complain that they paid M$3,000 to M$4,000 to agents and were not legalized. Many of those who were cheated were Bangladeshis who, at 400,000, are second in number only to Indonesians among migrants in Malaysia.

In a bid to push employers to raise productivity instead of hiring more migrants, the government January 1, 2013 raised the minimum wage to M$900 ($295) a month for Peninsular Malaysia (M$800 elsewhere).

Philippines. The Philippines received over $24 billion in remittances in 2012, pushing it ahead of Mexico, which received $23.5 billion in remittances, for the first time. POEA reported that over 1.7 million Filipinos left in 2011, including 40 percent who went to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

For the 18th year, the President of the Philippines welcomed returning Overseas Filipino Workers on December 20, 2012 in a Pamaskong Handog ceremony.

The Philippine economy is booming, attracting over $6 billion in pledged foreign investment. By 2020, the Philippines is expected to have a labor force of 75 million, up from the current 60 million.

Singapore. Singapore had 1.2 million foreign workers in June 2012; they were about 35 percent of workers employed in the city-state.

In November 2012, some 171 Chinese bus drivers refused to work because, they said, the state-controlled transport operator SMRT gave them smaller bonuses than those given to Singaporean or Malaysian drivers; Singaporean drivers receive S$1,775 a month, Malaysian drivers S$1,400 a month, and Chinese migrant drivers S$1,075. About 22 percent of the 2,030 SMRT bus drivers are Chinese migrants and another 22 percent are Malaysians.

Singapore law requires workers providing "essential services," including health care, firefighting and public transport, to give 14 days' notice before going on strike. One of the striking Chinese was sentenced to six weeks in prison for going on strike without giving notice and 29 were deported. The Chinese bus drivers' strike was the first since a 1986 strike by shipyard workers.

Calls to require equal wages for migrant and local workers were rebuffed by the National Trades Union Congress, which said that Singaporeans need higher wages because they have high living costs, while migrants live in barracks and send most of their earnings to families at home. The NTUC noted that employers must pay levies in order to employ migrant workers, which increased the cost of migrants and led to lower wages for them. The NTUC supports better conditions for migrant workers who live in dormitories, but not separate unions for migrant workers.

Thailand. Thailand manages labor migration by allowing foreign workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia and Laos to be registered by their employers and receive one- or two-year work permits.

The 2011-12 registration program ended on December 14, 2012, when there were 1.2 million registered foreign workers. The estimated 260,000 BCL migrants who did not have their nationality verified by their national governments and receive Thai work permits by December 14, 2012 were to be deported. However, after protests, the government gave them three more months to complete the so-called NV process and receive work permits.

Activists decried plans to deport migrants who did not register before the deadline, alleging that a mass deportation campaign would violate the human rights of migrants, some of whom paid brokers to help them with the nationality verification process but did not receive documents. Industry leaders predicted that the food processing, construction and fisheries sectors of the Thai economy would suffer if migrants were deported.

The Thai government, which first said that deported migrants can return to Thailand legally if they receive job offers from Thai employers, later extended the registration deadline to mid-February 2013.

Thailand's Board of Investment in January 2013 won a two-year extension of the right of the firms it sponsors to employ low-skilled foreign workers. However, BOI-sponsored firms are supposed to reduce their employment of migrants by 25 percent every six months, so that they do not employ any after two years.

Thailand has a labor force of 33 million, including up to 10 percent migrants. The director-general of the Department of Employment, Pravit Khiengpol, in November 2012 said that there were 1.7 million foreign workers employed in the country, including half in the industrial sector. The DOE in Fall 2012 considered reducing the number of work permits for foreigners to make jobs available for Thais.

There was speculation that some employers, facing the 300 baht a day minimum wage throughout the country January 1, 2013, would try to replace Thais with legal migrants or unauthorized foreigners. The foreigners work harder, and employers are allowed to deduct the cost of housing from the wages of legal migrants.

Some migrant activists say that the nationality verification process shifted the corruption that allowed migrants to find jobs in Thailand from police and other local officials to labor brokers. They note that few employers are fined for hiring unauthorized migrant workers.

The construction sector complained of labor shortages in Fall 2012. Employment in the sector is typically about 2.5 million, but low interest rates have pushed demand to 2.8 million in 2012. Builders say that Thais are shunning jobs in construction, and want the government to allow more guest workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos to be employed in construction.