Monday, July 16th, 2018 Civil Society and Asia’s Labor Migration Regimes

Monday, July 16, 20184:00PM - 5:30PM108N, North House, 1 Devonshire Place


Since the 1970s, there has been an enormous expansion of temporary labor migration within Asia. Some foreign workers are highly skilled, highly mobile expatriates looking to expand their professional horizons. Millions of others, however, are employed on limited-term contracts in a diverse range of blue-collar occupations, in the service sector, or as para-professionals in industries like healthcare. This army of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled temporary labor migrants—who are overwhelmingly South or Southeast Asian—plays a vital role in the economic systems of the wealthier countries in the region. They work in factories, on construction sites and plantations, and staff restaurants and hospitals. They also keep house and care for the aged and the very young.

The marginality of many foreign workers in the wealthier labor markets of the region is in large part defined by the uncertainty of their migration status. But migration status is not the only determinant of marginality: temporary labor migrants’ capacity to access the protections available to citizens may also be limited by their labor market position, which in turn determines their access to the host country’s industrial relations system, and by the presence or absence of strong local voices on their behalf.

This paper analyzes the role of civil society in challenging the labor migration regimes of seven Asian destination countries. In doing so, it distinguishes between non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which have long been the leading force in activism on behalf of temporary labor migrants, and labor unions, which have traditionally rejected the presence of foreign workers but which have faced increasing pressure to support them. The paper argues that the particular history of labor migration flows in each of these countries and the particular ways in which the migration and employment relations axes within each of these destination countries influences the forms migrant labor activism takes and its likelihood of success.

Professor Michele Ford is Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. She also holds an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. Michele’s research, which focuses Southeast Asian labour movements, labour migration and trade union aid, has been supported by several Australian Research Council grants. Michele is the author of From Migrant to Worker: The Global Unions and Labor Migration in Asia (Cornell ILR Press, in press) and Workers and Intellectuals: NGOs, Trade Unions and the Indonesian Labour Movement (NUS/Hawaii/KITLV 2009). She is also editor of Social Activism in Southeast Asia (Routledge 2013) and the co-editor of several volumes including Beyond Oligarchy: Wealth, Power, and Contemporary Indonesian Politics (Cornell SEAP 2014).


Professor Michele Ford
Director, Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, The University of Sydney, Australia

Dr. Wayne Palmer
Lecturer, Department of International Relations, Bina Nusantara University

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Asian Institute

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