“Recovery and Labour Migration in the Post-Pandemic Future in ASEAN”

14th 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.


The theme ‘Recovery and Labour Migration in the Post-Pandemic Future in ASEAN’ is chosen this year in accordance with Brunei Darussalam ASEAN Chairmanship theme “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper”. With the chosen 14th AFML theme, Brunei Darussalam aims to highlight the importance of preparation for recovery in the post-pandemic future in ASEAN in order to build a more prepared, dynamic and sustainable regional community that can enhance our people’s lives.

Sub-theme 1: Protection of Migrant Workers during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Current situation will discuss the immediate measures required to address migrant workers’ basic needs like for example access to adequate food, shelter and healthcare. This includes equal access social protection, including medical care, vaccines, and basic income security; access to remedies for wage and other labour rights violations; and improved safety and health prevention and measures at workplaces and in housing. It is also crucial to ensure women migrant workers’ access to gender-responsiveness support services and reintegration support, including essential services for victims of gender based violence. Going forward, public health measures such as movement restrictions and workplace closures need to become evidence-based, more humane, and smarter to sustain economic and social recovery.

Sub-theme 2: Recovery and the post pandemic future will discuss the long term measures needed to address existing gaps in migrant workers’ protection that have become evident or been exacerbated by the pandemic. Gaps in labour law protection of migrant workers – including those in essential services, in domestic work and in informal or gig economy jobs and those with irregular status – need to be addressed to avoid future crises resulting in similar humanitarian emergency, irregular movements, wage violations and uncompensated job losses seen during COVID-19. When labour migration reopens within the region, measures are needed to ensure that migrant workers are not charged fees for their recruitment, including costs related to COVID-19 testing, vaccination and quarantine. National standards and practices with respect to migrant workers’ housing need to be improved and labour protection strengthened and enforced to benefit migrant workers, including in domestic work. Extending migrant workers’ social protection and the portability of benefits through unilateral and bilateral measures is key to improving their resilience to crises and income shocks. Access to skills development and recognition is also essential in maximizing development impacts of labour migration.


The ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic stimulated and accelerated efforts to promote long-term recovery and resilient policy responses related to the economy and employment. With the increase in global number of new cases as of July 2021 which was nearly 3 million , lockdown measures have been enforced worldwide which limit the movement as well as migration of labour. While vaccine campaigns are ramped up, it is inevitable that recovering from the pandemic will be challenging due to the unpredictable depth of the COVID-19 crisis.

Migrant worker gets tested in Malaysia © Shutterstock
The pandemic has brought widespread disruption to the labour markets around the world and migrant workers have been impacted significantly by the crisis. With the increase in number of cases daily as well as the threat of the new variants of COVID-19, more protection and support are needed in order to address migrant workers’ immediate needs and to address protection gaps to prevent migrant workers from being in a more disadvantaged situation. Migrant workers have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis due to a number of different reasons such as overcrowded housing and employment in jobs with limited possibility of physical distancing. An ILO study carried out in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in October-December 2020 found that only 26 per cent of surveyed migrant workers had enough space for social distancing at work, while 13 per cent had enough space in accommodation and only 9 per cent had enough space during transport. Further, 83 per cent of the respondents reported severe worry, stress and sadness due to COVID-19. Workplace closures as a public health measure have put serious strain also on employers and business, resulting in loss of productivity and income.

In countries of origin COVID-19 has caused reintegration challenges and mass unemployment among returnees and those whose deployment is delayed. The ILO study found that in the Philippines and Myanmar, only 50 per cent of returned migrant workers had received any support upon returning home, and only 31 per cent of the respondents were engaged in paid work. Among the 69 per cent who were not employed 74 per cent were looking for paid work.

Women migrant workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Rates of gender-based violence and harassment against women migrant workers increased as seen from the reported higher calls to Helplines, while the support services are inadequate to respond to needs. Furthermore, the preexisting inequalities women migrant workers experienced have been exacerbated during the pandemic and this can be expected to persist in the post-COVID-19 future leading to disproportionate losses of employment and income reduction.

In the past several months, access to vaccines has emerged as a major challenge in protection of migrant workers. Barriers to migrant workers’ access the vaccination include lack of information or outreach targeting migrants, administrative and policy barriers, as well as cost barriers, especially for those migrant workers who are not enrolled in national health insurance programmes or migrant workers in irregular situations .

At regional level, the ASEAN labour sector has taken steps to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant workers. As noted from the Joint Statement of ASEAN Labour Ministers on Response to the Impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) on Labour Employment, ministers agreed to strengthen regional solidarity and safeguard labour rights of workers, including migrant workers. The joint statement which recognizes the vulnerability of migrant workers, tasked the ASEAN senior labour officials to undertake joint efforts to promote preparedness of labour and employment policies for the adverse impact of potential pandemics, economic crises, or natural disasters in the future . Further, the 13th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) adopted 12 recommendations on the theme “Supporting Migrant Workers during the Pandemic for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community” in November 2020. These two documents fed into the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF) adopted at the 37th ASEAN Summit in November 2020. The ACRF and its Implementation Plan serve as an exit-coordinated strategy of the region to recover from the pandemic and build back better. Protection of migrant workers is part of ACRF broad strategy 2 on strengthening human security.

Consequently, Brunei Darussalam as the Chair of ASEAN 2021 will be hosting the 14th AFML. Acknowledging the importance of providing enhanced support and protection for migrant workers during the pandemic, the chosen theme for the 14th AFML will be “Recovery and Labour Migration in the Post-Pandemic Future in ASEAN”. The chosen theme will build on the 13th AFML recommendations which calls for better preparedness for and response to future crisis such as a pandemic, economic or natural disaster. It is hoped that the information exchange and sharing of best practices as well as policy responses from ASEAN Member States and stakeholders will be beneficial to assist in developing cohesive recovery plan for the post-pandemic future in ASEAN.