By Jeremaiah Opiniano
MANILA—ANALYSTS are far from getting their hopes up that migrant workers’ rights would spike interest among leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations who would meet next month in Singapore.
Expect follow-through to go slow, said many of 160 participants in a recent discussion on an eight-month-old Asean declaration for protecting and promoting migrant workers’ rights.
They were referring to the 12th Asean Summit in Cebu City, where advocacy on upholding the human rights of migrant workers in the Southeast Asian region reached two gains: a declaration and a committee to implement that declaration.
Groups involved in this advocacy found these gains “surprising” since these concern human rights, a bilateral discussion these groups’ leaders say usually takes much time.
It will possibly succumb to Asean’s nature of work that is slow-paced and non-binding, said most analysts who attended a recent Manila consultation on Asean and migrant workers.
The plus-factor for having those two gains happen, says William Gois of the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), is that the Philippine government pushed the Asean member-states to fast-track the migrant workers agenda.
The big “but” here is the term “human rights,” that Gois said is a very sensitive issue.
The 13th Asean Summit this November notably will carry the agenda of energy, environment, climate change and sustainable development, as well as the presentation of the regional bloc’s constitution, the Asean Charter.
The Singapore agenda was also formed from the 40th Asean Ministerial Meeting last July in Manila, where member-countries’ foreign ministers adopted to create a committee to flesh out the Cebu declaration.
Don’t get your hopes up, Gois said.
LAWYER Carlos Medina, who is secretary-general of the Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism, views these events as the progress of the migrant workers’ rights advocacy.
His benchmark of that advocacy in the region is, first, the sectoral committee’s formation. That committee, Medina said, could begin formulating an Asean-wide instrument on migrant workers’ rights.
That instrument is the next step for the migrant workers’ rights advocacy in Asean, Medina says. An Asean body on migrant workers’ rights will then be formed to implement that regional instrument, he surmises.
Medina said another benchmark is having what he calls an Asean inter-governmental human rights commission. The Working Group he heads is lobbying for this.
In the meantime, for human rights issues such as those prevailing currently in Myanmar, Asean-member governments voice out their concern but do not make any action as a collegial body that is Asean.
Medina said the Asean also has human rights sectoral commissions on women, human rights education, and networking among member-countries’ human rights institutions. These, he noted, are all products of the Ventianne (Laos) Action Programme crafted two years ago.
The programme emphasizes on the human rights obligations of countries, Medina emphasized. Human rights advocacy for Asean in general is a product of over ten years of continued talks with Asean leaders, Medina said.
Thus, the fact that migrant workers were talked about in Asean in just a few months “is a big development already,” he said citing that member-states “don’t discuss migrant workers’ issues.”
These issues are too sensitive, Medina said.
The sensitivity lies in the dynamics between Asean member-countries who are either sending or receiving migrant labor. Malaysia and Singapore are renowned to be host countries of migrants, although the former also has citizens working overseas. The Philippines and Indonesia, for their part, are renowned labor-sending countries.
Countries belonging to the Greater Mekong Sub-region, such as Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Myanmar, and Thailand (as well as China, though Yunnan province), are affected by movements of refugees as well as labor migration movements by some two million people.
AT this early, stumbling blocks to the Asean migrant workers’ advocacy are coming up.
Malaysia, host to large numbers of undocumented migrants such as Filipinos and Indonesians, deferred signing the document for the migrant workers sectoral committee.
No signing ceremony was held in the Manila Ministers’ Meeting for that sectoral committee, as Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said the committee’s formation was “adopted” by participating countries.
For her part, Jenina Joy Chavez of Focus of the Global South thinks that while the migrant workers’ advocacy is important, Asean is usually “talk-shop” that formulates declarations and regulations “that can’t be implemented”.
“Even the responsibilities of governments are not spelled out,” Chavez adds, explaining that Asean is purely an inter-governmental body.
These observations do not come as a surprise to International Studies student and migrant workers’ advocate Domini Fangon, who thinks Asean works in a “non-interventionist way” that will make it difficult to follow-through the Cebu declaration.
Raymond Balatbat, a staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs, can attest to such difficulty to convince other member-countries when it comes to migrant workers. He was among the organizers of the Cebu meeting for migrant workers.
Getting the Cebu declaration out “was difficult,” Balatbat said without citing details.
Getting recommendations –to add more flesh to the declaration– addressed would be equally difficult, said lobbyists for greater migrant workers’ rights.
The recommendations include for Asean to create a regional body that migrant workers could go to for redress of grievances.
The shopping list of migrant workers’ rights advocates also want Asean to issue explicit statements on the protection of low-skilled workers such as domestic workers.
Gois said the absence of such statements in the Asean declaration’s wordings “is a big deficit of the Cebu declaration”.
Medina, however, cautions for non-adversarial approach in pushing for these recommendations.
The way to get the consensus of Asean for issues such as the rights of migrant workers is doing things step-by-step, Medina said.
That’s based on his experience lobbying for a wide-ranging human rights mechanism for Asean.
“At least, Asean listens,” he said.
Analysts are hoping that is not what the ministers would only do come November in Singapore.