15th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour

“Resumption of Labour Migration and Regional Cooperation”

The ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) is a multi-stakeholder open forum held annually to discuss protection of migrant workers and labour migration governance in the ASEAN region. It is a recurring activity of the ASEAN Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACMW) under the Action Plan (2018 – 2025) to Implement the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The AFML serves to provide the relevant stakeholders – tripartite members of the ASEAN Member States, civil society organizations, and international organizations – with a platform to exchange ideas and best practices on issues relating to migrant workers in the ASEAN region. As 2022 ACMW Chair, Cambodia organized the 15th AFML from 19-20 October 2022 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The theme of the 15th AFML “Resumption of Labour Migration and Regional Cooperation” is timely, focusing on an important shift in the ASEAN labour migration landscape. After a near-complete halt during COVID-19, labour migration is now slowly resuming in ASEAN and the labour demand for migrant workers in the region is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023. In this context it is crucial for governments, employers’ representatives, workers’ representatives, and civil society to review labour migration policies and practices to ensure that the region makes most out of labour migration in the post-pandemic era. It is time to learn from the past experiences and consider policy and programmatic responses needed to ensure that benefits of labour migration are maximized for countries of destination and origin, for migrants and their families, and for employers alike.

The 15th AFML discussed two sub-themes as follows:

Sub-theme 1: Economic Recovery and Labour Migration

This subtheme takes stock of COVID-19’s impacts to the economy and to labour migration in ASEAN, with gender and sectoral analyses of available data on changes to inflows, outflows and registration of migrant workers during COVID-19. The sub-theme explores the outlook for economic recovery in the region and in particular concerning migrant-employing sectors in countries of destination, its differing impacts for women and other groups, as well as demand for migrant workers in these sectors. Changes in working arrangements (e.g. work from home) will also be assessed. Further, government plans and policies for reopening labour migration and procedures in recruitment and admission of migrant workers in the new normal will be discussed. Policies to facilitate migrant workers’ extended stay in countries of destination through visa extensions, flexibility in changing employers and regularization schemes will also be discussed.

Sub-theme 2: Rights Protection to Maximize Development Impacts of Labour Migration

This subtheme discusses lessons learned from COVID-19 and recommended approaches to enhance economic benefits and development impacts of rights-based labour migration on migrant workers, their families, communities and countries of origin and destination in the new normal. The forum will present new initiatives and promising practices in promoting fair and ethical recruitment and non-discrimination; improving migrant workers’ labour protection and wages; strengthening social protection and its portability; enhancing migrant workers’ access to skills training and recognition; and improving access to support services, social assistance programs and reintegration support, including financial literacy and integrated response to sexual and gender-based violence, all with the aim to ensure that all stakeholders, including migrant workers, benefit from resumption of labour migration in the region. Regional cooperation aspects will be highlighted.


The COVID-19 pandemic impacted countries worldwide and ASEAN Member States were no exception. The pandemic devastated international labour migration and had unprecedented impacts on migrant workers’ protection and livelihoods. Border closures and other infection control measures instituted by governments put an almost complete stop on international mobility, leaving many migrant workers stranded abroad unable to return home. Disproportionate numbers of migrant workers in Asia were infected with COVID-19. In countries of origin, many were prevented from taking up employment abroad for which they had contracts, and for which many may have paid high recruitment fees. Non-deployed migrants have filed numerous claims in countries of origin in the last few years for such recruitment related violations.

A woman migrant worker harvests sweet corn © Shutterstock
For those migrant workers who remained in the ASEAN net countries of destination (Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand), COVID-19 meant food insecurity, retrenchment, non-payment of wages, other contract violations and increasing xenophobia. Some of this continues even as economies are recovering. Few had opportunities for social distancing or access to COVID-19 testing, vaccines and health care. In addition, the majority of migrants lacked social protection, including access to emergency COVID-related government supports.

Now, at the time of the 15th AFML in 2022, ASEAN Member States are reopening their borders for international travel, including deployment and admission of migrant workers. This comes at a time of better vaccination and booster coverage, for both nationals and migrant workers. After the early COVID-19 related lockdowns and more stringent measures, governments have tried to find a balance between protecting workers, addressing labour shortages and safeguarding key industries and services, while many businesses have had to adjust as a result of labour shortages of migrant workers. In ASEAN net countries of destination, employers in various sectors are continuing to face labour shortages, which has prompted governments to restart recruitment of migrant workers. A few destinations had already tried to ameliorate this problem during 2020 and 2021 by allowing for visa extensions or regularization ‘amnesties’ to allow migrant workers already in the country to stay. In 2021 and 2022, several governments concluded new Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) or other policies to manage labour migration in the post-COVID context. In other places, law and policy development is ongoing.

Importantly, it is necessary not to lose sight of protection of migrant workers’ rights, learning lessons from the protections gaps that were exposed during the pandemic. Maximization of the future development impacts of labour migration is highly dependent on rights protective measures being put in place and implemented, as the region builds back better. In this context, the 15th AFML theme allowed very timely discussions on how to maximize its impacts to sustained growth, shared prosperity, and social progress for all, as envisioned in the ASEAN Charter.