Research Article: Extreme exploitation in Southeast Asia waters: Challenges in progressing towards universal health coverage for migrant workers

Date Published: November 22, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Rapeepong Suphanchaimat, Nareerut Pudpong, Viroj Tangcharoensathien

Abstract: Rapeepong Suphanchaimat and colleagues present the plight of migrant workers in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia and discuss challenges in providing for their health and safety.

Partial Text: Southeast Asia is one of the regions with the highest rates of population mobility in the world, largely due to worker migration [1]. After the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), namely, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, committed to full economic and social integration with the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, labour migration increased markedly [2]. However, there is significant diversity across the 10 member states in their economic and political structures and their health systems [3]. In 2015, the gross national income (GNI) per capita in Singapore was US$52,090, almost 50 times that of Cambodia at US$1,070 [4]. The minimum daily wage in Thailand (US$10) is more than 3 times that in Myanmar (US$2.80) [5]. Such differences have contributed to massive flows of workers from less to more affluent countries, such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, which have shortages of low-skilled workers needed by their fast-growing economies. In particular, workers for the so-called 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning) in industries such as fishery and construction are in very high demand [6,7].

Implementing UHC for migrant and exploited sea workers is a worthy goal, but it is insufficient to protect the health of sea workers who are in or vulnerable to conditions of extreme exploitation. Structural problems that make exploitation possible are the highest priority. Addressing these problems requires the collective effort of multiple stakeholders. It is impossible for a single country to tackle extreme labour exploitation in the fishing industry alone, because migrant seafarers travel across national boundaries. All ASEAN nations need to take dedicated and bold actions to combat corruption that ignores or fuels exploitation and understand that labour exploitation can befall any group of people in a position of vulnerability. This concept of vulnerability to exploitation will broaden the scope of actions of all governments, moving from the sporadic arrest of unscrupulous officials to tackling all structural problems that provide opportunities for corruption or create conditions that make people vulnerable to exploitation. For instance, the registration process for undocumented migrants should take place without financial barriers, thereby minimizing room for dishonest officials, employers, and brokers to take these benefits from migrants. Governments should create easily accessible means for migrants, especially undocumented or trafficked workers, to voice their concerns if they experience maltreatment from employers and officials. Because trafficked workers and those in vulnerable situations typically fear reporting corrupt behaviour of officials via routine government channels, governments can benefit from working with the media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in establishing vigilance and reporting channels. Governments should regard civic groups and NGOs as allies, releasing information on trafficking so they can fight together to end these practices, rather than viewing such groups and organizations as enemies who will damage the nation’s reputation. In addition, ad hoc humanitarian rescues, such as the provision of food and shelter to abused victims, should not be seen as the only solution; long-term and comprehensive intersectoral measures are urgently required.



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