Labour mobility in Asean

With the deadline for the Asean Economic Community (AEC) 2015 drawing close, the region’s citizens and businesses are asking if this would actually lead to labour mobility such as seen in the European Union, according a Brunei Times article.

When Brunei Darussalam chaired the Asean in 2013 the Sultanate implemented steps to ensure that the regional grouping will further cement cooperation for the AEC in areas ranging from fostering sustainable economic growth and development to attaining food security.

However, the remaining steps are the “tough ones”, said Dr Arno Maierbrugger, editorial director of Inside Investor. He said that these include issues of trade barriers in government-protected sectors, free labour movement and certain investment restrictions. “Some economists even fear that the bloc appears to have reached the limits of its integration,” he said in his editorial column titled ‘Getting the Asean Economic Community train back on track’.

Chia Siow Yue from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs wrote in her 2011 report titled “Chapter 4: Free Flow of Skilled Labour in the AEC” that the AEC Blueprint covers only “free flows of skilled labour”. It is silent on flows of unskilled or semi-skilled labour. She stated that the AEC provides for market access for Asean professionals and skilled manpower. The bloc’s main action is to implement mutual recognition arrangements (MRAs) for major professional services. “However, recognition is not enough to ensure market access,” she wrote.

Some of the common concerns, amongst Asean economies, with regards free movement of workforce is the national pressures to maintain a high percentage of jobs for locals, prioritising local businesses, national security, especially when these jobs are sensitive or are critical national jobs.

Another hurdle that Asean economies are facing with regards free movement of labour in the region is to do with the “suppliers and the receivers”. In other words, countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are the region’s main “receivers” of skilled labour.

It would be up to the Asean economies to decide what labour should be able to move freely around each countries to best benefit each country. By clarifying this before the deadline, it could allow Asean economies to plan further on how to bridge the economic gap between each member country, as it is still evident that diversities and development gaps still exist among the 10-member countries.