Today, 18 December 2015, marks the 25th anniversary of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW). This is an apt opportunity to celebrate the enormous contribution migrants make to both the societies they live in and the countries they have left behind. Over many years, millions of migrants have powered the social and economic development of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). In this ever more interconnected region, patterns of migration are becoming increasingly complex, with migrants today forming the backbone of national economies, across both formal and informal sectors. However, their work continues to be undervalued and characterised by low wages and unsafe working conditions that few locals would ever tolerate. Labour rights violations such as breaches of minimum wage legislation, forced over-time, denial of paid sick leave, maternity leave and holidays, and substandard occupational safety and health, remain widespread.
Despite an urgent need to systematically address these issues, there continues to be a striking lack of political will, both at the national and regional levels, to protect the rights of migrants. Migration policies are in contrast increasingly driven by the demands of the corporate sector and the need to securitise migration flows to safeguard national security. There is an increased trend for GMS countries to establish Special Economic Zones (SEZs), some of which are designated to keep migrants along the borders and hence leading to isolation of migrants from mainstream society. We are concerned that forcing migrants to live in social exclusion is contrary to the principle of living together and is only likely to exacerbate existing problems.
With the ASEAN Economic Community due to be established by the end of 2015, this year has seen high level regional discussions on trade, investment and the freer movement of skilled labour. In spite of this unique opportunity, the regional body has shown an apparent lack of political will or capacity to realise protection mechanisms for all migrant workers. The process began by the signing of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007, appears to have stalled indefinitely and no framework instrument to implement the Declaration has been put in place. Moreover in a year that has seen large numbers of people in the region risking their lives out of desperation, ASEAN has failed to respond to this migration crisis, in accordance with its vision of creating a “sharing and caring” community.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the ICRMW, we urge all national governments to sign and ratify this important convention. We also urge ASEAN to develop migration policies founded on the principle of protecting the rights found within this instrument. Migration policies based on economic utility at the expense of workers’ rights are neither sustainable nor compatible with international standards. Law and policies that respond to abusive practices found in the GMS are in urgent need and must take into an account the continuum of exploitation experienced.
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