Following two years of devastating consequences caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the labor market across Southeast Asia has taken a major hit, especially when it comes to job stability for overseas workers. Many of the industries and businesses that once employed the majority of migrant workers have been forced to either halt operations temporarily or went out of business entirely due to supply chain issues and a lack of demand from the global market.
The ASEAN region alone witnessed working hour losses of approximately 8.4 percent in 2020, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), which resulted in the loss of more than 10.6 million jobs and 7.8 percent of labor income in the overall labor market.
The jobs of low-skilled migrant workers were particularly vulnerable. As of this year, more than 2.4 million migrant workers have returned to six ASEAN member states of origin. By late 2021, approximately 260,000 Cambodian migrant workers returned from overseas, mostly from Thailand. Similarly, about 140,000 Lao migrant workers also returned home from Thailand. In a 2021 ILO report, closures in the garment and apparel sector in Malaysia, for instance, caused 951,000 people to lose their jobs, of which 68 percent were low-skilled migrant workers.
This indicated not only that low-skilled migrant workers are vulnerable to sudden changes in the world economy, but also that this is a region-wide concern that needs to be addressed urgently.
It is increasingly crucial for ASEAN to invest more in upskilling its migrant workers. Through effective policy approaches, migrant workers throughout this region could be more prepared to weather future unexpected shocks, as well as to confront anticipated changes to the nature of work itself. The region as a whole would benefit from increased productivity and the long-term stability of a highly mobile workforce that is safe, secure, and capable.
Future-Proofing Southeast Asia
Labor force issues are more pressing than ever, especially in an era of globalization and given the changing nature of work. Future pandemics and other such crises are not the only major challenges that workforces will need to be prepared to meet. The nature of work – how people work, where they work, and what jobs exist – is also actively being reshaped, and these trends will also be a threat to lower-skilled workers throughout the region.
With the rapid introduction of new advanced technologies, from artificial intelligence and robotics to blockchain and 3D printing, the world of work, especially work that was previously considered low or medium-skilled such as manufacturing, is anticipated to change in countless ways. Some jobs will be affected, or replaced altogether, by automation, while many new jobs will be created in the new era of digital economies.
The pandemic may prove to be a catalyst for the speeding up of this process. COVID-19 has shown just how quickly supply chains and the labor market as a whole can be disrupted. This disruption will likely push even more firms to turn to automation, AI, or other technologies to keep their businesses running in case of future crises. Globally, this is already proving to be true. In a survey by the accounting firm EY, around half of company bosses surveyed in 45 countries said that they are speeding up plans to automate their businesses, and some 41 percent said they were investing in accelerating automation in the wake of the pandemic.
This is not the case for some far-off future. Gary Rynhart, an ILO Senior Specialist of Employers’ Activities, told UN News that technologies to reduce or eliminate the need for human workers in industries which predominantly employ low-skill migrant workers already exist and he raised Southeast Asia as a prime case where this is already happening.
Rynhart pointed to garment factories and the shrimp peeling industry as two Southeast Asian sectors currently at risk of workforce downsizing due to automation. Other sectors such as retail, hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing, health care, and so on have now been gradually moving more of their operations to online systems such as mobile apps, and relying even more on automation. All of these factors are in the process of transforming the labor migration landscape, and ASEAN needs to invest more attention and funding in making sure workers all across our region are ready.
The Importance of Upskilling Migrant Workers
As the future of work is expected to impact the availability of jobs, the organization of work, and the skills required for jobs in the manufacturing, service, and agricultural sectors alike, it is important for both countries of origin and destination in ASEAN to ensure that their migration policies and training programs are ready to respond to these shifts.
Despite the severity of the recent job losses and impacts on the labor market, this is a good opportunity for policymakers to develop future policies to safeguard the future of labor migration. It can provide insights as to what governments should do to protect the migrant workers from unforeseeable future shocks.
A 2021 ILO Thematic Background Paper suggests that upskilling can be one of the ways that can protect migrant workers from job vulnerability. Upskilling can be referred to as smaller sets of skills, including both hard and soft skills, that can be adopted to improve employee efficiency and performance of workers, and can help workers to stay relevant and competitive in their respective industries.
So far, numerous upskilling initiatives have been adopted in various regions. The European Union, for example, has put up funding instruments for upskilling and reskilling workers which can be accessed through financial intermediaries, national authorities, and through the European Commission. The overall purpose of this funding is to foster skills development, cooperation, and resilience among workers. By investing in improving education, training, youth engagement in democracy, green and digital technologies, and more, the EU anticipates improved employment opportunities and the raising of the standard of living for its workers.
As for ASEAN, our migrant workers must be more educated on digital services, cyber security, and the risks of false information. Access to technology and the use of appropriate platforms for knowledge and information would be hugely beneficial for migrant workers to be able to thrive in the digital economy.
Countries like Cambodia, which are the source of large numbers of migrants numbers, need a skilled and capable workforce to stay competitive, not just within the region but also within the global market.
The Industrial Development Policy of Cambodia 2015-2025 highlights the need to promote the study of sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from primary education to post-secondary education level, coupled with curriculum reform through standardization of programs from primary education level and up. The government has also put out The National TVET Policy and The National Employment Policy 2015-2025 to address the skills shortage and skills mismatch by ensuring that education, skills and vocational training, and human resource development are responding to the demand of the labor market.
Other countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, which also rely heavily on labor migration and remittances as sources of economic strength, should similarly put more focus on upskilling their migrant workers. For example, Vietnam’s government places a strong emphasis on skilling, reskilling, and upskilling Vietnamese labor forces through the National Strategy for Digital Transformation, as well as other relevant policies with a focus on digital skills development.
“The labor market is changing fast with automation and it will have significant impacts on young workers, including migrant workers. Unless they have easy access to upskilling opportunities, they will likely be left behind,” Park Mihyung, the chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Vietnam, said recently.
Cross-border collaboration among ASEAN member states on this issue will bring about faster and more efficient policies, accelerating the process of exchanges of higher skilled migrant workers, which has always been a key objective of ASEAN integration.
Any additional investments made toward upskilling migrant workers will go a long way. A workforce equipped with skills that are in demand will further contribute to sustainable growth and more creative innovation and will boost Southeast Asia’s competitiveness in the global market.