Towards Safe Migration for ASEAN

AAYLF delegate from Thailand Kantheera Tipkanjanarat advocates for a safer future for migrant workers with protection from exploitation and human rights violations. 

Overworked and underpaid, this is a typical profile of migrant workers that comes to mind when I reflect on an internship with the Human Rights and Development Foundation in Bangkok. I once read a handwritten letter from a migrant worker. She asked for help to demand compensation from her employer who refused to pay for a work accident that made her unable to work for a few months. As she was the sole family breadwinner, the lack of income during those months greatly affected her family. Unfortunately, this story is not unique. It is only one of the many instances in which I learnt about the grievances suffered by workers who make up 6.8 million intra-regional migrants in Southeast Asia. Hearing these stories, I realized the failure of the current system to provide adequate support and complaint mechanisms for migrant workers who may have irregular status and, as a result, are subject to exploitation and human rights violations. I believe that as strategic partners, ASEAN and Australia have a greater role to play in promoting fair treatment of migrant workers to allow countries to reap the benefits of freely regulated flows of migration. Coordinated and comprehensive migration strategies will boost economic gains, fill labour shortages, and safeguard the rights of migrant workers.

Despite migration and remittances playing an important role in economic growth in both destination and origin countries in Southeast Asia, current migration channels are complex and costly. To address this, increased adoption of digital technology could help lower asymmetric information and transaction costs. Information about the labour market and job opportunities for migrant workers is often limited. They often have to rely on recruitment agencies, friends and family members as a source of information. It is common for migrant workers to incur debt to pay for exorbitant employment fees. Employers similarly pay expensive fees to recruitment agencies to hire a migrant worker and apply for the necessary permits. Regulating information platforms sharing job opportunities and employer reviews would help facilitate greater knowledge for prospective migrant workers and allow them to make informed decisions. Employers could also more quickly find both skilled and unskilled workers to fill labour shortages.

According to the World Bank’s Remittance Prices Worldwide database, the global average remittance cost is as high as 7 percent. To work towards 3 percent by 2030 as outlined as a global target under the Sustainable Development Goals, government and private sector actors will have to collaborate to promote cheaper and more inclusive financial access. According to the World Bank, ASEAN countries received approximately US$62 billion in remittances in 2015. This amount is close to Myanmar’s total gross domestic product (GDP) of US$60 billion in the same year. In top remittance receiving countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, total remittances could be as high as 10 percent and 7 percent of total GDP respectively. FinTech innovations would help lower the transaction cost to provide cheaper and more inclusive finance access.

Governments and regulators could accelerate the process through a policy sandbox to remove unnecessary regulatory barriers. This would facilitate economic growth, improve quality of life and narrow the income and development gap between high-income and low-income countries in the region.

It is in ASEAN and Australia’s interest to promote safe migration under both political-security and socio-cultural pillars. Regional and bilateral cooperation are crucial commitments that will greatly reduce complexity and enhance flexibility for migrant workers. There have been encouraging efforts to promote safe migration through collaboration and adoption of the Action Plan to implement the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2018. However, there is more to be done. Adoption of digital technology can be one of the key drivers to safe migration. Only through concerted efforts will migrant workers find rewarding working conditions and be fairly paid. They must not be left behind.


  1. Testaverde, Mauro; Moroz, Harry; Hollweg, Claire H.; Schmillen, Achim. 2017. Migrating to Opportunity :
  2. Overcoming Barriers to Labor Mobility in Southeast Asia. World Bank. Washington, DC: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28342 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.
  3. Harkins, Benjamin; Lindgren, Daniel; Suravoranon, Tarinee. 2017. Risks and rewards: Outcomes of labour migration in South-East Asia. International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration. https://www.ilo.org/asia/publications/WCMS_613815/lang–en/index.htm.
  4. International Labour Organization.  2019. Digitalization to promote decent work for migrant workers in ASEAN. Thematic background paper for the 11th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML). https://www.ilo.org/asia/publications/WCMS_713546/lang–en/index.htm.

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