ASEAN signs Consensus to protect, promote migrant workers' rights

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(File photo)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 13) -- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) moved to provide better protection for their migrant workers in the region  with an agreement they signed on Tuesday.

The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Worker is expected to benefit over 200,000 Filipino migrant workers, most of whom are employed in Singapore and Malaysia.

“In cases where Filipino migrant workers are imprisoned, they will have rights no less favorable than those applied to the local workers. They also have the right to file grievances with the relevant authorities in the countries they are working in,” Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said in a statement.

The Consensus provides for visits by family members and reinforces  workers’ right  to join trade unions and associations. It prohibits passport confiscation and overcharging of recruitment fees, as well as regulates recruiters for better protection of workers.

The agreement also provides for  respect for gender and nationality and protection against violence and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Implementation of the agreement  is subject to the respective laws of ASEAN members.

President Rodrigo Duterte announced the signing of the landmark document at the opening ceremony of the 31st ASEAN Summit on Monday.

"I am pleased to announce that ASEAN member states have come to an agreement on the ASEAN consensus on the protection and promotion of rights of migrant workers," said Duterte.

"I will be joining other ASEAN leaders tomorrow in signing this landmark document that would strengthen social protection, access to justice, humane and fair treatment, and access to health services for our people," he added.

To achieve this, the region’s labor ministers will develop an action plan "to translate the ASEAN Consensus into concrete actions," according to a November 11 draft Chairman’s Statement that will be released at the end of the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila.

The agreement is considered a centerpiece of the country’s chairmanship of ASEAN. 

The Philippines is a major labor exporter with some ten million Filipinos working abroad and contributing about 10% to the country’s gross domestic product.  Data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas shows overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) sent $ 17.9 billion to their families in the Philippines in  the first seven months of 2017.

According to the World Bank, approximately $62 billion (PhP 3 trillion) in remittances were sent to ASEAN in 2015.

The Consensus comes ten years after the regional bloc adopted the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in Cebu in 2007.

A labor group, the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP), praised the agreement.

"This is a positive step towards improving core labor and occupational safety and health standards on decent and humane treatment of ASEAN migrant workers and their families," ALU-TUCP spokesperson Alan Tanjusay said in a statement.

He said the group looked forward to the action plan and suggested a labor and workers' representatives be included in coming up with the roadmap.

“It is high time perhaps to establish common, uniform labor and working conditions standards in ASEAN to avoid the race to the bottom phenomenon among workers in a regional community aspiring to grow,” Tanjusay said.

However, an alliance of OFWs, Migrante International,  slammed the agreement as "watered down and useless" in a protest last week.