Backlash against migrant workers in Asia-Pacific sparks slavery concerns

A photo taken on Oct 30, 2019, shows a migrant worker straightening an iron rod at the construction site of a carpark in Srinagar. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Public support for migrant workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand is decreasing, a United Nations poll found on Wednesday (Dec 18) that campaigners said raised concerns about the risk of slavery.

Most people in the three nations have limited knowledge about and increasingly negative attitudes towards migrant workers, and do not think they should receive the same benefits or pay as local workers, showed the survey by two UN agencies.

Such attitudes can condone discrimination, exploitation and violence against migrant workers, and influence policies on labour migration, according to the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UN Women.

As many as 10 million migrants are estimated to work across Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and campaigners say debt bondage, limited state oversight, and unscrupulous employment practices leave them vulnerable to labour abuses and slavery.

Many are undocumented, meaning they are not only exempt from state benefits but at greater risk of being exploited or enslaved and less likely to speak out for fear of reprisals.

"While the research did not determine why attitudes towards migrant workers are declining, it does demonstrate that we are not successfully countering racism, xenophobia and hate," ILO adviser Anna Engblom told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It is likely that discriminatory practices are allowed to flourish if the general public sympathises with such values and behaviours," Ms Engblom said on International Migrants Day on Dec 18 - set by the United Nations to raise awareness on the issue.

The research - a follow-up to a 2010 poll - was based on interviews with about 4,100 people in the three countries as well as Japan, which did not feature in the previous survey.

More than half the respondents in Malaysia and Thailand, and a quarter in Singapore, said there was a need for more migrant workers in their countries but over a third of those polled in each nation agreed that migrants were "a drain on the economy".

About half of the people surveyed in Singapore, 77 per cent in Thailand and 83 per cent in Malaysia said they thought crime rates had increased in their countries because of migration.

"There is a belief that migrant workers are taking away our social, economic and political resources," said Ms Glorene Das, head of the Malaysian migrant workers rights group Tenaganita.

Mr Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator at the Migrant Working Group, a network of charities promoting migrant rights, said such negative attitudes would result in further exploitation.

"Governments will take less action to protect migrant workers because they will be concerned with public perception. Workers will also be afraid to speak out due to concern they will be disliked by locals, which will cause problems."

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