Labour mobility under ASEAN 2015 integration seen as limited

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a single common market of ASEAN countries, is expected to be created by 2015. It is an ambitious attempt at market integration, characterised by the free flow of goods, services and investment, unhindered flow of financial capital, enhanced connectivity and expanded opportunities for intra-regional labour migration. At present, it is estimated that more than 85% of the implementation has been achieved and the benefits of the AEC such as lower tariffs and non-tariff barriers have already been felt. However, its impact on labour mobility has so far been limited.

As of now, the AEC’s labour mobility initiative has focused on so-called Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs). These establish the skills or experience that relevant professionals need in order to gain certification in another country and ultimately to work abroad. In support of the MRAs, ASEAN has developed the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework (AQRF) that will enable qualifications to be compared across member states while providing a coherent benchmark for current national qualifications frameworks.

According to a statement issued by the AQRF task force in October, each country is expected to voluntarily comply with the AQRF using their own capabilities and the referencing process will begin by 2016 and at the latest by 2018. It noted that ASEAN member states are at different stages of development.

To date, MRAs have been completed for eight occupations: engineers, nurses, architects, surveyors, medical and dental practitioners, accountants and tourism professionals.

However, the implementation of the MRAs remains difficult, according to the Asian Community 2015 Report written by the Asian Development Bank and the International Labour Organisation, which was released earlier this year. The report said that the challenges include the disparity in education and testing requirements for granting professional recognition alongside differences in languages and cultural and social acceptance.

The occupations currently covered by MRAs account for only between 0.3% and 1.4% of total employment in member states. “It remains to be seen how much the AEC will add to the movements of skilled labour already taking place bilaterally,” said the report. “At most, it will enable professional services providers registered or certified in signatory countries to have their credentials recognized in other signatory countries.”

National immigration and visa policies, the “source country’s” policies on outward migration and the recruitment policies and preferences of employers in the private sector are likely to impede any changes to labour mobility that the AEC might introduce, said the report.

Another aspect of labour mobility under the AEC is the so-called facilitated entry for the “movement of natural persons engaged in the trade of goods, services and investments.” The economic block has said it is working to accelerate the issuance of visas and employment passes for ASEAN professionals and skilled labour who are engaged in cross-border trade and investment related activities.

However, this provision, subject to the prevailing regulations of the receiving country, is specifically limited to business visitors, contractual service suppliers and intra-company transferees. Hence it covers skilled workers, professionals and executives and allows only for their temporary entry.

According to the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2012 report, the plan for movement of natural persons has seen the least progress compared to the liberalisation of other aspects of the AEC.