Joint CSO statement on behalf of HOME, TWC2 and Project X: 11th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour

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27 October 2018

SINGAPORE, 27 October 2018—We, the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME; www.home.org.sg), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2; www.twc2.org.sg) and Project X (theprojectx.org), wish to register our disappointment that there will be no Singaporean civil society organizations (CSOs) working at a grassroots level with migrant workers represented in the ASEAN Forum for Migrant Labour (AFML) this year. As the only migration forum in Asia carried out in a tripartite nature with additional CSO involvement, it is alarming that the spirit of the AFML process has been undermined by a lack of procedural transparency and genuine CSO participation.

We note the theme of this year’s AFML and recognize the potential for digitization to enhance transparency and improve access to information. Efforts to do so should be supported, but we reiterate a key point: the theme must not overshadow the goal—decent work for migrant workers in ASEAN must be the focus. Ultimately, discussions must grapple with the issue of power and not just feasibility: how will the digital systems proposed contribute to the genuine empowerment of workers in concrete ways? The recommendations and proceedings of the AFML need to be undergirded by a firm commitment by parties for the structural reform necessary to achieve what digital tools alone will not: a regulatory framework and socio-political context in which core labour rights are protected, where recruitment processes are safe and ethical, and where migrant workers’ rights are upheld.

Currently, it is common for employers of migrant workers to deny them access to their contracts, working time records as well as pay slips. Multiple forms of wage theft are also endemic across industries. Particular sectors of workers, including migrant domestic workers and sex workers, are particularly vulnerable to abuse, including physical and psychological violence. In so far as digitization could potentially minimise employment disputes and improve protection for workers, areas to be explored include digital systems and platforms to facilitate the following:

●      timely and regular electronic payment of migrant workers, with adequate documentation provided to prevent salary disputes, as well as ensure evidence is available if disputes arise;

●      the use and applicability of standard employment contracts compliant with labour laws to minimize deceptive recruitment, including contract substitution; digitization should be targeted towards improving transparency and the retrievability of standard employment contracts;

●      the regulation of migration intermediaries to curb excessive profiteering and other unethical recruitment practices;

●      access to personal medical records and other official documents to assist with claims;

●      safe, worker-centric feedback systems so they can report abuses and violations, including workplace accidents, and seek the required assistance without jeopardizing their livelihoods. This includes victims of forced labour and trafficking, in particular those with some irregularities in their work visa who may otherwise be concerned about reporting instances of abuse.

Digital engagement does not take place on a level playing field. It is still routine for employers to either confiscate domestic workers’ personal mobile devices or severely restrict its usage. Any move towards greater digitization must confront inequalities in relation to access: migrant workers must be provided with the freedom and resources to access the digital tools and platforms developed for their protection.

The promise of ‘e-democracy’, of marginalized social groups using digital platforms to build communities, obtain information and become empowered through such processes, can only be realized if the principles of equality and justice are upheld. When workers do not have effective redress mechanisms because of inadequate policies and discriminatory legislation, digital platforms will have minimal impact on the wellbeing of workers. Political participation in the process of influencing change, through genuine worker representation and the inclusion of grassroots-oriented CSOs, is vital to ensure that proposals and promises reflect the needs and concerns of migrant workers, whether in the area of digitization or otherwise.  

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Stephanie Chok