Protecting the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families —Examining the Situations in the Sending Countries in Southeast Asia and the Reception in Japan—
Seminar co-hosted by SPF's Asia Peace Initiatives Department and Hurights Osaka

December 25, 2020
View of the seminar
The Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Asia Peace Initiatives Department and the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (Hurights Osaka) co-hosted a seminar entitled “Protecting the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families—Examining the Situations in the Sending Countries in Southeast Asia and the Reception in Japan” in Osaka on February 22, 2020.

Three Aspects of Labor Migration

Japan’s “Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act” was revised in April 2019, launching a policy under which Japan will accept more foreign workers than in the past. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the number of foreign workers in Japan reached an all-time high of 1.66 million as of October 31, 2019. In spite of this development, news stories concerning various human rights violations including harsh working conditions have continued to emerge.

Against this background, the seminar was held to present the results of a joint baseline study regarding three aspects of labor migration, carried out since 2018 by the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), an advocacy group that promotes human rights in Indonesia and Southeast Asian countries, and SPF. The three issues are (1) the framework aimed at protecting the human rights of migrant workers in the ASEAN region (the ASEAN Consensus), (2) the reality of pre-departure processes for migrant workers, and (3) the actual conditions and care for children that stay in the sending countries. Three researchers and activists from HRWG spoke to around 80 participants at the seminar, providing their insight into these issues.
Ms. Atsuko Miwa (Director, Hurights Osaka)
In the opening remarks, Atsuko Miwa (Director, Hurights Osaka) explained how the cooperation between Hurights Osaka, HRWG, and SPF began in 2018, mentioning that the seminar was the first opportunity to report on these three topics from the results of the study in Japan. She also pointed to the current situation in which Japan relies on foreign workers to fill labor shortages while facing serious challenges in protecting the human rights of workers, as well as how the number of parties to the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which includes Japan, has not increased. In addition to expressing optimism on migrant labor under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are being implemented with a target of achieving them by 2030, Ms. Miwa said that to achieve the goals “it is also important to apply pressure to each country so that in reality no one will be left behind.”

Initiatives of ASEAN Consensus and the Current Situation in Japan

In Session 1, two experts gave presentations on the theme of “Initiatives of ASEAN Consensus and the Challenges in Japan.”

The official title of the ASEAN Consensus is the “ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers,” which was signed by the leaders of the participating countries at the 31st ASEAN Summit held in Manila. The purpose was to implement the “ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers” (Cebu Declaration) adopted in 2007, providing a close-knit and powerful framework for ASEAN countries. Consisting of seven chapters, it set out the General Principles, Definitions, Fundamental Rights of Migrant Workers and the Members of Their Families, Specific Rights of Migrant Workers, Obligations of Sending States, Obligations of Receiving States, and Commitments of ASEAN Member States. Although the consensus is an agreement without any legally binding force, regional and national level action plans have been adopted based on it.

Reference: ASEAN Consensus (English)
Nobuki Fujimoto (Researcher, Hurights Osaka)
Nobuki Fujimoto (Researcher, Hurights Osaka) 
Avyanthi Azis (Faculty Member, University of Indonesia)
Avyanthi Azis (Faculty Member, University of Indonesia)
Nobuki Fujimoto (Researcher, Hurights Osaka) kicked off the session by presenting on the theme “ASEAN Consensus and Japan.” He noted that “it seems that the ASEAN Consensus is still not very well known in Japan.” In addition, Mr. Fujimoto also stated that with the movement of people in ASEAN gaining momentum every year and the associated increase in problems related to the protection of the rights of migrant workers and their families, the lack of a legally binding multilateral treaty to address such problems remains a major challenge. He pointed out that although domestic human rights organizations (national human rights institutions) that are independent from the government have been established in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand, the current situation is that “the countries of ASEAN are not actually in line on establishing a collective system for ensuring the protection of human rights.”

In terms of the relationship between ASEAN and Japan, Mr. Fujimoto explained that “the economic relationship is significant, including the conclusion and negotiation of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) to promote free trade.” He referred to the fact that bilateral EPAs, which include the acceptance of nurses and care workers in Japan, were concluded with Indonesia in 2008, the Philippines in 2009, and Vietnam in 2014. Mr. Fujimoto also stated that memorandums of understanding on technical intern trainees and specified skilled workers have been concluded with Japan, and that there are many migrant workers in Japan as international students, marriage migrants, and professionals. In addition, he touched on the background of expansion into the ASEAN region by many Japanese companies in the second half of the twentieth century and noted that Japan has a long relationship with workers in the ASEAN region.

Next, Avyanthi Azis (Faculty Member, University of Indonesia) explained the background and content of the ASEAN Consensus. In relation to the increase in the migration of workers in ASEAN over the past few years, Ms. Azis stated that Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are the main sending countries and pointed to ASEAN’s reliance on bilateral policies over a long period of time as a problem area in the governance of human migration. She commented that the main reason why it took 10 years for the adoption of the ASEAN Consensus was the inability of national governments to gain agreement on three points: (1) whether to make the document legally binding, (2) whether to include irregular status migrant workers in the scope, and (3) whether to include the families of migrant workers and migrant workers from outside the ASEAN region.

Ms. Azis also pointed out that the major issues with the ASEAN Consensus are that it is expected to take many more years before a legally binding treaty is produced and that many migrant workers are outside of its scope because at present it only covers regular status migrant workers and migrant workers whose status became irregular due to circumstances for which they are not responsible. Ms. Azis stated that the opportunity for civil society to play a bigger role in the governance of worker migration in Southeast Asia is an area in which progress has been made due to the adoption of the ASEAN Consensus. She concluded her presentation by saying, “I would like to explore the possibilities for cooperation with stakeholders in Japan in the area of protecting the rights of migrant workers” as Japan is a partner in dialogue with ASEAN and has a history of building long-term relationships in the region.

Initiatives of ASEAN Consensus and the Current Situation in Japan

In Session 2, chaired by Fumiko Okamoto (Senior Program Officer, Asia Peace Initiatives Department, SPF), three experts gave presentations on the theme of pre-departure processes.
Wako Asato (Associate Professor, Kyoto University)
Wako Asato (Associate Professor, Kyoto University)
Daniel Awigra (Deputy Director, HRWG)
Daniel Awigra (Deputy Director, HRWG)
First, Wako Asato (Associate Professor, Kyoto University) gave a report on the “Framework of Foreign Worker Policy and Implementation.” Professor Asato described the schemes for the acceptance of migrant workers in Japan with four frameworks consisting of (1) Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), (2) students, (3) the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP), and (4) Specified Skills. He explained that this includes the inter-governmental (GtoG) as well as private sector (PtoP) frameworks and that the operating systems are different in Japan and the sending countries. He observed that “while it is important to understand the schemes correctly, it is a difficult task even for the experts when the rules become so complex. It is absolutely out of the question that workers can understand the schemes correctly and make the best choices.”

Moreover, Professor Asato also referred to the reality that many workers in sending countries pay high placement fees to brokers/agencies as the frameworks can be misleading due to the increasing complexity of the schemes. Despite government proposals for measures such as creating memorandums of cooperation to counter high placement fees, Professor Asato pointed out that such memorandums of understanding cannot regulate partner countries as they lack legally binding force. He stated that there are cases of runaways due to the payment of high placement fees and acknowledged that the lack of systems to oversee the brokers/agencies that take the high placement fees is a major challenge. Lastly, he commented that the newly established “Specified Skilled Worker” residency status has the potential to become a scheme that protects the rights of migrant workers with characteristics including direct hiring (free from brokers/agencies) , computer-based language tests (free from school fees), the equal work, equal pay principle (not cheap labor), as well as the ability to change employers (freedom of movement). On the other hand, he also observed that in reality, coordination with sending countries on the setting of placement fees and so forth takes time, and noted that there are still many challenges remaining regarding the implementation of these policies.

Next, Daniel Awigra (Deputy Director, HRWG), gave a presentation entitled “Untangling Pre-Departure Processes of Indonesian Migrant Workers to Japan.” He opened his presentation with the comment that there is still very little information on the pre-departure processes of migrant workers. Mr. Awigra said that the number of Indonesian migrant workers to Japan has increased year by year, with expectations to continue increasing going forward, and pointed to the existence of EPAs and the TITP as a major factor, particularly with approximately half of the Indonesian residents in Japan in 2017 working as TITP trainees. From these perspectives, Mr. Awigra explained that HRWG’s research also focused on EPAs and the TITP and studied the processes through which workers came to Japan starting with pre-departure training.

Mr. Awigra reported that the TITP has various issues that negatively affect workers, including corruption, overcharging, uncertain procedures of job matching, and lack of inspections for the overall process, with many of these issues not having been improved. With regard to EPAs, he pointed out that although the EPA is a relatively safe scheme as a GtoG initiative, there are areas in need of considerable improvements such as inadequate job descriptions and cases in which informal mechanisms run parallel to the formal GtoG scheme. “The Indonesian government has been indirectly facilitating the exploitation of workers migrating to Japan by continuing the partnership,” he said. HRWG has announced that it will recommend the Indonesian government to suspend its current partnership with Japan and renegotiate it with the Japanese government to address these issues.
View of the seminar
Reiko Harima (Coordinator, Mekong Migration Network (MMN))
Reiko Harima (Coordinator, Mekong Migration Network (MMN))
Reiko Harima (Coordinator, Mekong Migration Network (MMN)) gave a presentation entitled “Roles of Countries of Origin in Protecting Migrants’ Rights.” Ms. Harima stated that as a sub-regional level civil society organization network that works to promote migrants’ rights in the Mekong region, MMN has focused on efforts through its Roles of Countries of Origin (ROCO) Project in recent years. She introduced the project, which identifies policy gaps in sending countries and promotes cooperation with diverse stakeholders to improve protection of rights and is involved in investigating (1) migration mechanisms, (2) information dissemination, (3) regulation of recruitment agencies, (4) provision of overseas assistance, (5) international cooperation, (6) provision of overseas welfare funds and social security, and (7) facilitating reintegration.

Ms. Harima explained that her research focused on the TITP and Specified Skills programs and involved interviewing government and civil society organization stakeholders, returnees, and others in each of three countries (Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia). The research also included additional discussions with diverse stakeholders including the Japanese government and featured case studies of returnees and their experiences in Japan. Based on the research results, she said, “I felt that stakeholders in Myanmar and Cambodia in particular wanted to send many workers to Japan,” while pointing to many outstanding cross-cutting issues, including incomplete information and migration costs. Although sending countries must play a stronger role in protecting migrant workers’ rights, Ms. Harima explained that Japan can play an important role in this process and that the country needs to revise its policies in order to prevent a so-called “race to the bottom” in which employers turn to cheaper labor markets at the expense of workers.

Left-behind Children of Migrant Workers

Given this analysis of the current situation in Southeast Asia, three experts gave presentations on the theme of “Left-behind Children of Migrant Workers” in Session 3, chaired by Nami Yokogi (Associate Program Officer, Asia Peace Initiatives Department, SPF).

Avyanthi Azis from the University of Indonesia, observed “low government priority" on support for the children of migrant workers who stay behind in the sending country. Ms. Azis reported that HRWG has conducted research on the condition and care of left-behind children in three countries, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar. This research focused on four indicators: (1) right to a birth certificate and/or citizenship; (2) right to education, (3) right to healthcare, and (4) right to psycho-social well-being, and the findings showed that schemes for the care of left-behind children were inadequate on all indicators. In particular, access to education is low and systems for providing psychological care have barely been established, so many of these children who must fend for themselves. Ms. Azis said that these problems have persisted for several generations due to a large amount of migration over generations, and that the continued existence of left-behind children is a major problem in itself. Finally, she referred to the fact that the ASEAN Declaration on the Rights of Children in the Context of Migration was adopted at the 35th ASEAN Summit in November 2019 and expressed her hope that further deepening understanding of the situation by civil society organizations in partnership with policy and research institutions aimed at implementing the declaration will create an opportunity to promote the necessary initiatives for protecting children’s rights.

Next, Yoga Prasetyo (Program Officer, HRWG), gave a presentation entitled “Left-behind Children in Indonesia: whose responsibilities?” As Mr. Prasetyo’s mother worked overseas for many years, he spoke from his own experience as a “left-behind child.” “Although I spent lots of time alone and had many challenging experiences, I was able to receive an education thanks to being supported by an understanding environment, which included my relatives and the teachers around me. The reality is that many children of migrant workers do not have these kinds of opportunities or support,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Prasetyo introduced a pilot program led by the central government called “Desmigratif” (“Productive Migrant Village”), currently being implemented in Indonesia for left-behind children. While stating that the program has led to support for children in urban areas in some cases, he pointed out that support has not been delivered to children in rural areas because integration of government policy with local governments is difficult and because the necessary support system is not available on the ground. He also reported problems with securing staff and the difficulty in maintaining activities over the long term. He stressed with the current slow delivery of government support, it is still civil society organizations that are exerting strenuous efforts at the forefront of initiatives to protect the rights of stay-behind children.
Yoga Prasetyo (Program Officer, HRWG)
Yoga Prasetyo (Program Officer, HRWG)
Takashi Yamanoue (Secretary-General, Association for Toyonaka Multicultural Symbiosis)
Takashi Yamanoue (Secretary-General, Association for Toyonaka Multicultural Symbiosis)
Finally, there was a presentation entitled “Children Left Behind in the Sending States—Perspective from a Local Community in Japan” by Takashi Yamanoue (Secretary-General, Association for Toyonaka Multicultural Symbiosis). From the perspective of a civil society organization that has supported the journeys of children left behind after coming to Japan, he said he has the impression that there are many children who still feel left behind by their parents. “I feel it is difficult in many cases for left-behind children to open up to their families as before,” he said. He stated that as both parents and children have different experiences in their respective countries, their expectations do not always match when they live together. He also suggested there are various obstacles, such as language and culture, when children live in Japanese society, so it will be necessary to consider how to overcome these challenges.

Furthermore, he pointed out that it is difficult to get a clear picture of the circumstances before children come to Japan because there are significant differences when children come as an infant, in the lower and higher grades of elementary school, or at the junior high and senior high school stage. He commented that it is likely going to be difficult for children to talk readily about their experiences and said, “on the ground, we think it is important to create an environment in which the children can tell us their stories.”

Japan’s Responsibilities as a Receiving Country

Maho Nakayama (Director, Asia Peace Initiatives Department, SPF)
Maho Nakayama (Director, Asia Peace Initiatives Department, SPF), delivered the closing remarks. Ms. Nakayama said that she has seen that civil society research and advocacy capabilities in the region have become stronger through the initiatives of SPF in Southeast Asia, and stated, “Japan must consider its responsibilities as a receiving country for protecting workers’ rights and the problems of technical intern trainees.” She concluded by saying that she strongly feels the need to promote initiatives with the help of Southeast Asian civil society groups and media, and hopes to continue promoting projects with advice from diverse stakeholders.
(Satoko Takahara, SPF PR)

Related Links:
*Please click the link here to download the report entitled, “Migrant Workers' Rights in ASEAN Region: A Baseline Study” from the HRWG website.
 
*For more information on SPF’s Asia Peace Initiatives Department, please see here.
 

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