AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 645

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Session 645: International Labour Migration and Migrants in Southeast Asia: Prospects and Challenges

Organizer and Chair: Amarjit Kaur, University of New England, Australia, Australia

Discussant: Hla Theingi, Independent Scholar, Thailand

Labour migration is an important feature of the Southeast Asian labour market and is characteristic of the closer labour market integration there. This panel explores the broader political dynamics of labour migration in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region and goes beyond immigration policies and border control systems to examine key inter-relationships in the migration process. Five perspectives are highlighted: •The first relates to different kinds of mobilities, including skilled and low-skilled mobilities and intersecting inequities, such as gender and ethnicity. • The second considers freedoms/unfreedoms in the migration process; modes of migration and labour trafficking. • The third engages with theoretical issues and debates about how social capital is understood in the context of migration and explores the connections between social capital and social networks among migrants and how these develop across time and space. • The fourth addresses how migration impacts on labour markets in both receiving and sending countries; how it improves the wellbeing of migrants and households that are in receipt of remittances; and how some states have come to rely on remittances for their continued economic health. • The fifth focuses on the challenges faced by destination countries to manage labour migration more effectively and fairly.

International Labour Migration and Migration Issues in Southeast Asia
Amarjit Kaur, University of New England, Australia, Australia

Increasing regional integration within Southeast Asia has made it easier for people to move and the scope and scale of international labour migration have dramatically expanded in the region. Labour mobility is now an established structural feature of the Southeast Asian labour market and Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand rely on the guest worker program to fill labour market gaps in their countries. Their immigration policies often provide incentives for skilled workers, boost circular migration flows among low-skilled workers and focus on stringent border-control regimes. The guest workers are primarily employed in low-paying occupations shunned by locals, including the construction, agricultural and fisheries, manufacturing and service sectors. The guest worker program is dependent on networks, intermediaries and brokerage firms in sending and receiving countries and draws upon and reinforces wage disparities between host and home countries. The host countries’ restrictive immigration policies have also led to increasing unauthorised migration and campaigns against irregular migrants. Both the state and labour recruitment agencies impose excessive burdens on migrant workers and this inequity shapes the discourse on labour mobility. The political economy of the guest-worker program in Southeast Asia must thus be seen, first, through the prism of transnational workers’ migration situations, labour conditions and vulnerabilities; and second, through the dramatic increase in civil society activism and non-governmental organisations; and political mobilisation by and for migrant workers both regionally and internationally.

Transnational Governance, Labour Mobility and Women Workers in Southeast Asia
Kiranjit Kaur, Independent Scholar, Malaysia

Southeast Asia has become a major destination for migrant workers, predominantly from within the Asian region. Generally, migration research on Asia has largely ignored women’s pivotal role in regional and international migration flows, principally because women are concentrated in care-giving migration. While there are relatively few cultural constraints that limit the labour mobility of Southeast Asian women within and outside the region, migrant women workers face more than their share of abuse in the migration process, principally due to their occupational stratification. Their migration experiences have increasingly captured the attention of civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and the national and international media. This paper examines the role of NGOs on the one hand, and migration legislation and governance on the other, in promoting safe(r) migration channels for women migrant workers. Specifically, the paper explores whether promoting documented migration and good governance, in place of the human rights discourse in both labour receiving and sending economies is adequate to protect labour migrants from abuse and exploitation. Documented migration is understood as involving migration under relevant legal and policy frameworks in both the host and destination countries to protect labour migrants in situations of vulnerability. The paper will also identify the key legal and policy gaps for women migrants’ protection in the light of the ASEAN Charter and whether the Charter will actually make a difference for women migrant workers.

ASEAN Trade and Investment Liberalization Policies, the Burmese Economy and Burmese Migrants’ Remittances
Myat Mon, Independent Scholar, Thailand

Burma is expected to receive more foreign direct investment (FDI) following ASEAN trade and investment liberalization in 2015. Along with FDI, more firms from allied sectors will enter the market. This will lead to a greater demand for both high-skilled and less-skilled workers as well as investment opportunities in the country that in turn may induce more financial and human capital flows into Burma. Burmese less-skilled migrants have gained skills, knowledges and experiences in construction, carpentry as well as in garment, seafood, agricultural and service industries. Skilled migrants have also attained higher education (Master, PhD) and experiences in engineering, information technology, business administration etc. in the host countries. Financial capital or remittances of migrants will also foster the economic development of Burma. Total annual remittances of Burmese migrants have risen from 4.2 billion dollars in 1990 to 50 billion dollars in 2006. However remittances from Burmese migrants are spent either on daily necessities or/and invested in less capital-intensive businesses and are used to buy land, property and carry out money lending activities in Burma. Since the economic and political environment in Burma is unpredictable, returns on investment in Burma are uncertain and most migrants are reluctant to remit their income regularly or to invest in large enterprises. This paper also explores the current barriers towards human and financial capital inflows into Burma and how Burmese policy makers can effectively utilize the human capital of migrant returnees and their remittances under the aegis of broader ASEAN liberalization strategies.

Beyond economic remittances: exploring the diasporic connections and contributions of highly skilled Filipino migrants in New Zealand and Australia
Sheila Siar, University of Auckland, New Zealand

The migration-development nexus is often analysed in terms of the economic benefits of migration or the financial remittances that flow to home countries. In the case of high-skilled mobility, however, its precise benefits to home countries particularly developing ones still appear sketchy. This is in particular due to long-standing criticisms of knowledge and skills loss that supposedly results from high-skilled mobility. Studies have also shown high-skilled migrants have a tendency to remit less because they spend longer time abroad, take their families with them or they are more likely to come from wealthier families. This paper, however, illustrates that high-skilled migrants continue to remain connected and even deeply committed with their home country despite their changed notion of ‘home’ as their length of stay in the host country increases and as their social and cultural links with it deepens through time. These connections challenge the notion of knowledge and skills loss from high-skilled mobility. They are also involved in remittance giving, which, although of the noneconomic type, offers new possibilities for building wealth. These are the so-called ‘social remittances’, a concept first suggested by Peggy Levitt and consisting of the flows of ideas, practices, knowledge and experiences to the home country. At the same time, these migrants demonstrate another type of connection—the sentimental or emotional type. This is seen in ways they re-enact facets of the home country through their maintenance of cultural practices and traditions, consumption of local food and continuous demand for local information. I assert that these emotional connections reinforce the production and maintenance of social remittances. All of these are discussed and analysed in this paper through the highly skilled Filipino migrants in New Zealand and Australia where these emotional connections and social remittances are seen.

The Impact of Labour Migration into Colonial Malaya, 1920s-1950
Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, National University of Singapore, Singapore

This paper examines some of the major impacts of labour migration into colonial Malaya in the years following the end of the World War 1 up until the formal dissolution of British rule. Much research has been done on Indian and Chinese labour migration and the consequences of colonial policies for these communities as well as how labour migration helped to fuel the global colonial economy However, very little has been written about the effects of such migration upon the local Malay community. This paper argues that the movement of labour from India and China into colonial Malaya has had a paradoxical impact upon the Malays in the country. On the one hand, the coming of Indians and Chinese into Malaya aided in the creation of urban centres and towns which, in turn, helped in the creation of a new language of politics, cosmopolitanism, globalism and hybrid cultures amongst the Malays. Labour migration thus brought the Malays closer to the modern world, allowing them to see their own homeland through new lenses. Conversely, the massive flow of Indian and Chinese labour migration coupled by the British policies of ensuring that Malays remain in their traditional professions gave birth to the rise of xenophobia, anti-immigrationist measures and communal solidarities whose influence and programmes still persist in present-day Malaysia. This study of the impact labour migration upon the Malays in colonial Malaya is therefore important because it helps us to understand the roots of present-day racial climate and the possible implications of labour migration policies upon the former British colony.