As Asean seeks further integration, its members can do more to lower barriers for their workers to move in and out of one another's countries to work, said the World Bank.
In doing so, they can reap benefits by spreading talent and know-how around Asean, which is among the fastest-growing regions in a tepid global economy.
Workers also gain from such migration, which should be seen as "brain circulation" rather than "brain drain", the bank said in a report released yesterday.
Carefully managed migration processes are another key factor that can bring benefits, it added.
The measures it recommends to ease flows of such people include improving the information workers have about opportunities and rights and giving more data on skills shortages.
The Asean Economic Community has taken steps to ease such movements, like standardising qualifications, the bank noted. This would allow engineers, nurses, architects, doctors, dentists, surveyors, accountants and tourism professionals from one Asean country to work in another if they meet certain requirements.
But these occupations make up just 5 per cent of jobs in the region.
What this means is that worker welfare - a metric that includes wages and employment - would not rise as fast. If barriers go down for all workers, the increase would be 29 per cent compared with 14 per cent if only the higher-skilled ones are targeted, said the report.
Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand attract the bulk of migrant workers in the region, many of them lower-skilled. Altogether, they take in 6.5 million Asean migrants, 96 per cent of the total.
Besides Asean, the only other region where the share of intra-region migration, out of all migration, increased between 1995 and 2015 is East Asia and the Pacific. In Asean, it shot up by 10 percentage points.
The rise is due to differences in growth and population trends among Asean countries, said the report's lead author Mauro Testaverde, who is the World Bank's economist for social protection and labour for East Asia and Pacific.
The bank's chief economist for the East Asia and Pacific region Sudhir Shetty added: "Labour mobility contributes to continued vitality in the region with benefits not only for migrants themselves but also for sending and receiving countries."
Countries that send out their workers get remittances and expertise, while those that take them in see their labour shortages addressed, boosting growth and the employment of their local workers, said the two experts.
Singapore was cited for its sophisticated and well-functioning system of managing foreign labour, but the report also noted "concerns about (its) enforcement of employment protections for foreign workers", especially maids.
In Asean as a whole, gaps in migration systems persist. For example, overly onerous labour movement processes may result in more undocumented migrants.
The report suggests ways to improve mobility. One is to make entry requirements more transparent and to help workers track their progress towards admission.
Often, workers are ill-informed about opportunities and costs, and may be exploited by recruitment agencies or employers charging high job-placement fees. Asean could address this with a common labour market information portal, the report said.
Singapore's customer rating system for maid agencies, which makes public the feedback of employers, was highlighted as a way to improve transparency in maid recruitment. It can be made more comprehensive by letting maids rate agencies too, the report said.
Other recommendations include:
- Publishing data on skills shortages;
- Developing an Asean framework for bilateral agreements on labour flows;
- Having pre-departure courses - like in the Philippines - to ensure migrant workers know their rights and are financially literate.