ISEAS-SPF Webinar on “Migration and Reinforcement of Social Protection”

This webinar examined the issues and challenges of foreign direct investments and business activities in Southeast Asia, and their impact on local and migrant labour.

Enhancing Responsible Business in Southeast Asia

Wednesday, 16 September 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in partnership with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation held a webinar on “Migration and Reinforcement of Social Protection”. The webinar is part of a six-part ISEAS-SPF Asia Impact Dialogue Webinar Series on “Enhancing Responsible Business in Southeast Asia”.

Moderated by Dr Akihiro Ueda from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, the webinar featured the insights of Dr Darian McBain (Thai Union), Dr Wako Asato (Kyoto University), Professor Reiko Ogawa (Chiba University), and Dr Lee Hwok Aun (ISEAS). The speakers presented their insights on the experiences and challenges of migrant workers in countries of origin and destination and explored how businesses can promote responsible migration, maintain ethical working conditions, and address issues of inequalities and other related problems.

Dr Darian McBain
Dr Darian McBain presented on human trafficking in the Thailand’s seafood industries. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar began with Dr Darian McBain sharing about her work as Global Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Thai Union, a global supplier of seafood from Southeast Asia. Dr McBain said that there has been media exposure of poor working conditions in Thailand’s seafood industry and, despite the negative conditions, Thailand’s minimum wage continue to attract migrants from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar. She attributed the resulting problems of bonded labour and human trafficking to third-party recruiting agents and opaque hiring practices. To mitigate these problems, Dr McBain described Thai Union’s ‘Seachange’ programme which aimed for legal, responsible and safe employment of workers. She explained how Thai Union bypass recruiting agents in Thailand and work with Burmese agents directly. These agents were also given training in ethical recruitment. Thai Union also formed its own Human Resource team in Myanmar to oversee a 60-90 day hiring process which includes pre-departure training for workers to addresses issues such as language barrier.

Dr Wako Asato
Dr Wako Asato presented on “Migration Policy Reform and its Implementation in Japan”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Wako Asato’s presentation examined “Migration Policy Reform and its Implementation in Japan”. He compared the old and new migration policies in Japan, and concluded that social protection for migrant workers in Japan is still limited and complex. He gave the examples of the direct hiring practices introduced under the new Specified Skilled Worker (SSW) programme which eliminated the need for brokers and agencies. The programme also paved the way for migrant workers to switch employers freely while they are working in Japan. However, Dr Asato argued that the SSW program has not been entirely effective due to the lack of inter-ministerial coordination. He said that the existing channel for migrant workers to enter Japan ––– the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) ––– has seen problems such as human trafficking. Eighty per cent of business who hire workers through the TITP have also contributed to labour rule violations and compromised on workplace safety. For both these programmes, Dr Asato pointed out the lack of a price control mechanism to mitigate the difference in the price that workers have to pay to arrive in Japan based on their country of origin. Vietnamese workers pay 1 million yen whereas Filipino workers pay 220,000 yen. Dr Asato recommended reforms that will simplify the migration channels for workers and the introduction of a price controlling placement fee for migrant workers.

Professor Reiko Ogawa
Professor Reiko Ogawa presented on “Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in Japanese Long-term Care Facilities”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Reiko Ogawa spoke on the issues concerning Southeast Asian migrant workers in Japan’s long-term care sector. As Japan’s ageing population crisis has exacerbated the problem of labour shortage in the healthcare sector, the country is expanding its migrant labour population. She examined the different channels that are available for migrant care workers to enter Japan, and these workers have traditionally used the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) channel or arrive as international students. These channels have recently included TITP. Dr Ogawa highlighted that these migration channels, apart from the EPA, have been managed by private entities which have seen labour law violations. Migrants arrive with debt bondage, restricted mobility and are controlled by private agencies. Dr Ogawa said that the long-term care sector is not only a late comer in employing migrants but the sector is also locally-embedded within communities and are often located in remote areas. She recommended for community-level projects to support migrants, develop good business practices to support the long-term care sector, promote research on employment practices, ensure proper training for care workers, and facilitate discussions on ethical recruitment. Dr Ogawa also highlighted a guidebook, that she had authored, which aimed to set the standards for employment practices in this sector in the country.

Dr Lee Hwok Aun
Dr Lee Hwok Aun presented on “Migrant Labour and Social Protection in Malaysia”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The final presentation was delivered by Dr Lee Hwok Aun who analysed Malaysia’s policies on migrant labour. He observed that these policies have been largely reactive in nature, and lack coherence and consistency in its implementations. He pointed out that there have been persistent problems of forced labour, lack of documentation and weak labour protection. While recent legislative and policy changes have sought to curb third-party labour recruitment and expand social protection, Dr Lee highlighted the problem of non-compliance from business owners. He underscored that the profit-driven nature of the industry has led to widespread migrant worker mistreatment and that there is no clear accountable entity for social protection of labourers amidst the myriad parties involved. Migrant worker representation and access to justice is also weak. Dr Lee concluded that responsible business practices should include compliance with direct hiring and ensure social security provisions for migrant workers, businesses should go beyond meeting minimum domestic responsible business requirements and avoid capitalizing on enforcement deficiencies, uphold ethical business codes of conduct and reject forced labour, and look into business strategies that eschew race-to-the-bottom tendencies perpetuating low-skilled, low-wage employment.

The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of questions which included the effectiveness of grievance systems in place for migrant workers; harmonization of regulations pertaining to migration between ASEAN countries with Japan; challenges caused by the pandemic to migrant workers; efforts to reduce xenophobia; and the impact of the UN Global Compact for Migration across Southeast Asia.

The webinar was moderated by Dr Akihiro Ueda from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)