While commending ASEAN leaders for coming to an agreement on the importance of safeguarding migrant workers' rights, the collective of regional lawmakers said that the final document – the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers – was not enough. MPs argued that more robust protections are needed, including through a legally binding regional treaty.
"This Consensus fails to meet the basic criteria that we, along with many civil society organizations, have been calling for: a legally-binding document that would provide genuine protections in accordance with international human rights law," said APHR Board Member Teddy Baguilat, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines.
The Consensus adopted last week came a decade after the approval of the 2007 Cebu Declaration, which called for the development of an instrument to protect migrant workers' rights. Although ASEAN leaders claimed that the Consensus marked the culmination of this effort, regional MPs said that language in the document – particularly repeated clauses qualifying commitments as being "subject to national laws, regulations, and policies" – undermined its potential impact and reflected the problematic approach of previous ASEAN documents, including the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
"The Consensus affords wide latitude to states to limit protections in accordance with domestic laws and policies, essentially allowing them to selectively opt out of adherence to critical provisions. We have seen this sort of qualifying language in ASEAN documents before, and those have been implemented in ways that have allowed for the continued violation of the rights of millions of ASEAN citizens," Baguilat said.
"It is extremely disappointing that ASEAN leaders decided to limit the scope of migrant workers' rights in this way. Human rights are universal and should supersede domestic law, not be curtailed by it."
The comments from regional legislators come several months after the conclusion of an APHR-led fact-finding mission to Malaysia in August, during which a delegation of current and former parliamentarians from four ASEAN member states looked into conditions for migrant workers and ways in which their situation could be improved. The findings from the mission, as well as policy recommendations based on them, were published in a summary report released in September.
"What we found in Malaysia is applicable to all countries in the region. There is a widespread lack of political will to truly address and bring to an end rights violations against migrant workers," said Baguilat, who took part in the August mission.
"ASEAN has time and again shown that it can say the right things. But when it comes time for action, critical commitments are conveniently ignored by member governments. We are concerned, based on our findings, that enforcement of the Consensus at the domestic level will be insufficient," Baguilat added.
Parliamentarians said that more needed to be done on the part of ASEAN member states to prove that they had the political will to implement the Consensus and to address the lack of protections for migrant workers at the domestic level.
"Migrant workers are essential to the development of the ASEAN Community. In order to demonstrate a genuine commitment to safeguarding their rights, ASEAN should pursue the development and implementation of a region-wide action plan, including a handbook on common standards," said APHR Board Member Kasit Piromya, a former Thai MP who also joined the mission to Malaysia in August.
Lawmakers also reiterated their call for a legally binding treaty, echoing calls from civil society.
"The Consensus demonstrates that ASEAN can be progressive in its pronouncements. It recognizes that workers can become undocumented through no fault of their own and extends protections to them, at least rhetorically. But this and other positives are rendered almost meaningless since the document is not legally binding," said Eva Kusuma Sundari, an APHR Board Member and parliamentarian from Indonesia.
"ASEAN was able to agree on a legally binding treaty on human trafficking, so they should be able to do the same for migrant workers. Renewing discussions on a legally binding instrument, along with fast-tracking the development of action plans to implement this Consensus, would be a good way to prove that the political will to address the situation does exist," Sundari concluded.