Better regard for migrants needed: Experts

Migrant workers are “not commodities”. and must be treated with humanity, say panelists on Channel NewsAsia’s Perspectives.

By Samantha Yap
POSTED: 26 Sep 2015 04:28 UPDATED: 26 Sep 2015 04:29

SINGAPORE: With the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) on the horizon, a focus on building a positive image of migrant worker contributions is essential to overcome challenges faced by low-skilled migrant workers who may be left out, said panelists during a recent taping of Channel NewsAsia’s Perspectives.

The aim of the AEC is to establish regional economic integration by December 31, 2015 and when implemented, will encourage the free flow of skilled labour. However, this applies to only 1 per cent of migrants in the region, the other 99 per cent being low-skilled workers, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said.

At the discussion titled “Migration and the Asian Workforce” at University Hall at the National University of Singapore (NUS), panelists said regulating the flow of low-skilled migrants is a challenge as well.

Speakers included Assoc Prof Elaine Ho from the Department of Geography, NUS; Ramachelvam Manimuthu, chairperson to the Committee on Migrants, Refugees and Immigration Affairs, Bar Council Malaysia; Manuel Imson, senior programme officer for ASEAN of the ILO and Dr Tan Lai Yong, director for Outreach and Community Engagement at the College of Alice and Peter Tan, NUS.

“Migration is here to stay and it will grow, but migration should be seen as an option not a necessity,” said Mr Imson. “I think it is about time that this becomes a challenge for everyone to build on a more positive image of migrants in relation to their development contribution.”

Prof Ho said migrant workers should not just be regarded as an economic necessity or a temporary presence.

“It’s to think about how migrant workers contribute to the flourishing of our economy and the diversity within our society as well, so I think that society also needs to be aware of the contributions that migrant workers are making to nations,” she said.

Holding everyone accountable to the issues of migration is part of the challenge said Mr Imson. “Migrants are workers and labour migration management and protection of migrants are shared responsibility.”

Mr Ramachelvam ageed: “To me, migration is the biggest challenge facing society today, especially the plight of low-skilled migrants within various countries in Asia.

“Migrant workers are not commodities, they are human beings with a family and we must always remember this. We must treat them with humanity.”

Countries who send migrants abroad and countries who receive migrants have different priorities. Sending countries look to ensure remittances come back and receiving countries look to ensuring labour costs are low, panellists pointed out.

“When we talk about the AEC, we need to bear in mind the divergent interests represented and the unequal power relationship because receiving countries actually do have better bargaining power,” said Prof Ho.

On the other hand, Mr Ramachelvam said: “Countries of origin have a duty and an obligation to protect their citizens, to ensure that when their citizens are sent abroad, they are given labour rights, rights to minimum wages, ensure that there is adequate housing, adequate safety, adequate rights to repatriate their wages and so on.”


Dr Tan who spends his Saturdays interacting with construction workers from Myanmar and Bangladesh was told by a migrant worker: “We just want to make a living, be nice to each other, stay out of trouble and get home safe.”

Said Dr Tan: “I think when we begin to talk about low-skilled labour, we just want to appreciate them for what they do.

“Right now we hire foreign workers from Bangladesh and India, they pay the agent fees over there and we ignore it, we think it’s not done in Singapore so we can do nothing about it but we need to understand there’s a true cost of hiring and once we account for that, we will have skills match,” he added.

“As an educator I want to encourage people to celebrate migration in the workforce because there are worse forms of migration – war, refugees, climate change,” said Dr Tan.

Catch up on other Perspectives episodes here, and get more insight and opinions from our panel of industry leaders from around the world.