ILO/UN Women study

Despite productive contribution, public attitudes towards migrant workers remain unfavourable in ASEAN destination countries

A new joint ILO-UN Women study demonstrates communication and engagement are critical to counter migrant workers isolation and discrimination.

News | 18 December 2019
BANGKOK (ILO News) Public support for migrant workers remains limited in key destination countries of Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, a recent report by ILO and UN Women reveals, warning against discriminatory attitudes and practices against migrant workers.

The joint study entitled 'Public attitudes towards migrant workers in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand' shows that while overall migration has increased over the last decade, positive attitudes towards migrant workers have declined.

The study, which surveys 4,099 nationals in four countries, is a follow-up to an earlier survey carried out by the ILO in 2010. The study analyses changes in knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) in relation to women and men migrant workers, and puts forward recommendations for promoting more positive attitudes.

Launched to commemorate the International Migrants Day on 18 December, the study reiterates the need for more interaction and community engagement with migrant workers to counter exclusion, isolation, and discrimination.

According to latest estimates, the number of documented migrant workers in South-East Asia and the Pacific is an estimated 11.6 million - 5.2 million of whom are women. Migrant workers make crucial contributions to the economies and societies of both origin and destination countries. Yet, despite clear labour market shortages, and the economic gains from labour migration, not all of the public are convinced of the need for migrant workers.

Among survey respondents, over half in Malaysia and Thailand, over a third in Japan, and a quarter from Singapore said there is a need for migrant workers in their countries. However, when asked if migrant workers are a “drain on the economy”, around a third of respondents from Singapore and Japan, 40 per cent in Thailand, and nearly half of Malaysian respondents agreed.

Public perception of the effect migrant workers have on the national economy

High percentages of those surveyed said that they thought crime rates had increased due to migration. Over half the respondents in Singapore and Japan, over three quarters from Thailand and a staggering 83 per cent of those surveyed in Malaysia agreed that higher crime was linked to inbound migration, but new evidence of the causal impact of migration on crime finds that migrant workers in Malaysia reduce both property and violent crime. The World Bank published recently that an increase of 100,000 migrant workers in Malaysia reduces crimes by 9.9 per cent, underscoring that negative attitudes towards migrant workers are not fact-based.

“There’s no proof to say that foreigners commit crimes. Mostly, they come here to work and not to get punished. As [migrants] are lower skilled, local people have bias towards them, so they think that migrant workers committed crimes.” - NGO staff, Singapore

High numbers of survey respondents perceive that migrant workers threaten their country’s culture and heritage, and many say that migrant workers cannot be trusted.

Perceptions of migrant workers as social and cultural threats

Although many people may hold an overall negative view when talking about migrant workers, fortunately the study also finds that positive public support exists for policy initiatives aimed at supporting women migrant workers, especially related to domestic work and to ending violence against women. Respondents particularly expressed support for shelters to assist women migrant workers who face violence, for stronger enforcement against violence, and for better conditions for domestic workers. This shows that focused attention onto a particular group of migrant workers and the specific issues concerning those workers can help generate public support, particularly when that focused attention emphasizes shared experiences.

Support for improved labour conditions for domestic migrant workers

Consistent with the ILO’s 2010 survey findings, media, specifically social media, acts as the most prominent information source that impacts and reinforces people’s perception of migrant workers. Given negative media portrayals of migrant workers can distort the way people perceive the migrant worker group as a whole, messages communicated through mass media and social media platforms are vital channels to inform the public with accurate and neutral information about migrant workers.

“Negative perceptions need to be countered with a positive image of migrant workers that correspond to the actual contributions they make to both destination and origin economies. Otherwise there will be less support in host societies for a rights based approach to migration governance where all workers are treated equally and with dignity.” – Nilim Baruah, Regional Migration Specialist for Asia and the Pacific, ILO

The study also confirms that public support for migrant workers is largely driven by the relationships and ties that individuals and communities develop with migrant worker communities. People who know and engage with migrant workers on a personal level are more likely to be supportive of their rights, and to assist in times of crisis.

Based on its key findings, the study stresses the need for collaborative efforts ranging from inclusive policy planning to awareness-raising activities to reverse the negative trend observed. Governments, trade unions, employer associations and civil society organizations have roles to play in pushing ahead to transform discriminatory views and to encourage positive social inclusion with migrant workers.

A decade after the 2010 study, the research establishes an updated knowledge base on public attitudes towards women and men migrant workers in four ASEAN destination countries, and provides data evidence for policy making and campaign organizing to promote a more inclusive and supportive environment for migrant workers. The focus on women migrant workers’ issues in the report uncovers topics with high support from the public that can be leveraged as entry points. Where there is considerable public support for addressing violence as well as bolstering working conditions for domestic workers, policy change might be easier, with reforms that can ensure positive migration outcomes for women migrant workers.

For further information please contact:

Pichit Phromkade
Communications Officer - Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant worker’s rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region
Tel.: +66 (0) 2288 1762
Email: phromkade@ilo.org

Note to the editors
  • The ILO recommends using the terms “labour migration”, “labour movement” or “labour mobility” instead of “labour export” as labour is not a commodity.
  • “Irregular migrant workers”, “migrant workers with irregular status” or “undocumented migrant workers” should also be used instead of “illegal migrant workers”.
  • “Domestic workers” should be used instead of “maids”, “helpers” or “servants”.
  • Your support of using rights-based language can prevent discrimination against irregular migrant workers and promote social inclusion.