Migrant workers

Social security offers a win-win for migrant workers and ASEAN alike

Few migrant workers in the ASEAN region are covered by social protection, despite the benefits it offers workers and countries. To mark International Migrants Day, Panudda Boonpala Deputy Regional Director of the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific explains why this needs to change.

Comment | Bangkok, Thailand | 18 December 2022
A worker at a construction site. ©ILO/Maxime Fossat
When Saw Sunday was severely burned and disabled in a workplace accident at a construction site in Thailand in 2019, his future looked bleak. However last month the former migrant worker travelled to Bangkok from his home in Myanmar to collect the first instalment of benefit payments that he will receive for the next 15 years.

Saw Sunday was enrolled in Thailand’s Workers’ Compensation Fund and the Thai Social Security Office approved his claim relatively quickly. However, it was not possible for him to access the payment from Myanmar and ultimately, he needed to travel to Bangkok to collect his benefit.

Saw Sunday gaining compensation is a success. But it is also a sobering reminder of the difficulties migrant workers face to gain social protection and receive payments in the ASEAN region. Countries in the region need to establish bilateral or multilateral systems for cross-border payments of social security benefits.

Still, Saw Sunday is one of the lucky ones. The reality is that a large proportion of the 10 million international migrants in ASEAN have no access to social protection, both in their countries of destination and origin.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a stark reminder how badly migrant workers need it. During COVID-19, an ILO rapid assessment of ASEAN migrant workers found that 97 per cent who were unemployed had no access to any social security support. Limited access to health care, no sickness benefits, and no unemployment benefits exacerbated the COVID-19 impacts on migrant workers and threw many migrant worker families into debt and poverty. Employers also lost qualified staff which penalised them during the recovery phase.

On the policy front, some progress has been made in recent years in extending social protection to more migrant workers. For example, in Malaysia social security was extended to cover migrant workers in 2019 and domestic workers, including migrant domestic workers, in 2021. While these policy revisions are important steps in the right direction, more remains to be done to ensure that migrant workers in all sectors and all types of workplaces in ASEAN are enrolled in social security schemes equal to those available for local workers.

Countries of destination benefit from extending migrant workers’ social protection. Migrant workers as a group are usually net contributors to social security. Allowing this young, fit and employed group to join and contribute to social security schemes helps build stronger and financially healthier social security systems by growing the tax base, spreading risk across a larger pool of members, and enhancing financial sustainability. This will be critical especially in ASEAN countries with rapidly aging local populations.

Due to the nature of labour migration in the ASEAN region, political commitment to provide effective and comprehensive social protection to migrant workers also needs to include portability of social security benefits. This means collaborative arrangements between social security organizations in countries of origin and destination to enable cross border payment of benefits, including periodic pension payments.

We commend the adoption by ASEAN leaders at their summit in Cambodia last month of the ASEAN Declaration on portability of social security benefits for migrant workers in ASEAN. This Declaration is a significant demonstration of the regions’ joint commitment to work towards portability of social security benefits for migrant workers. But a lot remains to be done to make this a reality for migrant workers.

As the next step the region needs bilateral agreements between governments to establish principles, processes, and administrative infrastructure for handling cross-border payment of benefits. Without concrete progress in establishing the required agreements and processes, the benefits of including migrant workers in social security and facilitating mobility will remain out of reach for ASEAN countries.

The International Labour Organization is committed to support our constituents and partners at grassroots, national, bilateral, and regional level to support efforts to ensure comprehensive social protection for migrant workers in the ASEAN region. Let us toast this goal together this International Migrants Day! Saw Sunday and 10 million other migrants in the region deserve this.