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Asia Pacific – Managing labour mobility is key say experts

26 November 2012

The main challenges facing Southeast Asia include labour shortages, availability of decent work, and illegal migrant workers, according to Nilim Baruah, senior regional migration specialist with the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific for the International Labour Organization. This is why a labour market information system is so important, he told the Bangkok Post.

In Southeast Asia, labour migration and wages remain highly contentious issues. Singapore since the late 1970s has been one of the major recipients of foreign workers, despite attempts to limit foreign labour numbers, which now represent as much as one-third of the total workforce: 2.047 million workers out of a total workforce of 3.135 million in 2010, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

According to the World Bank there are 14 million migrants from the Asean region currently working around the globe, accounting for around 13% of global labour migration. Almost 6 million of these are working within Asean countries. Three countries — Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore — host 90% of all intra-Asean migrants. Other significant destinations are South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Middle East.

Malaysia alone employs nearly 3 million workers from Indonesia and up to 300,000 from Myanmar. Most of them are recruited legally. Brunei hosts 40,000 to 50,000 Indonesian workers and Singapore 20,000 to 30,000. Filipino workers elsewhere in Asean total around 4,000 to 5,000. There are large wage differential between Thailand and its neighbours that fuels labour migration.

As of 30 September 2012, Thailand had an officially estimated 1.162 million migrant workers, of whom 989,431 were legally registered, according to the Department of Employment. The unofficial number is believed to be much higher. Among unskilled workers, around 300,000 from Cambodia and 200,000 from Laos make up the largest groups, according to Dr Yongyuth Chalamwong, research director for labour development with the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). However, workers from Myanmar are by far the largest group, numbering roughly 1.3 million, both legal and illegal.

Mr Brunah cites the United Kingdom and Spain for systems that identify labour supply and job demand and attempt to match them, based on indicators that identify labour shortages.

“The system is affordable and worth investing in as it makes it much easier for a country to manage the flow of both skilled and unskilled workers. It’s urgent to have a better labour market information system. Asean countries can open up occupations that need more workers for foreigners with less fear that they will replace nationals,” said Mr Baruah.

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