What South Asia can learn from the ASEAN integration experience on labour mobility

The South Asian region has much to learn from the ASEAN experience in integrating investment, trade and movement of labour which includes a skilled workforce

Partha Pratim Mitra Dec 28, 2023
Representational Photo (Labour mobility)

Migration is the movement of persons away from their homes, either across an international border or within a state, to a new place of home either cross-border or within their country. Migration has emerged in the last few years as an important policy challenge in matters such as integration, displacement, safe migration and border management. According to the latest estimates, in 2020, the number of international migrants worldwide – people residing in a country other than their country of birth – reached 281 million. Female migrants constituted 48 per cent of international migrants. Almost three out of four international migrants were aged between 20 and 64 years, whereas 41 million international migrants were under the age of 20. Most international migrants reside in Asia and Europe (31% each), followed by Northern America (21%), Africa (9%), Latin America and the Caribbean (5%) and Oceania (3%).[i]

The end of strict entry controls in 2021 and 2022, with a few exceptions such as the late lifting of controls in China, allowed the Asian labor migration landscape to recover and resume its pre-COVID-19) pandemic phase. The international landscape has seen  Global labour shortages in the wake of the post-pandemic recovery in parts of the world and significantly in the Gulf region. Skill shortages and talent competition are reflected in policy adjustments in several countries, although demand for low-skilled workers has also gone up. These changes have opened employment opportunities for Asian countries sending migrants. 

Historically, a common influence affecting the development strategy adopted by the countries in the South Asian region has been their colonial past. The thinking of the period linked the economic underdevelopment of the region largely to the policy of laissez-faire and free trade that the British had adopted to suit their economic interests of the times. There was not much trade among the British colonies of South Asia, unlike the East Asian countries. As a result, the South Asian region remained the least integrated internationally.  

Changing nature of South Asia migration

However,  cross-border mobility of people to neighbouring countries within the South Asian region assumes the character of internal migration, particularly in those cases where passports and/or visas are not required by law, for example between India and Nepal, or India and Bhutan, or Bhutan and Nepal. There is also sizeable undocumented or illegal migration even where a visa is required.  The uneven pace of industrialization in Asia (South Asia vis-à-vis Southeast Asia) has led to larger and more varied cross-border movements from South Asian countries. While many of the South Asian workers continued to follow the beaten track of seeking greener pastures in the oil-rich countries in the Middle East for different service and maintenance jobs, house construction, store-keeping, security and guarding, etc., the 1990s saw more workers moving to better-paying jobs in Southeast Asia. 

Since the mid-1970s, most people who left their countries in South Asia for work were recruited to perform jobs in construction, small factories, domestic services, and agriculture. Only a thin layer of managers, professionals and technicians, mostly those employed by transnational corporations, topped the pyramid of migration flows within and out of the region. It was only in the 1990s when the global competition in the development of computer software and IT equipment intensified that the demand for migrant labour progressively began to be more upskilled in technical and educational composition. Thus, in terms of contemporary migration trends, what distinguished South Asia from other regions is perhaps the rapid growth of a market-led intra-continental migration to other parts of Asia.  

The emergence of Asia as the dominant source of highly skilled immigrants to North America, Europe, and Australia is well documented, and the competition for Indian IT workers highlights the importance of South Asia as a source of highly trained and educated migrant workers.  Trends also show that while the growth of permanent settlers in the developed countries from the region has grown slowly, temporary workers have grown more rapidly in the initial years of this century. This has been the fallout of a new trend of emphasis on return migration as part of effective migration management policies, though not harmonized or similar, of the receiving countries in Europe and North America. Return migration here means the act of going back from a country of presence to the country of origin, and the policies vary in inducing different categories of return, e.g. voluntary, forced, assisted, or spontaneous .[ii]

A comparative study on the socioeconomic development of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) with that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) showed that  SAARC countries share problems such as poverty and unemployment. A qualitative analysis based on secondary data about SAARC and ASEAN reveals that national and international conflicts are to an extent responsible for creating an unfavorable environment for investment and free mobility of people within SAARC countries. While the SAARC region’s economy has shown signs of improvement in recent years, the region still witnesses issues related to infrastructure development and technology adoption.ASEAN has demonstrated that mutual respect for sovereignty must be a prerequisite for developing trust that leads to cooperation which is considered essential for economic development.  ASEAN’s consultative and consensus-building approach as well as pragmatic reforms that result in a stable regional order and economic development based on realism in international affairs are stellar examples of regional economic cooperation among nations. [iii]

Cross-border migration has always been a point of contention within the SAARC countries. While almost all South Asian countries have laws, institutions and elaborate processes that regulate emigration out of the country, they have not been implemented to create a window to encourage migration within the region itself. Historically, cooperation among the countries in the South Asian region in this matter has been lukewarm. The formation of SAARC has done little to improve this situation. Several reasons have been cited for its failure, prominent among them being the internal politics of its member states; the lack of a conflict mediation and resolution mechanism, asymmetry between countries in the region in terms of geographic size and population and lack of mutual trust among the. South Asian countries.[iv] 

Productive use of human capital

The situation in the ASEAN region is different. The ASEAN Agreement on Movement of Natural Persons (MNP) was signed on November 19, 2012 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to significantly remove the barriers to the temporary movement across borders of natural persons engaged in trade in goods, and services and investment between ASEAN countries.[v]

The background behind the signing of the MNP goes quite far. It began with the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS)  which was signed in 1995, with one of its goals was “to liberalize trade in services by expanding the scope and depth of liberalization beyond those undertaken by Member States under the General Agreement on Trade in Services( GATS ), which is a part of WTO, to realize a free trade area in services”. As a general matter, AFAS adopts the same four modes of supply as used in GATS, including (1) cross-border supply, (2) consumption abroad, (3) commercial presence, and (4) presence of natural persons.

Since 1995, ASEAN member countries have gone through several rounds of negotiations to ease the flow of services within the ASEAN region. As such the movement in natural persons (GATS mode 4) is negotiated in the overall context of enhancing trade in services among ASEAN member countries[vi]

 With the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in December 2015, the region has advanced its agenda to achieve deeper regional integration. The AEC has four objectives: (i) creating a single market and production base; (ii) increasing competitiveness; (iii) promoting equitable economic development; and (iv) further integrating ASEAN within the global economy.  

The movement of people and labour contributes to the efficient and productive use of human capital and catalyzes the transfer of knowledge across the region. It is an integral part of the AEC and includes policies that ease the movement of tourists, students, and skilled professionals, among others. There is a growing appetite within the region to take a more proactive role to facilitate and foster labour mobility—especially in attracting, retaining, and circulating ASEAN’s skilled workforce—as many members become more knowledge-based economies that require greater innovation. Besides, aging populations and changing demographics will necessitate more efficient use of human resources through regional collaboration.[vii]

The lesson to be learned from the ASEAN experience is the nature of the integration of nations in a common economic framework where labour mobility is integral to the framework without compromising each other's sovereign interests. The South Asian region has much to learn from the ASEAN experience in integrating investment, trade and movement of labour which includes a skilled workforce.  

(The writer, a retired Indian Economic Service officer, is an expert on labour and employment. Views are personal. He can be reached at ppmitra56@gmail.com)

INTERNATIONAL  ORGANISATION FOR MIGRATION[i]https://wmr-educatorstoolkit.iom.int/module-1-what-is-migration-resources

[ii] Labour migration in Asia and the Pacifichttps://www.ilo.org/asia/areas/labour-migration/lang--en/index.htm

[iii]  Chaudhary Deepak ,Challenges and Potential of SAARC in Comparison with ASEAN

Southeast Asia: A Multidisciplinary Journal

December 2022

Vol, 22, Issue 2, Pp.107-121


iv Rajan, S.I., Kumar, A. (2023). Migration, Development Within the SAARC Framework: Towards a Migration Governance Model of the Future. In: Rajan, S.I. (eds) Migration in South Asia. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-34194-6_15 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/97

v  https://cil.nus.edu.sg/databasecil/2012-asean-agreement-on-the-movement-of-natural-persons/

vi https://www.tilleke.com/insights/movement-natural-persons-under-aec-labor-market-issues/

[vii] Aiko Kikkawa and Eric B. Suan*Trends and patterns in intra-ASEAN migration in Skilled Labor Mobility and Migration Challenges and Opportunities for the ASEAN Economic Community Edited by Elisabetta Gentilepp18-41,Asian development Bank,2019, https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/517601/skilled-labor-mobility-migration-asean.pd

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