Temporariness and Brokerage
Migration is a major political, economic, social and cultural concern in Asia Pacific. Countries in this region are major sources of migrants for the world. China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are among the world’s top 25 suppliers of migrants, with China and the Philippines in the top 10. Most of these go to other countries within Asia and to North America. Asia Pacific is also home to a large number of immigrants, with more than 10 million migrants, many of whom are from other countries within the region. Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are among the top 25 countries in the world with the highest immigration rates. If internal migration is added to the picture, the number and proportion of migrants would increase greatly, especially in rapidly urbanizing countries like China and Vietnam.
The dominant driving force of migration has been economic. The bulk of migrants in Asia Pacific are transient workers taking up blue-collar jobs that are shunned by locals in developed and industrializing countries. The label “dirty, dangerous and difficult” has been coined to describe the work of migrants. Typical jobs include domestic workers, construction workers, plantation workers, factory workers, fishermen, heath care aids and hospitality workers. To illustrate, Asia Pacific is home to around 21.5 million domestic workers (ILO, 2013), which makes up about 41 percent of all domestic workers in the world today. According to official statistics the state of Sabah in Malaysia employs 272,157 foreign workers (2012), mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines in the oil palm industry. Overall registered migrant workers made up 21% of Malaysia’s workforce (2010), and this is not to include the irregular or undocumented migrant workers, which some estimates put the figure at around 1.3 million (Devadason and Meng, 2014). The focus group of this proposal refers to these workers who travel to countries other than their own in search for menial jobs.
Cross-border migration either in search for work or political asylum always carries extra risks associated with being a foreigner with limited means. For migrant workers in particular the vulnerabilities are multiplied these days by the general preference of capital movement over that of labour under globalisation. When countries do feel the need for foreign labour, they treat migrant workers as supplementary labour and subject them to “temporariness” regime. What it means is that the presence of migrant workers in general is assumed to be temporary to address labour shortages and they are not eligible for rights and provisions which otherwise would be available for citizens or permanent residents.
This does not apply to foreign professionals apparently. The Taiwan Council for Labour Affairs, for example, defines the role of “foreign professionals” as to enhance technological level and competitiveness, whereas “foreign labour” is to supplement shortages. Expatriates in Malaysia are allowed to bring in their families but contract migrant workers are not. South Korea does not even recognise domestic work as employment, and therefore foreign domestic workers are exempt from provisions sanctioned by the law. In fact, 61 per cent of all domestic workers in Asia and the Pacific are not covered by the country’s standard labour laws (ILO 2013)②. Hong Kong relies on a highly flexible labour regime in general, which applies to all workers but especially to migrant workers. Migrant domestic workers have to leave the country within two weeks after their contracts expire if they cannot find new employers. Indeed, temporariness regime is manifested in short or fixed term contracts and exclusion from labour laws.
Temporariness also plays into the hand of agents or middlemen both in sending and receiving countries. These include private agencies (legal and illegal) in host and sending countries as well as government officials in certain countries like Vietnam which play the middlemen role. Legislative frameworks to regulate this role have been limited. According to NGOs’ experience, a substantial portion of migrants’ problems originate in the actions of middlemen. These include provision of inadequate or false information, charging of exorbitant fees which cause the migrant to be in a debt-bonded situation, trafficking and outright deception.
The root cause of this inhumane activity can be found in the complexity of hiring processes. Recruiting and placing workers across state boundaries require a certain degree of knowledge and experience in dealing with paper works and state bureaucracies, two qualities that are often lacking in prospective migrants. Moreover, short-term contracts imply constant search for new job orders which again is often beyond the scope of domestic helpers with long working hours. It is therefore almost inevitable that they have to rely on middlemen③. The problem is compounded by the regulative frameworks which deliberately avail agencies with a lot of power and limit the role of the state.
Agents have indeed become very powerful in the migration industry not only when dealing with workers but also in their bargaining with the state as the latter gradually loses its capacity to control the hiring and placement processes. The combination of these factors makes migrant workers all the more prone to exploitation along the process of migration: pre-migration, after migration, and when returning. In Taiwan, which has relatively better treatments of domestic workers, for example, many agents have switched from Filipino workers to Indonesian ones after the former were deemed more forceful in demanding their rights (Loveband, 2004) ④. In doing this, they portray Indonesian workers as loyal, caring, capable of repetitive household chores, effectively manufacturing a stereotype which defines the kind of working condition that employers expect their maids will accept. This freedom to choose, however, is not applicable the other way around. Migrant domestic workers are not free to switch employers at will; such actions will incur penalties even if the reason is to do with treatments or working conditions.
Efforts to target this temporariness regime and the brokerage system will form the main collaborative work among the five migration institutions in JCAP. Given the modest state of these institutions the strategies centre around doing locally based research and activities that follow an agreed template. The compiled findings will then be the basis to create a platform for advocacy both at the local and regional levels. These strategies will also serve as a learning space in collaboration within the network. See the Annex for the description of the programmes.
Participating Institutions in the JCAP Migrants Network
As mentioned before, five Jesuit institutions participate in the network as programme implementers. Two other institutions i.e. Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific and Jesuit Social Services Australia take part in the network as partners in information exchanges. Benny Juliawan SJ acts as the network coordinator and project director for the programmes.
② Labour law generally guarantees minimum wage, working hours, overtime pay, annual leave, fair termination of contract, benefits and workers’ compensations.
③ For example, in November 2013, the Amnesty International published a damning report on the treatment of migrant workers in Hong Kong in the hands of recruitment agencies and brokers.
④ In Taiwan as of 2012, 75 per cent of domestic workers are Indonesian, 12.5 per cent Filipino, 12.5 per cent Vietnamese, and 0.5 per cent Malaysian (Kennedy, 2012).
Amnesty International (2013) Exploited for Profit, Failed by Governments: Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers Trafficked to Hong Kong, Geneva.
Devadason, Evelyn S. and Chan Wai Meng (2014) “Policies and Laws Regulating Migrant Workers in Malaysia: A Critical Appraisal,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44: 1, 19-35.
ILO (2013) Domestic Workers across the World, Geneva: ILO.
Kennedy, Jason (2012) “Female Indonesian Domestic Workers in Taiwan” Seminar in Global Health and Development 2, Taipei Medical University.
Loveband, Anne (2004) “Positioning the Product: Indonesian Migrant Women Workers in Taiwan,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 34: 3, 336-348.