Southeast Asia's Migrant Labor Dilemma
As high-income countries plot their post-pandemic recoveries, ASEAN economies like Malaysia face a difficult choice between curbing outward migration and encouraging greater labor mobility. Instead of limiting citizens’ freedom to work abroad, governments should focus on improving labor standards at home.
KUALA LUMPUR – COVID-19 has disrupted labor markets around the world, causing a global manpower shortage. Lockdowns in the early months of the pandemic triggered an exodus of millions of rural migrant workers from booming megacities like New Delhi and Dhaka. In the Global North, the United Kingdom has experienced the largest decline in its foreign-born labor force since World War II. Countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also have been affected: Vietnam’s labor shortage recently worsened after the easing of travel restrictions in Ho Chi Minh City led to a large outflow of migrant workers.
Moreover, some high-income countries are trying to lure back foreign workers from emerging Asia as part of their national recovery plans, creating new challenges for the global governance of labor migration. In particular, ASEAN economies like Singapore and Malaysia that have large migrant labor flows now face a tricky choice: should they curb outward migration or encourage greater labor mobility?
This dilemma has come to the fore in Malaysia following the Australian government’s recent announcement of a visa scheme for ASEAN agricultural workers. Under this program – a response to Australia’s own shortage of farm labor – employers will sponsor farm workers from ASEAN countries, subject to a formal employment contract that complies with specified standards and obligations. In contrast to Australia’s earlier Seasonal Worker Programme, the new initiative allows Australian farms to employ skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled ASEAN farm workers on a longer-term basis. The first cohort is expected to arrive in Australia next month and in March 2022.