Backlash against migrant workers in Asia-Pacific sparks slavery concerns

by Nanchanok Wongsamuth | @nanchanokw | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 18 December 2019 10:10 GMT

Many migrants working in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are undocumented, putting them at greater risk of exploitation

By Nanchanok Wongsamuth

BANGKOK, Dec 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Public support for migrant workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand is decreasing, a United Nations poll found on Wednesday that campaigners said raised concerns about the risk of slavery.

Most people in the three nations have limited knowledge about and increasingly negative attitudes towards migrant workers, and do not think they should receive the same benefits or pay as local workers, showed the survey by two U.N. agencies.

Such attitudes can condone discrimination, exploitation and violence against migrant workers, and influence policies on labour migration, according to the U.N. International Labour Organisation (ILO) and U.N. Women.

As many as 10 million migrants are estimated to work across Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and campaigners say debt bondage, limited state oversight, and unscrupulous employment practices leave them vulnerable to labour abuses and slavery.

Many are undocumented, meaning they are not only exempt from state benefits but at greater risk of being exploited or enslaved and less likely to speak out for fear of reprisals.

"While the research did not determine why attitudes towards migrant workers are declining, it does demonstrate that we are not successfully countering racism, xenophobia and hate," ILO advisor Anna Engblom told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It is likely that discriminatory practices are allowed to flourish if the general public sympathises with such values and behaviours," Engblom said on International Migrants Day on Dec. 18 - set by the United Nations to raise awareness on the issue.

The research - a follow-up to a 2010 poll - was based on interviews with about 4,100 people in the three countries as well as Japan, which did not feature in the previous survey.

More than half the respondents in Malaysia and Thailand, and a quarter in Singapore, said there was a need for more migrant workers in their countries but over a third of those polled in each nation agreed that migrants were "a drain on the economy".

About half of the people surveyed in Singapore, 77% in Thailand and 83% in Malaysia said they thought crime rates had increased in their countries because of migration.

"There is a belief that migrant workers are taking away our social, economic and political resources," said Glorene Das, head of the Malaysian migrant workers rights group Tenaganita.

Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator at the Migrant Working Group, a network of charities promoting migrant rights, said such negative attitudes would result in further exploitation.

"Governments will take less action to protect migrant workers because they will be concerned with public perception."

"Workers will also be afraid to speak out due to concern they will be disliked by locals, which will cause problems."

(Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth, Additional reporting by Beh Lih Yi; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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