Labor Mobility in the Asian Pacific Region

Labor Mobility in the Asian Pacific Region



Globalization led to massive increases in the migration of labor in the Asian Pacific region between 1980s and 1990s. It has been estimated that migration of labor was influenced by economic crisis that had been experienced in the region. The crisis threatened economic growth and as a result, countries within the region deepened their relations to prevent economic stagnation.  Before the crisis, flows in labor involved less skilled workers moving from poor regions to the developing regions. The mobility of skilled manpower was also high before the crisis. After the crisis, many factors, besides globalization, influenced demand for labor, thus resulting to increased labor migration within the region. The mobility of labor in the Asian Pacific region took various patterns and has had consequent impacts on labor markets and economic conditions in host countries.


Patterns of labor mobility


Labor mobility in the Asian Pacific region involves movements in both skilled and unskilled manpower. It also includes business migrations, which have various economic consequences. Unskilled labor moves from developed countries to the less developed countries. Such patterns in movement of labor began increasing as the spread of foreign direct investments increased. Various countries stand out as significant exporters of labor. Such countries include Japan, Thailand and Malaysia. Notably, most Thais migrate to various East Asian Countries while various Japanese with professional skills migrate to USA.


The pattern of labor mobility has drastically changed in the Asian Pacific region over the past decades. The studies on labor mobility have identified three patterns. The first phase involved labor moving from ex-colonial countries to the Asian Pacific region. The second phase involved labor moving from the Asian Pacific regions to western countries. The final phase involved labor moving from developed countries to less developed countries as foreign direct investment increased.


Various factors contribute to the patterns of labor mobility. The first one was rapid increase in economic growth. Within the Asian Pacific region, countries began working towards a constant economic growth even though countries like Japan were experiencing economic stagnation. Consequently, there was an increase in demand for unskilled labor. Some countries managed to maintain a 5% annual rate of growth in gross domestic products up to the time when the Asian region experienced economic crisis between 1997 and 1998. Furthermore, there were great differences in standards of living in less developed and developed countries in the Asian Pacific region. As transportation and information infrastructure improved, people began moving to countries where high wages were offered.


The second factor was the slowdown in growth of labor force. There was a substantial slowdown in the growth in labor force in NIEs and the south-eastern parts of Asia. Initially, rapid increases in labor supply had been experienced, which resulted in high rates of economic growth during the periods of boom in the industrialized countries. The effects were unevenly experienced in the region but countries like Thailand felt most of the effects. Between 1970s and 1980s, the fertility rate dropped within the region. As a result, it began to affect the growth of labor force in the 1990s. One factor behind the decline in fertility rate was the increased participation of women in the labor force. This resulted in massive declines in the rates of economic growth.


Following the Asian economic crisis and decline in the growth of labor force, labor policies were implemented within the Asian Pacific region. Such policies included quota programs that were implemented in China, Singapore, and other East Asian countries. The programs mainly restricted the movement of construction and domestic workers. Countries such as Malaysia, Japan, and Thailand began having illegal migrants who provided unskilled labor.


The migration policies included registration and reprieve of workers in most countries. Some countries engaged on illegal migrant crackdowns on a periodic basis. Even though some countries admitted to certain economic countries, some migrants preferred to join the clandestine workforce. The labor policies on professional workers were quite different from those of unskilled workers. Most economies implemented open policies that encouraged the employment of professions. Some countries like Hong Kong and Singapore encouraged emigration of professionals while countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, and Indonesia restricted the movement of foreign professionals to their economies.


The movement of labor came to an end in the period when various countries experienced decline in economic stability due to the economic crisis. The impacts of the crisis were muted; hence, some countries reduced the migrant stocks in response to the crisis. However, such moves only had limited success. The crisis did not affect skilled labor as it had been anticipated. Since the period of economic crisis, countries in the Asian pacific region have been encouraged to develop coherent policies in favor of migrant workers based on the effects that the crisis had on demand for labor. Countries like Thailand and Malaysia have accompanied the policies through underground repatriation of migrants.


The regulation of labor mobility by various countries has limited the cross-border mobility of unskilled labor. People willing to work abroad have been forced used licensed brokers rather than making direct job applications with employers. In the process of application, they have to undergo various medical tests and pass through expensive documentation processes before they can be issued with passports. The fees charged in the process usually act as setbacks to poor workers who are willing to work abroad. Some workers end up consulting lenders who charge high interests that takes longer times to repay the full amount.


Besides the policies, there are other barriers to labor mobility across borders within the Asian Pacific region. One of them is lack of information concerning employment opportunities in other countries. The cost of obtaining such information is usually high, which discourages most workers. Moreover, language barriers exist because countries within the region do not use a common language. Within the region, the labor markets are not well organized and as a result, member states have not established a common workplace language that can break the language barrier to labor mobility.


Impacts on labor markets and conditions in Indonesia


Indonesia as a sending country has experienced various impacts on its labor markets and labor conditions in the Asian Pacific region. Studies show that the country has targets on the deployment and remittance of workers. It sends both skilled workers to developed countries within the region such as China and Malaysia. Some Indonesians follow legal channels to move to other countries in search of work while others use illegal channels. The mobility of labor has enabled the country to foreign exchange. It exports both men and women.


Indonesia has a private agency for recruiting skilled workers to work abroad. It has a law that favors the operation of the agency. However, the exportation of skilled has been detrimental to the labor conditions because it does not focus on the protection of workers. The lack of worker protection encourages the exploitation of workers overseas. However, some government officials counter argue that workers are protected through training, signing of contractual agreements, protection insurance, provision of identification cards in the respective overseas countries, and being enrolled to institutions that protect foreign workers in the respective destination countries of the workers. Besides the counter arguments, there are no proofs indicating that the workers are safe overseas.


Furthermore, the exportation of workers has made the Indonesian labor market to be dominated with unskilled labor. In most cases, overseas jobs usually offer better salaries than those offered in Indonesia. This encourages more skilled Indonesians to migrate overseas in search of well-paying jobs. Even though the government restricts the exportation of skilled labor, it does not have efficient monitoring mechanisms, and as a result, some professions end up sneaking out of the country illegally. The resultant effect is that the home labor markets of Indonesia have become dominated with unskilled personnel who cannot manage business organizations effectively to increase the country’s gross domestic products.


Indonesia has Local Government Units (LGUs) that have the role of controlling the migration of workers. However, the advancing process of decentralization has made it difficult for the units to perform their roles effectively. Consequently, local communities have ended up experiencing various migration problems. Villages have sponsors who provide information related to worker referrals and offer financial assistance to prospective migrants who experience financial needs as their process of being taken abroad for employment is still underway. It has been found that village sponsorships and LGUs increase problems in coordination because they do not have clearly defined roles. Furthermore, they have been found to focus on generation of revenues only, which exposes workers to overseas exploitations.


The mobility of labor in the Asian Pacific has been criticized for gender pattern striking. In Indonesia, women make up to 80% of out-migrants. Women usually leave their families to work as maids and caregivers in developed countries. Such women usually leave their families in vulnerable positions, which affect the development of their children. Consequently, children usually grow with low self-esteem and low self-consciousness, which threatens the future of Indonesian labor markets. Furthermore, women who work as maids abroad usually experience various forms of exploitation, which discourages them from working even after moving back to their country, which further worsens the labor markets and conditions.


In a country context, Indonesia praises its women migrants and heralds them as ‘model mothers’. The key reason behind the praise is that the women usually send remittance to their families. The government taxes the remittances and the revenues earned are usually used in development activities. In addition, these remittances play an important role in the financial decisions of the government. According to World Bank 2013 statistics report, remittance formed 12% of GDP of Indonesia.


Given the role of labor mobility in the Asian Pacific regions, especially its contribution to GDP, countries such as Indonesia have refused to implement the conventions of the United Nations that promotes the rights of emigrant workers. The country has weak international agencies that cannot persuade the government into accepting the conventions. Consequently, the Indonesian government has remained powerful in implementing immigration policies. The country has shown no interest in dealing with issues related to the rights of emigrants that could protect its out-migrants from unnecessary exploitations while overseas. This implies that Asian Pacific labor mobility has resulted in the worsening of labor conditions.


Also, the poor working conditions have raised concerns over the Asian Pacific region. For instance, brokers in Indonesia usually charge high fees and fail to provide safe networks to workers. Consequently, women who go abroad to work as caregivers end up being subjected to unsafe working conditions without any social safety mechanisms. The male who work abroad are usually subjected to 24-hour shifts and strict rules preventing them from reuniting with their families. Various non-governmental organizations have been engaging in collective bargaining with governments to develop a transparent migration framework. However, the Indonesian government responds by reinforcing discrimination hierarchies and status of migrants so that it can benefit from the remittances. Such practices continuously expose workers to poor working conditions.


The government has been subjecting citizens to poor working conditions in countries such as China whose working conditions have constantly been worsening through the exploitation of workers. In 2011, there were massive increases in strikes by Indonesian workers in China. The strikes showed the needs of the government to step up and act positively in order to sustain the well being of workers. However, the government did nothing implying that the mobility of labor in the region is likely to continuously worsen the Indonesian labor markets.


Impacts on labor markets and conditions in Singapore


Singapore stands as the highest dependant of foreign labor in the Asian Pacific region. It tracks foreign labor and allows unrestrained inflow of skilled labor and controlled inflow of unskilled labor. The country places more emphasis on labor migration and it has integrated it in its strategy for national development. The skilled imported labor has resulted in efficiencies in most business organizations in Singapore. However, it has caused crowding out of recreational spaces and jobs; hence, there is a need to limit the country’s dependence on imported labor.


Singapore recruits foreign talents with liberalized policies for immigration that consist of easy requirements for skilled professions to become permanent citizens. Furthermore, the policies promote provision of scholarships to professional immigrants in research and other tertiary institutions. Moreover, the government engages in activities to increase the living standards and relax tax regimes on the foreign workers to keep them motivated to working in Singapore. Such policies have enabled the country to be competitive in the foreign labor market, thus increasing its globalization rate.


It sends recruitment missions to various learning centers within the Asian Pacific region to attract skilled workers. On the other hand, it controls the immigration of unskilled and less skilled workers through dependency ceiling, permit levy, and qualification criteria policies. The low skilled workers have high levies that usually increase with a proportion of foreign workers. Furthermore, the less skilled workers are usually given short-term working permits and upon the expiry of the permits, the workers are usually required to purchase a security bond.


Within the government, there is a ministry that was established to oversee and manage foreign manpower resources. Within the ministry, there is a division that is responsible for monitoring and promoting the well-being of the workers. The activities of the ministry ensure that the plight of workers is protected all the time. To the non-skilled workers, even though they work with limited permits, their well-beings are also protected, which ensures that they work with limited chances of discrimination. Therefore, unlike the Indian case where labor mobility in the Asian Pacific region has worsened labor conditions, it has led to improvement of labor markets and conditions to motivate more workers, especially professionals to move into the country.


In terms of emigration, Singapore does not limit movement of its nationals to other countries. Workers are allowed to work in any other country with laissez-faire policy. Only male military servicemen are restricted from moving to other countries. The Singapore government believes that allowing citizens to work in other countries exposes them to experience that can be used to develop the economy once they come back to work in the country. The non-restriction of inflow of professions has enabled the country to improve its economic conditions besides enhancing its labor markets.


The labor markets of Singapore that promotes better treatment of professionals have enabled qualified people from countries within the Asian Pacific region to prefer working in Singapore due to better working conditions and salaries. This gives workers the freedom of development, which enables them to live fulfilling lives. The labor markets have enabled migrants to better their economic conditions.


Singapore has been experiencing high rates of economic growth due to the high rates of labor immigration into the country. The government in its wish to sustain the growth expanded its international labor market, which resulted in increased demand for both high and skilled labor. In the country, foreign labor is considered cheap; hence, it has been developing its labor markets to sustain the cheap labor while maintaining its rate of economic growth. The government settled the conflicts that it had with various countries within the region, thus facilitating the inflow of labor. This was through upholding of sustainable migration networks.


The mobility of labor within the Asian Pacific region led to demographic transitions in Singapore that led to the tightening of labor markets. This led to disparities in the labor supply side between Singapore and other less developed countries, thus making it to complement other countries in terms of labor. Consequently, its labor markets became more attractive to professional from the less developed countries. The transition led to the growth in demand for labor, establishment of regional markets for labor and migrant labor force feminization.




The mobility of labor in the Asian pacific region was onset by globalization. The mobility of labor involved cross-border movement of skilled and skilled labor between the developed and the least developed countries. To the labor sending countries, the mobility of labor led to the worsening of labor markets with workers being exposed to exploitations and discrimination. However, to the labor importing countries such as Singapore, it led to the improvement of labor conditions and improvement of labor markets to attract more labor migrants who act as source of cheap labor. By looking at the labor exporting countries, it is evident that labor mobility has detrimental impacts on labor markets and labor conditions. However, an analysis of labor importing countries shows the opposite side of the impacts on labor markets and conditions.

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