It was more than symbolic that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made Kuala Lumpur the
first stop on his first overseas trip as president of Indonesia. The visit was
dominated not by its exchange of Malay courtesies but by the awkward issue of
the fate of the 400,000 undocumented Indonesian workers currently facing prison
and the lash if they don't leave Malaysia by a twice-extended deadline, now
The visit underlined the fact that
migration issues in Southeast Asia surpass those in Europe. More than movements
of either trade or capital, movements of people within the region are likely to
be a strain on neighborly relations for years. They are the natural outcome of
economic imbalances more akin to those between North Africa and the European
Union than between the countries of the EU. Well handled, the movements will
continue to enhance economic growth. Badly handled, they could be politically as
well as economically destructive.
The scale of the issue in Malaysia is
stunning. The Malaysian work force is around 11 million. In addition there are
roughly half a million legal foreign workers, mostly in agriculture,
construction, catering and domestic employ. Until recently there were an
estimated one million illegals, of whom roughly half are believed to have left
following an amnesty. Indonesians are the majority though there are also large
numbers from the Philippines, Bangladesh and India. They have become a political
Middle-class Malaysians blame a wave of
mostly petty crime on the illegals. But it remains to be seen what happens to
the catering and construction industries, let alone to crime, when they are gone
- even if the number of legal workers is substantially increased. The fact is
that a combination of huge wage disparities and long coastlines between
Indonesia and peninsular Malaysia ensure that the demand and supply will remain.
Meanwhile Malaysia's reputation has been hurt by claims of human rights abuses
in camps for detained illegals.
As one would expect in a tightly run
city-state, Singapore has the issue under better control, but the sheer numbers
of low-wage contract workers, mostly from Indonesia, inevitably leads to
frequent cases of abuse that strain neighborly relations. There are about
150,000 foreign domestic servants in a city of four million people. Singapore,
which lacks an extradition treaty with Indonesia, is also host to some very rich
Indonesian Chinese accused of major frauds.
The Philippines is second to Indonesia as
labor supplier within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and domestic
pressure to look after its workers continues to cause periodic tiffs with
neighbors. But the regional center of human movement in the region is Thailand,
which is both a supplier of labor, mainly to Northeast Asia and the Gulf, and
the recipient of more than one million mostly undocumented workers from Myanmar
The tsunami underlined how little is
known about them. There were several construction camps in the disaster area,
but no one seems to know how many died. Many Burmese fled back home afterward
because there was no work or they feared arrest. Thai official attitudes toward
the Burmese workers have, according to some nongovernment sources, often been
callous. Indeed, if the Yangon government cared for its citizens, its relations
with its neighbor might well have been strained by the tsunami.
The supply of labor from Myanmar to do
the dirty and difficult jobs or work in factories for wages far below what Thais
would accept is likely to continue for years. Thai officials often turn a blind
eye to the labor needs of business and - as was learned during the Asian
financial crisis - understand the flexibility that is provided by a large labor
force with no rights or political power. Even if Myanmar gets a government
capable of ensuring sustained economic growth, there is a huge amount of
catching up to do.
Migration pressures may increase as
populations in the poorer countries grow more rapidly than in the rich ones. In
the next 25 years, working-age populations are expected to grow by 63 percent in
the Philippines, 51 percent in Vietnam and 38 percent in Indonesia but only 22
percent in Thailand and 12 percent in Singapore.
Labor-supplying countries are unlikely to
make much fuss about their compatriots' pay and conditions. Families need
remittances, nations the foreign currency. But it will require flexibility,
common sense and avoidance of racial stereotyping if labor movement within
Southeast Asia is to continue to be broadly beneficial and not lead either to
backlashes against foreign labor or to the worker abuse and social problems that
would be likely in a totally unfettered market.
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