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ASEAN Steps Up Efforts to Widen Social Security Coverage for Migrant Workers

Date Published
December 6, 2022

Migrant workers arriving in Cambodia. Photo credit: ADB

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has committed to develop policies that would allow migrant workers to access their social security benefits when they return to their home countries.

During the recent 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Cambodia, regional leaders agreed to work toward establishing bilateral and/or multilateral agreements or memorandums of cooperation between member states on the so-called portability of social security benefits for migrant workers.

Developing a policy roadmap

In the Declaration on the Portability of Social Security Benefits for Migrant Works in ASEAN issued during the Cambodia meetings, the leaders tasked labor ministers, senior labor officials, and other relevant ASEAN sectoral ministerial bodies to take appropriate and coordinated efforts to realize the declaration through “a guiding document and resource mobilization” in accordance with national laws, regulations, and policies of member states.

They also tasked the ASEAN Committee on Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers to develop a guiding document for endorsement to senior leaders and labor ministers. This would serve as a roadmap of regional actions by 2030 that identifies differences in the natures and types of member countries’ social security schemes. Operational and administrative capacity of the responsible organizations may also vary depending on a country’s resources and national social security development priorities.

ASEAN has been studying the feasibility of widening the social security benefits of workers, particularly migrant workers, since the region has a high degree of intra-regional migration. Citing a United Nations report, an ASEAN study said that in 2017, there were around 9.8 million migrant workers in Southeast Asia, accounting for around 1.5% of the region’s total population.

Cushioning workers from COVID-19 impact

In their declaration, the leaders recognized the need to bolster protection for migrant workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted labor migration within the region, adversely affecting the incomes, livelihood, and well-being of workers. Many migrant workers were laid off or furloughed, lost income, and returned to their home country. They noted the concern of migrant workers on the potential loss of social security benefits upon return to their home countries.

The leaders also agreed to follow up the findings and recommendations of the Study on the Portability of Social Security Rights between ASEAN Member States and conduct further research to determine the feasibility, area of focus, and implementation procedures on the portability of social security benefits.

They also agreed to tap technology in the management and administration of labor migration and social security benefits for migrant workers and strengthen the capability and performance of labor and social security officials, as well as improve systems delivering social security benefits. Countries will need to exchange information and data and improve coordination among social security agencies to facilitate mutual understanding on social security policies and systems.

They also vowed to enhance partnership and collaboration with ASEAN’s external partners including ASEAN’s dialogue partners, UN agencies (such as International Labour Organization, International Organization for Migration, and others), and other relevant partners and stakeholders for sharing of knowledge and best practices as well as capacity building.

The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers ensures migrant workers as well as their family members have access to public services in their home countries.

ASEAN’s labor ministers endorsed the adoption of the declaration in their meeting on 28 October in Manila. In their joint communique, the ministers said there is a need to draw lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic on improving occupational safety and health standards to enhance the region’s resilience during similar outbreaks. They said ASEAN should also continue implementing the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, the region’s coordinated exit strategy from the pandemic. This will prepare countries for the future through focused, balanced, and impactful strategies and priorities.

Preparing a digital-ready workforce

In preparing a digital-ready workforce, the labor ministers said ASEAN should continue promoting information and communication technology and digitalization through the ASEAN Digital Integration Framework, which enables members to prioritize existing policy actions that will deliver the full potential of digital integration.

The ministers said they would continue to adopt strategies that would prepare the region’s workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and make sure workers are competitive and are able to adapt to technological advancements. The Consolidated Strategy on the 4IR for ASEAN guides the ASEAN Community’s progression toward digital transformation.

4IR or Industry 4.0 refers to new technologies that include the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and cognitive computing. It offers people the opportunity to grow better connected, helps economies grow, and become more competitive.

The well-being and rights of workers in the platform economy should be protected by labor laws, the ministers agreed.

Developing competitive agriculture workers

In agreeing to assist in modernizing agriculture as a strategic priority, the ministers recognized it is a pathway to food security.

Modernizing the sector will also create productive and remunerative employment and promote sustainable enterprises toward green technologies, the ministers said.

The action plan and activities developed will be aligned with the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework and Strategic Plan of Action on Food Security 2015–2020 as well as the initiatives of ASEAN and World Economic Forum to assist micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises to enhance their capacity.

Improving human resources development systems

The ministers also supported moves for policymakers to reform ASEAN human resources development systems under the ASEAN Declaration on Human Resources Development for the Changing World of Work and the ASEAN TVET Council to develop an “upskilled and employable ASEAN workforce.” The TVET council is a multi-sectoral/cross-sectoral body that provides a platform for coordination, research, and development on innovations and monitoring of regional programs that support the advancement of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in the region.

Human resources development, especially through upskilling and reskilling of workforce, “should receive higher attention as a response to the changing world of work amidst digitalization and greening of our economies,” the ministers agreed.

They also noted progress in the implementation of the ASEAN TVET Council Work Plan 2021–2030 following its establishment in 2020. The council’s organizational development framework was endorsed and implemented this year.

They also noted the completion of a study on enhancing the competitiveness of ASEAN human resources through responsive TVET curriculum supported by industries and labor markets. The study examined the overall responsiveness of TVET systems in the region based on the findings and recommendations from country reports submitted by the 10 member states.