Freer Movement of Labor Seen as Tipping Point for Asean Economic Integration

APRIL 20, 2015

Jakarta. Freer movement of labor across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be the tipping point in the region’s preparation for economic integration, highlighting the need to establish a set of common values in migration policy, according to a panel discussion during the 24th World Economic Forum on East Asia.

Some business executives, government leaders and civil society leaders from Southeast Asia discussed the challenge and possibilities of the start at the end of this year the Asean Economic Community during the “Connecting Asean: The Last Mile” session in Jakarta on Wednesday. Aside from the ease of movement in labor, the AEC is expected to lead to freer trade of goods and services — making the region competitive with other nations globally.

“Non-trade barriers are something that will be coming. I want to emphasize on the need of free movement of people in this region. That would accelerate the Asean integration,” said Teresita Sy-Coson, vice-chairperson of SM Investments Corporation of the Philippines and one of five co-chairs of the WEF on East Asia.

Sy-Coson admitted that there are concerns about people's jobs being threatened with a liberalized labor force, and she emphasized the need for “more training and competitiveness so that [Asean] can fill the gap in labor skill need.”

Tony Fernandes, chief executive of Kuala Lumpur-based low-cost carrier AirAsia, also cited trust issues among countries in the region as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the full implementation of regional integration in Asean.

The sensitive nature of the issues surrounding a liberalized labor force — despite its potential — is the reason why each government’s ability to create a fair cross-country migration policy will set the tone, said William Lacy Swing, director general at the International Organization for Migration and another co-chair of the WEF on East Asia.

“Large-scale migrations are inevitable, necessary and highly desirable if we have the right policies. It’s not much a problem to be solved as it is a reality to be managed,” Swing added.

Malaysian International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed shared a similar view, saying that regulation on the flow of skilled labor is currently being cooked up between Asean countries.

“This is one of the benefits of Asean integration,” he said. “There cannot be development if you face shortages of labor.”

Still, Evelyn Balais-Serrano, executive director of human rights group Forum-Asia, expressed concern that social and human rights issues aren’t being addressed enough in the discussions of the Asean economic integration.

“Before we can consider this full Asean community, we must have policies on better protections for migrants, especially women. Without respect for human rights, there will be vicious cycle of unrest,” said Evelyn.

GlobeAsia and the Jakarta Globe are media partners of the WEF event in Jakarta.