9 November 2020 –
For Immediate Release ahead of the 13th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour
Mekong Migration Network
Statement on Supporting Migrant Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Vietnam will host the 13th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) between 10 and 12 November 2020. The theme of this year’s AFML is “Supporting Migrant Workers during the Pandemic for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community”.
In May 2020, ASEAN Labour Ministers adopted a Joint Statement in response to the impact of COVID-19 on labour and employment. In this statement they agreed to “provide appropriate assistance and support to ASEAN migrant workers affected by the pandemic in each other’s country or in third countries, including effective implementation of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, working towards their health, well-being and safety as well as facilitating their movement and reuniting them with their families”.
The Mekong Migration Network (MMN), a sub-regional network of more than 40 Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) who work together to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers, continues to call for immediate action to be taken by ASEAN and national governments to support the welfare of migrants and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak began, MMN has been continuously monitoring the situation, and undertaken extensive collaborative research on the impact that the pandemic is having on migrant communities across the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).
Drawing on preliminary findings from our forthcoming research, MMN would like to take the opportunity of the 13th AFML to highlight several issues of concern affecting migrants during the current pandemic. In accordance with the spirit of regional cooperation reflected in the ASEAN Joint Statement referred to above, we also set out specific recommendations addressed to governments of GMS countries and ASEAN to ensure the full implementation of their stated commitments.
In recent months, migrants across the GMS have faced unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite their important social and economic contributions in both countries of destination and origin, migrants are among the most vulnerable in the present crisis. Many migrants work in sectors heavily impacted by the pandemic and have been made unemployed or forced to work for much-reduced pay. To make matters worse, the vast majority of migrants and their families have little or no access to social protection safety nets. Unfortunately, the economic relief packages rolled out by GMS governments have generally excluded non-nationals. Many GMS migrants who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic have been denied both redundancy payments from employers and unemployment benefits from the authorities. Many do not have sufficient savings to survive and are borrowing money to meet their daily needs. The economic shock has made an already precarious situation all the more perilous, to the extent that many face destitution and homelessness.
Finding a new job in the current climate is extremely difficult, given the severely weakened economy and tight restrictions that regulate migrants switching jobs. Many people are finding temporary work as day laborers in order to survive. At the same time, the option of returning to countries of origin poses its own set of challenges, both in terms of the logistics negotiating travel restrictions, as well as economic hardship upon return.
Reflecting the continuously evolving situation, there is a general sense of uncertainty and confusion among migrants concerning their legal rights and entitlements, possibilities of return or re-migration, and pandemic related costs and procedures.
Upon return, many migrant returnees reported not having received any support, while struggling to make daily ends meet in their countries of origin. Despite the highly mobile population in the GMS, there is currently little to no portability of social protection. This reality prevents migrant returnees from receiving benefits based on contributions made to social security schemes while working abroad. Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam have made undertakings to establish social protection portability schemes with key destination countries. While in Vietnam, elements of portable social security have been included in the Draft Law on Contract-based Vietnamese Overseas Workers (Revised). These small steps, do not hide the fact that GMS countries of origin have yet to successfully introduce any mechanism for migrant workers to receive transferable benefits from destination countries.
Prospective migrants, meanwhile, who have paid training, examination, recruitment, and documentation fees but who are yet to be deployed due to the pandemic, reportedly find it difficult to receive reimbursements from recruitment agencies. While, many migrants who returned to their countries of origin earlier in the pandemic are now hoping to or are in the process of re-migrating. As key destination countries reopen borders and restart recruitment programs, an increasing number of people, both migrant returnees and freshly recruited workers, are seeking opportunities to migrate. In this process, prospective migrants are concerned that they will be made to pay for quarantine and other pandemic related expenses, even if related policies state otherwise.
On 4 August 2020, the Thai Cabinet approved the Labour Ministry’s plan to allow more than half a million migrants with the requisite travel documents to continue their employment until the end of May 2022. It also announced that migrant workers whose employers have been authorised to bring in workers may now enter Thailand. The decision to ease immigration requirements reflects the vital role migrant workers play in the Thai economy. This importance is mirrored further afield in Japan, another popular destination for GMS migrants, which is currently experiencing an acute labour shortage in sectors such as agriculture where reliance on migrant labour is strong. Current travel restrictions have made it increasingly clear that migrants form the backbone of the economy of many ageing societies.
However, instead of seeking pragmatic solutions that facilitate movement while not undermining public health, many countries have resorted to tightening border controls and prosecuting migrants for immigration offences. Thailand’s decision to extend work permits, while welcomed, only applies to documented migrants, and disregards the critical situation faced by the many undocumented workers.
In order to alleviate the problems being experienced by GMS migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, MMN requests that the following recommendations be implemented by the relevant authorities as a matter of urgency:
To Governments of Countries of Origin
- Ensure safe deployment by providing prospective migrants with the most up-to-date information regarding the Covid-19 situation, including: required quarantine and other health check processes; occupational health and safety measures to be applied during the pandemic; complaint reporting mechanisms, access to justice, and health and social protection rights entitlements in destination countries.
- Provide clear and comprehensive information to migrants regarding repatriation, including: quarantine costs; necessary process and helpful contacts; and endeavour to keep any costs to a minimum.
- Strengthen the support provided by diplomatic missions and labour attachés, including: enhancing information dissemination for migrants via various communication channels; securing sufficient human resources to respond to inquiries and reports from migrants; and increasing the effectiveness and capacity of embassy and consulate support services.
- Monitor recruitment agencies to ensure that migrant workers who are not able to be deployed can terminate their contracts and receive refunds together with their personal documents.
To Governments of Destination Countries
- Ensure employers fully compensate migrant workers who have been made redundant.
- Allow migrant workers greater flexibility in employment matters, for example ease restrictions prohibiting migrants from switching jobs, allow them to take up extra work, and reskill.
- Pursue responsive and appropriate relief measures that benefit all migrant workers who face unemployment. Special measures to facilitate extensions of visas, amnesties, work or residence permits can further contribute to ensuring access to essential services for migrant workers as well as continuity in their contributions to the workforce.
To Governments of Countries of Origin and Destination
- Collaborate to pursue a zero recruitment fee model where all the cost related to migration is shouldered by employers or subsidised by government. Where there is ambiguity, such as quarantine costs for migrants, issue clear guidelines as to who is responsible, and establish mechanisms to ensure migrants’ salary and benefit are not deducted as a consequence.
- Emphasise a public health and humanitarian response to the pandemic. Efforts should be geared towards providing affordable quarantine and health check measures at border entry points rather than intensifying the militarisation of borders.
- Urgently work towards the portability of social security systems.
- Coordinate a pandemic preparedness plan including the following matters: ensuring safe and affordable repatriation and re-migration; access to social protection benefits; easing of health and legal document procedures for migrant workers; and guaranteeing access to justice.
- Continuously evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on migrant populations and identify areas requiring a regional response.
- Monitor and coordinate the implementation of the commitments stated in the Joint Statement of ASEAN Labour Ministers on Responses to the Impact of COVID-19 on Labour and Employment, agreed in May 2020.
ABOUT THE MEKONG MIGRATION NETWORK
Founded in 2003, the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) is a sub-regional network of civil society organisations and research institutes working towards the protection and promotion of the rights of migrants and their families in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. MMN’s areas of joint action include collaborative research, advocacy, capacity building and networking. MMN members operate in both countries of origin and destination, have unique expertise in the field, and are in close contact with migrant workers at a grassroots level. For more information on MMN, please visit MMN’s webpage at: www.mekongmigration.org
For more information about the statement, please contact:
Ms. Reiko Harima, MMN Regional Coordinator (English and Japanese) at: email@example.com
Mr. Nguyen Manh Tuan, MMN Project Coordinator (Vietnamese and English) at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or on +84 394327031
Ms. Kim Thi Thu Ha, Managing Director, Centre for Development and Integration (Vietnamese and English) at email@example.com; or on +84 975858899
Ms. Winnie Sachdev, MMN Research and Advocacy Officer (Thai and English) at firstname.lastname@example.org; or on +66 957294500
Mr. Brahm Press, Executive Director, MAP Foundation (English and Thai) at: email@example.com
Mr. Sokchar Mom, Executive Director, Legal Support for Children and Women, Cambodia (Khmer and English) at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or on +855 12943767
Ms. Thet Thet Aung, Director, Future Light Center, Myanmar (Burmese) at: email@example.com
Or call the MMN Secretariat
 Joint Statement of ASEAN Labour Ministers on Response to the Impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) on Labour and Employment, available at https://asean.org/storage/2012/05/ALM-Joint-Statement-on-Response-to-the-Impact-of-COVID-19-on-Labour-and-Employment-ADOPTED-14-May-2020-final.pdf.
 MMN Statement on the Impact of Covid-19 on Migrants in the Greater Mekong Subregion, available at https://mekongmigration.org/?p=14877.
 Article 6, section 1đ. Draft Law on Contract-based Vietnamese Overseas Workers (Revised). Accessible at https://thuvienphapluat.vn/van-ban/lao-dong-tien-luong/Luat-Nguoi-lao-dong-Viet-Nam-lam-viec-o-nuoc-ngoai-theo-hop-dong-sua-doi-439844.aspx.