"Supporting Migrant Workers during the Pandemic for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community"

13th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour

The ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) is an open platform for the review, discussion and exchange of good practices and ideas between governments, workers' and employers' organizations, and civil society on key issues facing migrant workers in Southeast Asia. Each year the Forum develops recommendations to advance the implementation of the principles of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

Theme

In line with the theme of ASEAN Chairmanship 2020 and based on the current situation of COVID-19, the 13th AFML was hosted with the theme "Supporting Migrant Workers during the Pandemic for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community". It was conducted with two sub-themes as follows:

Sub-theme 1: Impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers and responses in ASEAN
- Health risks and access to healthcare
- Access to information
- Labour rights, and access to justice
- Social protection, and access to relief/income support
- Return and reintegration

Sub-theme 2: Inclusive and responsive labour migration policy for future preparedness in ASEAN
- Improving housing and wages
- Extending social assistance/ social security to migrant workers
- Public health, emergency and pandemic preparedness planning
- Access to up-skilling and re-skilling
- Guidelines for labour migration management in the new normal (deployment, placement, workplace)

By choosing the theme 'Cohesive and Responsive' for the ASEAN Chairmanship of Viet Nam in 2020, Viet Nam wished to highlight the decisive role of solidarity and unity in maintaining the sustainability of ASEAN. Only a cohesive and advanced ASEAN Community can effectively respond to external influences and responsiveness will allow ASEAN to strengthen its cohesion, enhancing its overall capacities. Reality has proven that to persevere and respond effectively to turbulence in the region and the world, ASEAN needs to maintain solidarity and unity, bolster economic resilience, enhance its rapid responsiveness to emerging challenges, and foster innovation, initiative and reinvention to drive itself forward.

Background

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 crisis has had an unprecedented impact on economies, businesses and workers globally and in the ASEAN region. According to the ILO, as of 15 June 2020, 93 per cent of the world's workers reside in countries with workplace closure measures in place. Workplace closure directly translates into the loss of working hours and jobs.

In many countries, migrant workers represent a significant share of the workforce making important contributions to societies and economies, and serving on the front line carrying out essential jobs in health care, transport, services, construction, and agriculture and agro-food processing. Yet, many migrant workers are concentrated in sectors of the economy with high levels of temporary, informal or unprotected work, characterized by low-wage, high-contact, and often lacks social protection, especially in the care and domestic work which are largely carried out by women migrant workers. Reports document rising levels of discrimination and xenophobia against migrants and in some cases food insecurity, layoffs, worsening working conditions including reduction or non-payment of wages, cramped or inadequate living conditions.

In addition, travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have trapped migrants in countries of destination with few options to return home. Layoffs of migrant workers not only often lead to income losses but also the expiration of visa or work permits, putting migrants into undocumented or irregular status. Yet hundreds of thousands of ASEAN migrant workers have returned or repatriated home since the epidemic started. Travel restrictions have also meant that many migrant workers have been prevented from taking up employment abroad for which they have contracts, and for which many may have paid high recruitment fees and costs. This, in turn, can lead to further irregular movements, potential debt bondage and human trafficking.

The continuous rapid spread of COVID-19 is unimaginable with numbers increasing daily, both globally and regionally. More than ever before, the ASEAN Member States need to work in solidarity across the region to overcome the current crisis. With a deep concern about the impact of COVID-19 on ASEAN workers, including migrant workers, various national and international organizations are reviewing the impacts/challenges and the way to best respond to them. Policy responses to support migrant workers introduced by ASEAN Member States have included, among others, free COVID-19 testing and health care for migrant workers; automatic visa extensions; registration procedures; logistical help in organizing returns; and assistance and temporary income support to returnees. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has, however, exposed the challenges faced by migrant workers in the region as they often lack access to health services and are left out of formal policy and social protection measures.

At the regional level, the ASEAN Labour Ministers' Special Meeting on 14 May 2020 adopted the Joint Statement on response to the impact of COVID-19 on labour and employment, which outlines actions to support migrant workers stranded in each other's country or third countries. Through meetings and reports, they can see that ASEAN has jointly responded to the COVID-19 and its impact by undertaking measures to sustain the health and livelihood of the people and accelerate economic recovery.