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Protecting the Marginalised

JAKARTA, May 3 (Reporting ASEAN) – With the application of the Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA), there are concerns that only one percent of the workforce in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will enjoy its benefits. These include people who work in high-skilled professions, like engineering, nursing, architecture, surveying, medicine, dentistry, accountancy and tourism. But according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are approximately 9.5 million migrant workers in the region who may be excluded from the benefits.

Muhammad Nasir, 33, will not enjoy the benefits of the MRA because he is a manual laborer, working at a construction site in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the past 10 years. It was not an easy start for Nasir, because he came to Malaysia as an illegal worker in 2005 and at that time was earning less than RM10 (US$2.70) per day. “I had no choice back then, I came from Jakarta but there were no job opportunities there,” he recalled.

Two years after coming to Malaysia, Nasir met an agent who was willing to process all the required paperwork for a legal work permit. “I’m now a legal migrant worker,” he said. Nasir can now earn around RM80 (US$21.70) a day. But that is not the case with many of his colleagues whose immigrant status are unclear. “They can’t get higher pay because they don’t have proper documents, so they are forced to take any available job, otherwise they don’t work,” he added.

But job opportunities in Malaysia are scarce while the numbers of migrant workers keep rising. According to the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), the number of migrant workers in 2014 rose by more than 400,000.

Nasir cannot find jobs in any other country because of the permit issue. He is now back in Jakarta for a month before he starts working on another construction project. Nasir himself has never heard of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). When he was told what it was all about, Nasir only commented, “That doesn’t seem to involve us.”

THE ASEAN 10 member states have not yet agreed on a treaty for migrant workers. Most of the agreements are bilateral, between the receiving and sending countries. However, there are other instruments to protect the migrant workers, such as the 2004 Vientiane Action Program, which evolved into the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, signed during the 12th ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the Philippines, in January 2007 by the heads of state.

Anis Hidayah, executive director of Migrant Care, said that the declaration was not enough because it was not legally binding for all ASEAN countries. “We need to find a way to expedite the signing of a convention on migrant workers, the process to do that has been dragging,” she said.

For better protection of migrant workers, nine countries, except the Philippines, will still need to ratify the ILO convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers. This is even more pressing for countries such as Indonesia, which sends out a great number of migrant workers to work outside the country.

Anis added that her non-governmental organization had been criticizing the AEC because of its focus on professional workers. “(The AEC 2015) is protecting those with high skills, they already have an edge, they can compete,” she said. “It is the marginalized who need to be protected.”

However, Ina Hagniningtyas Krisnamurthi, director for ASEAN economic cooperation at the foreign ministry, argued that the issue of migrant workers had never been overlooked by ASEAN. “In the AEC documents, one of the pillars that we focus on is the socio-cultural pillar and the welfare and protection of migrant workers are included in them,” she said.

Nevertheless, the ILO feels that there should also be a recognition and standardization for migrant workers and proposes a Mutual Recognition of Skills (MRS) among all ASEAN member states. “There must be a recognition of migrant workers from the sending to the receiving countries. This is an approach we are trying to introduce to see how we can protect our migrant workers by ensuring that they are recognized by the receiving countries who will benefit from their skills,” said Carmela Torres, ILO Senior Specialist on Skills and Employability.

Muchtar Aziz, the deputy director on standard competency development at the Indonesian manpower and transmigration ministry, is skeptical but hopeful. “We don’t know for sure how (MRS) will be applied in conjunction with the laws in Indonesia,” he said. “But at least, since we are sending so many workers overseas, I hope that there will also be improvement in their protection, welfare and wages.”  (END/Reporting ASEAN)

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