Working beyond borders

Updated: Aug 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
The growing number of migrant workers from Asia, as highlighted in the report on Labour and social trends in the Asia Pacific, 2006 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), points to the need for new mechanisms to replace current migratory regimes in both developed and developing countries. The increase in flows is partly due to new job opportunities in the faster growing regions within Asia and also the more protectionist immigration policies in more developed countries. The number of annual migrant workers has trebled from close to a million in the 80s to close to three million in recent years, with intra-Asian flows gaining ascendancy. Around 1.5 m migrants annually head for Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, many of whom skip formal channels. The composition is also changing, slowly, as the pick-up in Asian investments abroad and increased hiring by transnational corporations buoy the number of home-grown business professionals. However, female migrants remain largely stuck to domestic work and the entertainment industry and continue to be more vulnerable to abuse.

Though focus has shifted to finding innovative ways to tap the skills and other resources of emigrant workers, the process of migration remains informal and risky, especially for less skilled workers and women. Rigid control barriers in mature economies and in Asia ensure illegal transfers of ever-increasing numbers of desperate job seekers from poorer regions. These trends will accelerate as production and supply chains expand beyond political boundaries. Governments have to sit together on more flexible policies that encourage temporary migration and differentiate between transient workers and potential settlers. A centrally planned approach of fixed quotas for different migrant segments does not accommodate the fluctuating needs of a dynamic economy; the delays and costs of facilitating such flows become major irritants. A way out is to design new work permit systems that help curb illegal flows. Migration, if well managed, can be a unique source of comparative advantage for Asian nations.