Labour Migration in Asia and the Pacific

The ILO is the only United Nations agency with a constitutional mandate to protect migrant workers, and it does so as part of its overarching goal of achieving decent work for all.

Labour migration in the region occurs primarily under temporary migration regimes and for elementary occupations and medium skilled work. However, Asia is also an important source region for skilled workers (in particular China, India and the Philippines). In 2015, a third of new immigrants to OECD countries came from Asia (OECD, 2017).

The issue of distress migration features in certain corridors in the region, notably from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar; and there is climate change induced migration in the Pacific and small island states.

Migration corridors and sectors of employment are highly gendered. Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines have typically had large outflows of women migrants engaged in domestic work. Women have more labour market options in South-East Asia, where they find jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, hospitality and to a lesser extent in construction. Flows to construction in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are dominated if not solely consisting of men (as well as fishing in East and South-East Asia). Similarly seasonal worker flows from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand and Australia are largely comprised of men.

Irregular migration occurs in parallel with regular migration, though the figures vary by countries and sub-regions, and data and sources on estimated irregular flows are scarce. An estimate from Thailand from 2013 suggested that, out of 2.7 million migrant workers in Thailand, 1.6 million lacked proper documentation.

The region is marked by substantial remittance inflows. There were seven Asian countries among the top 10 remittance receiving countries in 2016. Remittances make up a substantial proportion of GDP in several countries, far larger than federal direct investment (FDI) and official development assistance (ODA) in many countries (World Bank, 2017). For many countries in South Asia in particular, 2017 saw a drop in remittances for the first time due to the economic slowdown in the Gulf region.

Migrant workers make an enormous development contribution to the region’s economies – through skills, labour, services and competitiveness in countries of destination; and financial remittances, skills and knowledge upon return to their countries of origin. In destination countries many migrant workers fill labour market niches by doing jobs that nationals do not want or cannot fill. Yet many migrant workers in the region are subject to labour exploitation and abuse during recruitment and employment.

The ILO is the only United Nations agency with a constitutional mandate to protect migrant workers, and it does so as part of its overarching goal of achieving decent work for all. In addition to adopting International Labour Standards covering a wide range of employment-related areas (which apply to all persons in their working environment irrespective of their nationality) it has pioneered specific international Conventions to guide migration policy and the protection of migrant workers – including the Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 (No. 97) and the Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143) .All four sections of the ILO – standards, employment, social protection and social dialogue – work on labour migration and the ILO also promotes tripartite participation – the involvement of governments, employers and workers – in the formulation and implementation of migration policies and programmes.

The effective governance of labour migration poses big challenges and is shaped by powerful socio-economic and political factors. The implementation of policies and laws still have gaps in countries of origin and destination. Challenges and priorities in 2018-19 include protection and promotion of migrant workers’ rights; contributing to economic development and inclusive growth – in particular labour mobility, skills recognition and development impact; regional and inter-regional dialogue on labour migration; and improving harmonised data collection and statistics. Much of this needs to be done in the framework of contributing to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and in particular goals eight and ten

Current labour migration projects in Asia and the Pacific


EU-China Dialogue on Migration and Mobility Support Project (MMSP) (ILO-IOM Collaboration)
Coverage: China Duration: 2015-2018 Donor: European Union    

South-East Asia

Coverage: ASEAN region Duration: 2015-25 Donor: Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Government of Australia, Global Affairs Canada

Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region
Coverage: ASEAN Region Duration: 2018-22. Donor: European Union (EU/UN joint Spotlight Initiative) 

Protecting the Rights of Migrant Workers through Empowerment and Advocacy (MWEA)
Coverage: Malaysia Duration: 2017-2019 Donor: United States Government (US Department of Labour) 

Improved Migration Governance (IMG) Project: Protecting the rights of domestic workers and plantation workers through improved labour migration governance
Coverage: Malaysia Duration: 2017-19 Donor: United States Government (US Department of Labour)

Combatting Unacceptable Forms of Work in the Thai Fishing and Seafood Industry: Ship to shore rights project
Coverage: Thailand Duration: 2016-19 Donor: European Union

Sea Fisheries: Strengthened Coordination to Combat Labour Exploitation and Trafficking in Fisheries in Southeast Asia
Coverage: ASEAN with focus on Thailand and Indonesia Duration: 2017-20 Donor: United States Government (US Department of State) 

Developing International and Internal Labour Migration Governance (DIILM)
Coverage: Myanmar Duration: 2016-20 Donor: Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT)

South Asia

Global Action to Improve the Recruitment Framework of Labour Migration (REFRAME) in Sri Lanka
Coverage: Sri Lanka Duration: 2018-2020 Donor: The European Commission

Work in Freedom, Phase II - Fair recruitment and decent work for women migrant workers in South Asia and the Middle East – Nepal

Coverage: Jordan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, India, Nepal Duration: 2018-2023 Donor: United Kingdom, Department for International Development (DFID)

EU-India Cooperation and Dialogue on Migration and Mobility
Coverage: India Duration: 2017-2020 Donor: European Commission

Migrants Rights and Decent Work Project (MIRIDEW)
Coverage: Kuwait, Qatar, Nepal, Malaysia Duration: 2018-2021 Donor: Switzerland, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

Application of Migration Policy for Decent Work for Migrant Workers
Coverage: Bangladesh Duration: 2016-2020 Donor: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation 

The Pacific

Enhancing Protection and Empowerment of Migrants and Communities Affected by Climate Change and Disasters in the Pacific Region
Coverage: Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Republic of the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu Duration: 2019-21 Donor: UN Trust Fund for Human Security (UNTFHS)