Labor mobility in Asean: Free or unfree?

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Economic community-hood is the primary  goal of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The idea is to transform the economies of the 10 Asean countries into one Asean Economic Community (AEC). The expected outcomes: the AEC as a single market of over 600 million people and the AEC as one production base that can compete with those of the  European Union, China, Japan and the United States.

This transformation will not happen on the basis of the news releases issued by the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.  It  will take years, if not decades, for real integration requires a leveling of development across the region and, yes, the creation of one seamless Asean economy. What the various Asean economic integration programs have accomplished is the general opening up of the economies of the 10 Asean member-states (AMSs), which are at 10 different levels of development. The Asean Free Trade Agreement (Afta); Asean Investment Agreement (AIA); Asean Framework Agreement on Services (Afas) and other integration/liberalization agreements do not necessarily close the development gaps among the 10 AMSs; they may even exacerbate the gaps, if the laggards, like Myanmar and Laos, are unable to keep up in the growth process with the developed ones, like Singapore and Malaysia.

Moreover, integration blueprints and programs, approved at the regional level, have to be translated into the national policies, programs and operational measures of the individual AMSs. This translation process is neither easy nor smooth.  For example, liberalization in the trade of goods under Afta appears successful because of the reported tariff reductions achieved by all the AMSs; however, nontariff barriers are common and trade disputes among AMSs are settled in the World Trade Organization, not in the Asean, which has no established settlement body.

Nowhere is the gap between formal Asean declaration and implementation reality on the ground more pronounced than in the case of the migrant workers.  In 2007 the Asean adopted in Cebu a historic Declaration on the Rights of Migrant Workers.  And yet, today, the Asean is still unable to provide teeth to the declaration because the AMSs are unable to agree on an implementation instrument, which both labor-receiving and labor-sending countries must observe.

In the case of the well-publicized MRAs to promote the “free flow of skilled labor” or  professionals, the situation is worse.  Accordingly, the free flow of skilled labor is necessary to  allow Asean companies easy access to needed skills and talents wherever they operate in the region.  For this purpose, the Asean, under “Mode 4” (movement of natural persons) of the Afas framework on “trade in services”, instituted the “mutual recognition agreements” (MRAs) for different professions.  The MRAs are  a  system of  equivalency and recognition related to the education,  skills and qualifications of various professions.  For example, a dentist in Hanoi can move freely to Kuala Lumpur to practice dentristy once his or her professional credentials from Vietnam are acknowledged to be acceptable and equal with those in Malaysia.

Among the first to be covered by the Asean MRAs are architectural services, accountancy  services, nursing services, surveying qualifications, medical practitioners, dental practitioners and tourism professionals.  The MRAs for these professionals were adopted between 2005 and 2012 (See Table 1).

The implementation progress for the MRAs was mainly in the creation of implementing offices and bodies at the regional and national levels. However, there is tremendous backlog in the “operationalization of MRA principles into detailed regulations, plans, procedures and mechanisms” that professionals can use when applying for registration and recognition. The ADB-MPI study also cited the different requirements imposed by the AMSs, such as  language-proficiency requirements, holding a degree from a recognized or accredited institution, minimum years of study and passing of national licensure exams.

But is it not a fact that there is greater movement of skilled labor today within the region?  The answer is yes, but not in the context of the MRAs.  Highly educated migrants have been circulating within the region even without the Asean MRAs. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia even encourage their entry during boom times for they help moderate wage surges and provide these countries needed talents in scaling upward the technology ladder. A number of Filipino professionals and skilled workers go out as tourists on Asean visa (good for 21 days) and then apply directly to employers in the other Asean countries.

The point is that the MRA system is not working and is facing difficulties because of differences in national  regulations and recognitions of the professions.  In the case of the Philippines, which is a large labor-sending country, the Constitution is quite clear: the practice of professions is “limited to Filipino citizens” (Section 14, Article XII).  This is reinforced by Article 40 of the Labor Code, which says that no “employment permit” can be issued to a “non-resident alien”.  Permits are only given to the  managerial-technical personnel of firms in “preferred areas of investments” and to foreign professionals who do work where there is no available Filipino “who is competent, able and willing” to perform the said work.

And yet, there is “freer” movement of skilled labor today within the Asean, fueled largely by the selective demand needs of countries like Singapore and Malaysia.  However, all workers, particularly the low-skilled or semi-skilled migrants, are still subject to the visa, reportorial and other requirements of the host countries.  There is no free flow of skilled labor, only freer circulation.

 

 



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