Labour migration can lead to long-term improvements in the lives of migrant workers if their labour rights are protected and they are given opportunities for skills development, say the International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) in a new study. The report, entitled Risks and Rewards: Outcomes of Labour Migration in South-East Asia provides a timely assessment of migrants’ experiences within ASEAN. According to the most recent UN statistics, the number of migrants headed to other countries in the ASEAN region has increased more than five-fold since 1990, reaching nearly 6.9 million. Millions more are employed without legal status and are not captured in official data.
“Despite rapid growth in the numbers of women and men migrating in South-East Asia, the outcomes for migrant workers are not well understood,” says Ben Harkins, ILO Technical Officer and lead author of the report. To inform their work, the ILO TRIANGLE in ASEAN and IOM PROMISE programmes collaborated on a large-scale regional survey of over 1,800 migrants from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam who had been employed in Thailand or Malaysia. The study developed a Migration Outcomes Index (MOI) to measure changes in the lives of migrant workers from before to after their migration. The Index broadens the way migration outcomes are measured by incorporating both social and economic elements.
According to Harkins, “The MOI represents a break not only from the narrow focus on counting remittances but also from the human trafficking paradigm that is very dominant in South-East Asia. It offers a more nuanced assessment of migration experiences than just ‘trafficked or not trafficked.”
Ensuring a safe and rewarding migration experience
To obtain a better understanding of the factors that shape migration outcomes, the study traced migrants back through their journeys. “We set out to re-evaluate some of the commonly held beliefs about which practices and conditions contribute to better outcomes for migrant workers,” says Harkins. “There is a lot of emphasis placed on changing the behaviour of migrants to prevent exploitation and abuse, particularly encouraging them to migrate through regular channels,” observes Harkins. “The thinking is that migrants are making risky decisions and that is putting them in harm’s way.”
“Our findings suggest that the problem is not that migrant workers are making the wrong choices but that they are very vulnerable to abuse regardless of their decisions. They are a group of workers to which a largely different set of rules apply. The risks are even greater for women migrants because their work is often undervalued and affords fewer labour protections.” “What is most important for improving outcomes is ensuring that all migrants benefit from fundamental labour rights such as the minimum wage, including women and men employed in the informal economy. That requires changes to policy and practice by governments, employers, and recruitment agencies rather than to the behaviour of migrant workers,” explains Harkins.
The study also identifies the need to increase access to skills development opportunities for migrant workers. Migrants who increased the skill level of their employment from before migration to after had much better long-term outcomes. “Skills development and validation in partnership with employers can help migrant workers move into jobs with better wages and working conditions, bolstering their economic contribution,” says Anna Platonova, IOM Thailand Senior Programme Manager.
Through improved livelihoods, labour migration can have a lasting impact on poverty reduction within ASEAN. “We found that the number of migrants living below the poverty line was reduced by 11% after return,” says Platonova. “That suggests that migration can be effective in decreasing poverty within the region.”
Although the benefits of labour migration have not been maximized within South-East Asia, the study results show that positive outcomes can be achieved if migrant workers are treated fairly and provided with opportunities to develop their capabilities. The report calls for shifting the focus of labour migration governance in ASEAN towards a more migrant-centred approach. “We should aim to increase the number of migrant workers who have a holistically beneficial labour migration experience, rather than simply expanding national remittance accounts,” Harkins concludes.