Labour mobility in ASEAN: how can women migrant workers benefit?

Jakarta (Indonesia) – A new study is out that formed the basis for discussion of the High-Level Policy Dialogue of ASEAN on the conditions of women migrant workers in the ASEAN Community

(left to right) Natalia Figge, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung; Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg, German Ambassador to Indonesia; Miwa Kato, UN Women; Mrs. Roostiawati, Indonesian Ministry of Manpower; Vongthep Arthakaivalvatee, ASEAN Secretariat; Jane Duke, Australian Ambassador to ASEAN, Jakarta, 7 July 2017 © ASEAN Secretariat

“Through promoting women’s equality and empowerment, ASEAN can drive overall growth. It’s not only the right thing to do—it is smart economics,” said Miwa Kato, Regional Director for UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

The role of women migrant workers in achieving a socially inclusive and an economic equal ASEAN Community was the topic of the second ASEAN High-Level Policy Dialogue in Jakarta on 7th July. The event was hosted by the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower and co-organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), UN Women (with funding support from Department of Foreign Affairs, Australia) and the ASEAN Secretariat. The meeting brought together high-level officials of ASEAN Member States in charge of labour, economy and trade, and women’s empowerment, as well as representatives from regional trade unions and civil society organizations.

Almost half of the 6.9 million migrant workers in the ASEAN Economic Community are women

The creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in December 2015, involving the integration of labour markets in the region and the attendant creation of new jobs, has led to an increase in the number of migrant workers to nearly 6.9 million, almost half of them women. As ASEAN member states enter this new era of integration from very different economic starting points, the freer flow of goods and capital is likely to accelerate the movement of low-skilled workers. Women and men, as well as low-skilled and high-skilled individuals, have different patterns of migration based on their personal characteristics.

Increasing numbers of women among migrant workers can be observed as a constant trend in ASEAN, emphasizing the significance of women’s economic role. This raises questions about gender inequalities as women suffer of poor working conditions and mostly occupy jobs of lesser quality than men, the so-called “3D jobs”—Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult.

A newly published study recommends that to reach the maximal potential of the economic benefits of the ASEAN integration, skills development and job mobility have to be improved as women struggle to move up the value chain, and move away from the lowest and least-skilled occupations

Unlike the skilled migrant workers who can benefit from the freedom of movement in the ASEAN region, low-wage labour is much less regulated, partly due to the high number of undocumented workers, which involves greater risks of facing intermediation costs and middlemen in the recruitment process, and leads to a higher job insecurity and a lack of social protection. However, they represent the undisclosed underside of the economic success of the region. To tackle this issue, both countries of origin and of destination need to consult and agree on a legal framework at national and regional levels.

A new study “Women Migrant Workers in the ASEAN Economic Community” was launched in Jakarta on July 7th, and formed the basis of discussion. It contributes to filling a gap in current debates on women migrants as potential agents of development. In order to reach the maximal potential of the economic benefits of the ASEAN integration, skills development and job mobility have to be improved as women struggle to move up the value chain, and move away from the lowest and least-skilled occupations, where they are currently overrepresented.

“The failure to make full use of the valuable human resource which women represent comes at a huge economic and social cost,” says Natalia Figge, Programme Manager for Gender Equality and Migration at the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.

Discussions on the draft ASEAN Instrument on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers are still ongoing between the member states. It is hoped that the instrument will be adopted at the upcoming ASEAN Summit in the Philippines this November. An ASEAN instrument to look into the welfare of migrant workers would be a special achievement right in time for the occasion of the 50th Year Celebration of ASEAN. ###

Leïla Cellérier is intern at the Singapore-based FES Office for Regional Coordination in Asia. For more information about the regional work by FES on gender justice and equality contact Natalia Figge, Programme Manager at the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.

FES in Asia

This website gives you regular updates of FES regional projects and activities across our Asia country offices.

It offers news articles on current debates and a range of research publications and policy briefs to download.  


  • 23.11.2020 | Gender and social justice | News

    How COVID-19 fuels the digital gender divide

    It is high time to act and re-imagine our digital future in Asia.

    more information

  • FES Afghanistan | Cooperation for Peace and Security | News

    On Shaky Grounds: COVID-19 and Afghanistan's Social, Political and Economic Capacities for Sustainable Peace

    A new report published by FES Afghanistan assesses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on socio-economic and political dynamics key to the country's...

    more information

  • | Gender and social justice, Climate change | News

    Further steps are needed to ensure a gender-just energy transition

    For the shift from fossil fuels towards renewable energies to be genuinely sustainable on both the environmental and social levels, it needs to be...

    more information

back to top