Free flow of labour, free movement of inequality?

Asean countries need to get their act together to better manage mass movement of labour across their borders

These days it's hard to decide what language to use in a restaurant in cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

In Bangkok, chances are that the server is from China or Myanmar; in Malaysia from Bangladesh or Nepal; in Singapore from any of the above.

Migrant labour is a growing source of construction, domestic, and increasingly, service workers across the more developed parts of the Asean region.

But as the region's labour force becomes mobile, more and more communities find themselves confronting a marked increase in ethnic and religious diversity, which often leads to prejudice and abuse.

Now, as Asean prepares to declare itself a single market involving a vision of the free movement of labour and capital, it's time to address the abuse of migrants, who often find themselves underpaid or living in poor conditions.

Myanmar migrants play pool at a special economic zone set in north-western Laos, at the border with Thailand and Myanmar. About five million migrant workers from Myanmar live in Thailand. -PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What is the use of aiming at a free flow of labour across the region if there is no will to treat workers equally, or their presence generates prejudice and unrest?

The numbers are striking. Malaysia has more than four million migrants, amounting to almost half the labour force; an estimated five million migrant workers from Myanmar live in Thailand. In Singapore, migrants have contributed to a growth in the population of more than one million in the last decade. Most of these migrants are from within the Asean region, though an increasing number are coming from mainland China and South Asia, particularly Bangladesh.

In the past two years, more than 100,000 people from Myanmar's Rakhine state have left to find safety and security, about half of them have ended up in Malaysia. About 25,000 left in the first three months of this year, according to United Nations reports. They mostly endured perilous sea journeys in rickety boats across the Bay of Bengal. They were often smuggled into Malaysia by human traffickers, whose methods of abuse have been exposed in recent months by the discovery of abandoned camps with cages and mass graves on either side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Responding to international outrage over the recent surge of boat arrivals from Myanmar and Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia have made some effort to address the scourge of human trafficking.

Thailand has arrested more than 70 people alleged to be involved, including an army general. But as Asean moves towards economic integration, it bodes ill that the two governments have agreed this month to build a wall across their border to combat human smuggling.

It is also ironic and frankly dispiriting to see that on the eve of formal Asean economic integration, the movement of people across borders has created marked inequalities and exerted strain on traditions of ethnic and religious tolerance.

The international media has recently highlighted the inhuman conditions of slavery suffered by mostly Cambodian or Myanmar citizens on fishing fleets operating out of Thailand.

Indonesia has seen a marked increase in conflict at the community level - especially in areas where internal migrants of different ethnicity and religion have recently moved in. There have been minor outbreaks of unrest in Singapore and Malaysia involving South Asian migrants in recent years. More seriously in Myanmar, the perceived influx of Muslim immigrants has helped build a strong Buddhist nationalist platform that projects Muslims as a threat to Burmese ethnic purity and Buddhism. Moderate Buddhists in Thailand now worry that anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise there.

It is sad that after decades of nation-building and democratic change, it is so hard for Asean member states to better manage mass movement of labour and the associated problems of inequality and diversity. Millions of dollars in foreign aid have been spent on contributing to regional programmes for promoting labour standards and wage control, even more on supporting equality and tolerance in society.

Malaysia, for example, is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention despite having a labour force of which half is composed of migrants, half of whom are unregistered.

Neither is Thailand, despite hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn ethnic areas of Myanmar who have lived in poorly equipped camps along the border for decades.

More starkly, Thailand's deportation back to China of more than 100 Uighurs, a Muslim minority from Xinjiang, is now believed to have been the motive for a revenge bomb attack on a central Bangkok Hindu shrine that killed more than 20 people, most of them ethnic Chinese.

The reality is that when Asean leaders gather next month to make the momentous declaration of an economic community, there will be little or no immediate impact on society.

Rather, open borders and labour movement with all of their economic and social impact, have tended to create inequality and social friction, which are pushing governments to put up barriers - like the planned wall across the Thai-Malaysian border. What is needed is for Asean to collectively work harder on addressing the impact of modern social and economic realities that are putting a strain on the boundaries between nations and within communities.

South-east Asia is not alone in this regard as the migrant crisis in Europe and the images of barbed wire fences trying to prevent thousands of migrants crossing into Eastern Europe show. However, there is a real opportunity at the Kuala Lumpur Summit next month for Asean to show it can do better.

In this regard, Malaysia should lead the way by forging a bilateral agreement with Myanmar on the regularisation of migrant workers; Thailand must do more to prosecute those who turn a blind eye to the exploitation of migrant labour; and Asean should build on regional consultations earlier this year to form a regional task force to design and activate effective plans to cope with the increasing arrival of migrants, many of whom see themselves as refugees.

With this kind of collective action, Asean will start to earn its credentials as a single community.

•The writer is Asia regional director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.

•S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2015, with the headline 'Free flow of labour, free movement of inequality?'. Print Edition | Subscribe