How will ASEAN regional integration affect labor migration in Vietnam?

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A cohesive regional community could be a boon for migrant workers, but it could also leave them unprotected

Vietnamese workers wait for being sent abroad at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

The occasion of International Migrants Day (December 18) is an opportunity to recognize the contribution of migrant workers to growth and development in Vietnam and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region.

The coming together of the ASEAN member states in a single economic community in 2015 is expected to provide a greater wealth of opportunities for growth across the region. But there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what this will mean for migration flows in the region and at the country level. People sometimes refer to a free movement of labor, as in Europe, but that prospect remains distant.

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As this new economic community emerges, there will be opportunity for the greater mobility of workers who move across national boundaries to fill skills shortages, increase their incomes and gain new experiences. However, discussions have primarily focused on labor mobility for skilled workers through Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) that provide freedom of movement and rights to work across the region for professionals in eight fields - accountancy, engineering, surveying, architecture, nursing, medical services, dental services and tourism.

Because Vietnam's wages are close to the median wages for the region, economic integration could mean movements of workers both in and out of the country. For Vietnam, well-planned integration could lead to increased domestic productivity through skilled migration, but it is important to anticipate the potential impacts of large numbers of skilled workers finding higher-paid work abroad through the MRAs.

A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Asian Development Bank, which will be published in mid-2014, is expected to shed more light on the labor market impact of the regional economic integration.

But migration among professional categories is and will only represent a very small proportion of the labor migration flows in South-East Asia. It is important to remember that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is not a standalone process; it is very much complemented by the Socio-Cultural Community pillar of ASEAN integration, which supports AEC's goal of equitable economic development across the region.

The contribution of low- and semi-skilled migrant workers should not be forgotten. And taken in isolation, the emerging ASEAN economic community does not sufficiently address social issues including safe migration, protection from exploitation, access to skills training, and welfare provisions for workers. 

Vietnam is well positioned to benefit from AEC integration, and with 15 percent of the ASEAN population, it also has a significant contribution to make to the new regional market. The 500,000 migrant workers already make a substantial contribution to Vietnam's economy, with remittances of approximately US$1.6 billion each year.

The government of Vietnam is active in its support of migration for work as part of its poverty reduction strategy and employment strategy. A suite of policies and services have been introduced to reduce costs and increase opportunities through training subsidies. This includes target-setting for skilled migration.

The ILO perspective is that migration should be a choice rather than a necessity. While migration may provide a route out of poverty, it is important to balance the promotion of migration with appropriate protection measures. 

For a number of years, the ASEAN member states have been cooperating to strengthen migration management and protect the rights of migrants. There are a number of frameworks and forums that provide the possibility of greater policy coordination and dialogue to advance the protections contained within the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers, including the ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labor, an annual meeting of governments, workers' and employers' organizations and civil society.

In addition, cooperation on migration management is being fostered, including through the Initiative on ASEAN Integration, wherein the Philippines is committed to sharing their experience on administration of overseas employment.

Some of the areas for action include the need for migrants to be better informed on the costs and benefits of migration; how to protect themselves throughout the migration cycle; mutual skills recognition in low- and semi-skilled jobs; portability of social security; and training and support for returning migrants, who can use their savings and knowledge developed abroad to enhance their livelihood options and help to grow the communities they return to in Vietnam.

International Migrants Day is a time to re-commit our efforts to make migration work for all, and the ILO is committed to continuing to work with the government of Vietnam and the workers' and employers' organizations to strengthen migration management and the protection of migrant workers, both at the national level and at the ASEAN level.

 By Sally Barber - Max Tunon*

*The writers are with the International Labor Organization's regional office for Asia and the Pacific. The opinions expressed are their own.

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