The violent deaths of two young migrant workers in Kuwait and Malaysia this month has forced the safety of some of the region’s most vulnerable workers back onto the agenda. The degree of depravity both women are reported to have endured has prompted outrage across Southeast Asia and raises the question, will change – finally – now come?
With hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asia’s workers leaving home hoping to find more lucrative work abroad, either within the region or in the Gulf states, the system is ripe for abuse. High profile reports of slavery conditions on fishing boats in Southeast Asia or within construction industries in the Middle East has prompted much outrage and the occasional endeavor for stricter labor laws.
But with few of these host countries known for particularly rigid enforcement of laws for working class citizens let alone working class migrants, the population remains susceptible to abuse, mistreatment and exploitation.
Women, especially young women who leave home often still just adolescents, are particularly vulnerable. Typically they find work as domestic helpers and carers, working and living in the homes of their middle and upper class employers. The isolating nature of working life leaves these women open to abuse no matter how stringent labor laws are in host countries, as seen this month in Malaysia. Adelina, a 21-year-old domestic worker hailing from East Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia, died in Penang after alleged abuse at the hands of her employers.
The case broke in the same week as the body of a murdered Filipino woman, Joanna Demafelis, a 25-year-old domestic worker, was repatriated to the archipelago from Kuwait. Her body had been discovered in the freezer of her employer in January after she was reported missing by her Visayas-based family in 2016. The case prompted the return of thousands of Filipino domestic workers from the Arab country to the Philippines, many with their own stories of abuse at the hands of employers.
Both the Philippines and Indonesia reacted with fury. Indonesia, which has a close relationship with neighboring Malaysia, has threatened to pull all migrant workers out of the country if labor laws are not adequately enforced and is likely to continue the fight in regional forums this year. Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tested the limits of bilateral relations with Kuwait when he demanded the immediate repatriation of all workers who wish to return home while accusing the Kuwaiti culture of being one which is particularly violent and misogynistic.
For Duterte, and his Indonesian counterpart President Joko Widodo, strident stands are to be expected, with the security of the diaspora a major foreign policy priority for both leaders. Indonesia and the Philippines are the two largest providers of migrant workers in the region and as such are the two greatest advocates for reforms at a regional level.
Last year, a deadlock between the two countries over how to best push for reforms through the Association of Southeast Nations was resolved, resulting in the ASEAN Consensus on Migrant Workers. But these two shocking deaths have highlighted the shortcomings with attempting to protect migrant workers through non-binding documents at the bloc while Memorandum of Understandings have expired and some of the worst abuses are believed to be occurring in countries well outside of ASEAN’s scope.
Both Indonesia and the Philippines have turned to emotive and largely impractical policy made on the fly. Duterte immediately lashed out at Kuwait, offering repatriation to any Filipino domestic worker who wanted it via local media while demonizing the Kuwaiti government. Indonesia moved swiftly, arresting two “recruiters” in Sumatra over allegations of human trafficking and threatening a ban on sending workers to the country.
The heavy-handed response should be expected. Since migrant workers began leaving Indonesia and the Philippines in the 1980s reports of abuse, mistreatment and deaths have filtered back home, but while they have outraged they have done little to stem the tide of expatriates.
An ASEAN report last year investigating the progress of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals found 90 percent of people living under the poverty line in ASEAN come from Indonesia or the Philippines. Fears over mistreatment, as dire as they are, are not enough to overcome the abject poverty in which so many migrant workers live.
For workers within the region, the best hope for meaningful and swift change may not come from their home governments at all but rather the civil society of their host countries. Both Malaysia and Singapore have robust and increasingly loud activist groups demanding stronger protections for migrant workers and prosecution of employers who violate existing laws. In its latest case, Malaysian civil groups and individuals have shared the outrage with Indonesia and in fact were responsible for launching a welfare investigation for Adelina prior to her death.
Much of the commentary in Indonesia and the Philippines focuses on the empowerment of workers and the growing diplomatic heft of the countries. Malaysia has largely taken the opportunity of somber introspection. Both responses underscore the same existential crisis – how do we build an open and integrated ASEAN which treats all its members fairly and with dignity?