The Missing Women: Implications of the ASEAN Integration on Women Migrant Workers’ Rights

Executive Summary

This report examines the implications of the ASEAN economic integration on women’s human rights particularly of women migrant workers drawing from a review of literature and interviews
with NGOs working in the Mekong region. It highlights the implications to the rights of women migrant workers especially from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV).
ASEAN struggles to meet the goals of the Economic Community Blueprint given the economic and political disparities within and among ASEAN Member States. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam continue to lag behind, and will likely find it hard to catch up with the requirements of the economic integration.

Women fare the worst in the economic and political-security pillars of ASEAN integration. As the paper seeks to illustrate, there are concerns that the ASEAN economic integration will cause more harm than good in the lives of women and of the poorest and most marginalized peoples and communities in Southeast Asia. The Political-Security Community neglects and marginalizes women and their issues despite having the overarching human rights body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) built under this community. On the other hand, women’s rights are protected in the Socio-Cultural Community, which represents the ‘human dimension of the integration’, and is expected to address solely the negative impacts or consequences of the economic and political-security communities.

Regulatory frameworks of labour migration intersect across the three pillars of ASEAN. However, as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) takes primacy in the over-all regional integration of ASEAN, the free flow of labour espoused by the AEC underpins and directs ASEAN’s policies for managing labour migration in the region. The agreements made by the ASEAN Member States (AMS) on labour strongly resonate with the General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS) ‘Mode4’ on Movement of Natural Persons characterized by temporary entry or stay of natural persons and restricted only to sectors engaged in business, skilled and professional work. Several other policy instruments that address migration-related issues of trafficking and violence against women are found in the Political-Security and Socio-Cultural pillars. The ASEAN Declaration on the Rights of Migrant Workers guarantees the rights of migrant workers in general and outlines the obligations of both migrant-sending and –receiving states in the region. While there is no explicit mention of women migrant workers and the gender dimension of migration, the Declaration referred to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) among other international instruments that the AMS have acceded to. However to date, the Framework Instrument that serves as the enabling guidelines of the AMS in implementing the Declaration is beset with the¬ inability of the labour-sending and receiving countries to reach a resolution.

Labour migration in ASEAN is largely characterized by temporary migration of less skilled, low wage work in sectors. There are more irregular than regular migrant workers in the region. According to estimates, many of low-skilled, low wage, irregular migrant workers in the region are women employed in informal work sectors.

Violations of women’s rights are committed throughout the migration cycle in labour-sending and-receiving countries in the region. Among them are: restrictions on women’s right to work and
mobility, the phenomenon of feminization of migration where women’s work is undervalued; lack of social protection for women, violations of women migrant’s sexual and reproductive health rights, trafficking in women and girls, and barriers to women’s access to justice in violence against women and economic, social and cultural rights violations.

The cases of women migrant workers from Lao PDR and Myanmar illustrate the conditions of women and girls whose rights are violated under the existing framework of labour migration in the region. Support from family and NGOs, and adequate response from law enforcers are important factors that facilitate women migrant workers’ access to remedy. ASEAN established institutions and mechanisms to protect and promote the rights of women migrant workers. Various civil society formations engage these institutions and mechanisms. Civil society advocacy focuses on developing a rights-based, gender-sensitive regional framework and policies on labour migration.

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