Labour Rights, Skills Development Needed to Improve Migration Outcomes in Southeast Asia, Say IOM, ILO

Date Publish: 
Friday, December 15, 2017

15/12/2017 - Labour migration can lead to long-term improvements in the lives of migrant workers if their labour rights are protected and if they are given opportunities for skills development, say the UN Migration Agency (IOM) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), in a new study.

Released for International Migrants Day on 18 December, Risks and Rewards: Outcomes of Labour Migration in South-East Asia provides a timely assessment of labour migrants’ experiences within ASEAN.

According to the most recent UN statistics, the number of migrants headed to other countries in the region has increased more than fivefold since 1990, reaching nearly 6.9 million. Millions more are employed without legal status and are not captured in official data.

“Despite rapid growth in the numbers of women and men migrating in South-East Asia, the outcomes for migrant workers are not well understood,” said Ben Harkins, ILO Technical Officer and one of the report’s authors.

To inform their work, the ILO TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme and the IOM PROMISE programme collaborated on a large-scale regional survey of over 1,800 migrants from Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Viet Nam, who had been employed in Thailand or Malaysia.

The study developed a Migration Outcomes Index (MOI) to measure changes in the lives of migrant workers from before to after their migration. The Index broadens the way migration outcomes are measured by incorporating both social and economic elements.

To obtain a better understanding of the factors that shape migration outcomes, the study analyzed the migration experiences of survey participants and re-evaluated commonly held beliefs about the practices and conditions that contribute to better outcomes for migrants.

It found that labour migration has a significant impact on poverty reduction within ASEAN. Survey data suggest that the number of migrants living below the poverty line was reduced by 11 per cent after migration.

But the research also found that despite efforts to promote safe migration through behavior change campaigns, migrants in South-East Asia remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, regardless of their own decisions. 

The findings indicate that the most significant changes to strengthen the positive development impact of migration are shifts in the policy and practice of governments, employers and recruitment agencies, rather than changing the behaviors of migrant workers.

Priority areas for action include shifting the costs paid for recruitment from workers to employers. The survey found that 73 percent of surveyed workers going to Malaysia from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam took out a loan to pay for their migration, and had to work on average for a whole year to pay the loan back. Ensuring that employers, rather than workers cover recruitment fees is one crucial way for governments and businesses to eradicate debt bondage and forced labour.

Subsequently, another key factor for improving migration outcomes, is ensuring effective protection of the labour rights of female and male migrant workers, and their access to legal remedies.

The study also identified the need to enhance access of migrant workers to skills validation and skills training that meets employer needs. The current migration context in South-East Asia does not properly link employers, training providers and migrant workers, and thus fails to provide sufficient market incentives for skills development.

“Skills development and validation in partnership with employers can help migrant workers move into jobs with better wages and working conditions, and bolster their economic contribution,” said PROMISE programme manager Anna Platonova.

Although the benefits of labour migration have not been maximized within South-East Asia, the study results show that positive outcomes can be achieved if migrant workers are treated fairly and provided with opportunities to develop their capabilities.

The report calls for shifting the focus of ASEAN governments from remittance flows to migrant-centred policies that improve the migration experience of migrant workers in a holistic manner.

To download the report please go to:

For more information, please contact Anna Platonova at IOM Thailand, Tel: +66 2 3439335, Email: