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Five ways to improve conditions for Asia’s low-wage workers

The plight of 30 million international workers in Asia could be improved in a number of ways, beginning with simplified visa processes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 11:27am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 10:50pm

Full praise to Eni Lestari, the Hong Kong-based domestic helper, for speaking out on behalf of the rights and challenges of international workers in Asia at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants held in New York this week. Pity it was the wrong message in the wrong place: an important message thrown on deaf ears.

Of course, Lestari, an Indonesian national who has struggled as a domestic helper in Hong Kong since 2000 and chairs the International Migrants Alliance, would have been foolish to have refused the opportunity to speak in front of world leaders in the UN General Assembly – even if only for three minutes. But if she and the 30 million international workers in Asia that she directly or indirectly represents want any action, she will need to find different ears, shape different messages – and probably change the name of their organisation too.

My heart goes out to Eni Lestari, and her courage in stepping into the UN General Assembly to advocate on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of domestic helpers working across Asia’s wealthy economies

She was in the wrong place because this high level summit was consumed by a different set of issues. This was overridingly about Syria, chaos in the Middle East, and the political crisis sweeping Europe over how to handle hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflict. As UK Prime Minister Teresa May noted in her presentation to the Assembly (more than three minutes no doubt), this was about “the mass movement of people on a scale unseen before”. She was calling for “a new approach needed to manage migration worldwide”. Lestari’s message about better treatment of international workers was light years away from the preoccupations swirling around the global leaders gathered for the UN Summit in New York. No surprise that there was no mention of her message in the UN Press Release summarising the summit.

If there is one lesson that we in the APEC Business Advisory Council have learned over a decade of painfully slow progress and numerous reversals in pressing for the improved management of the movement of international workers it is that we need to steer as far as possible from the issue of migration. The very mention of the word raises political pulses. Immigration officials in Immigration Departments carry a national security imperative. They have paranoid and prejudiced politicians on their backs at the first hint of a breach in that imperative. The fact that businesses inside the country have an urgent need for workers to fill skills breaches that cannot be filled from within the local workforce is a secondary concern.

So my first pieces of advice to Lestari are a) purge all mention of the word “migration” from your literature; b) avoid taking your issues into meetings focused on the emotive and political issue of migration – still worse on refugees; and c) purge the word Migrant from the name of your organisation. Why not instead call yourselves the “International Workforce Alliance”?

Why purge the word “migration” from your vocabulary? The obvious answer is that most of the people you represent have no interest in migration. You are talking about the need properly to manage the movement of international workers. Most of these workers have no interest in migrating to live permanently in the economy where they are seeking work. As I wrote four months ago as Indonesia’s President Widodo laid plans to stop allowing domestic helpers to work overseas: “The hundreds of thousands of young Indonesian girls who like Lestari travel overseas, far from their homes and cultures into work environments that resemble Victorian semi-slavery are not travelling for the sake of their health. They are fleeing joblessness and poverty in an economy that has consistently failed to provide jobs or income security to large parts of its population.”

The International Labour Organisation, which contributes to our problem of winning proper attention for the challenges of managing the international movement of labour by muddling its statistics, says that 150 million of the 330 million migrants worldwide are simply international workers living outside their home countries. Around 30 million of these are in Asia-Pacific.

Without going near the issue of migration, there is a pressing need for improvements in the way the movement of these 30 million workers is managed. First, we need to rein in, and make transparent, the operations of the thousands of employment agencies that make exorbitant profits from fees charged to workers seeking contracts overseas. Visa processes for international workers should be simplified. Fees should be paid by employers, not by the workers themselves.

In APEC, we are arguing for an “international worker card” that would ease the movement of workers to and from their overseas jobs, and would provide standardised access to health insurance and the maintenance of pension benefits while they are away from home. We are pressing for improvements in managing remittances. At present, a worker remitting US$200 back home will on average pay fees and charges amounting to US$15 – an exorbitant rate of about 7.4 per cent. Few governments in the region provide the sort of long-term savings bonds that would encourage international workers to save what they earn. And we are pressing for region-wide recognition of skills and qualifications that would allow (for example) a nurse trained in a college in the Philippines to have her qualifications recognised in Japan or South Korea, where there are acute shortages of well trained hospital staff. Apart from the professional area of “allied health”, APEC is exploring pilot recognition arrangements in the burgeoning tourism sector.

So my heart goes out to Eni Lestari, and her courage in stepping into the UN General Assembly to advocate on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of domestic helpers working across Asia’s wealthy economies. Many of us in APEC are working hard at a less exalted level to achieve the same ends. But I hope she recognises that in the UN, and in particular in the UN High Commission on Refugees , she is spitting in the wind.

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group