ASEAN recognizes social protection in joint statement

Sitting in a small restaurant in the bustling city of Bangkok, being served by a 21-year-old Cambodian waiter triggered a lot of emotions in me. The waiter came from Banteay Meanchey, a province bordering Thailand. He worked there alongside a few friends from the same province, unaware of the potential dangers and his vulnerability of being away from home if his work stopped tomorrow.

This is not a unique story as Thailand is both a key destination for migrant workers from neighboring countries and a country of origin for migrant workers to other countries. There are migrant workers all over ASEAN, from Cambodia to Thailand, from Thailand to Malaysia and from Malaysia to Singapore. While labor migration contributes to both the country of origin and the country of destination, the lack of protection and rights for these migrant workers is a major concern.

Earlier this month, it was good to see social protection gain momentum in Southeast Asia, with ASEAN members having the courage to challenge the conventional assertion that universal social protection systems are not affordable. In Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022, under the Cambodian Presidency, ASEAN included social protection in its joint communiqué of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM). Today, Cambodia is given the key role of leading the development of ASEAN regional guidance on the role of social work and service workforce development in social protection. This illustrates Cambodia’s and ASEAN’s growing commitment to elevating social protection to new levels of multinational investment and cooperation. Potentially, this will benefit millions of people by addressing this previous underinvestment and lack of coverage in the Southeast Asian bloc.

This step marks a significant revival of interest and commitment to social protection. Among the Southeast Asian Member States, only Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand are considered to have strong social protection systems. As early as October 9, 2013, the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection was adopted with commitments to build interconnected and mutually reinforcing regional political, economic and cultural communities. The ASEAN Joint Communique in 2020 made reference to these commitments again, so it is disappointing that in the 2021 Joint Communique there is no mention of social protection despite the considerable impact of Covid-19 on the livelihoods of millions of people in the region. This is a regrettable setback in the joint ASEAN effort.

However, in 2022, Oxfam hopes that this cooperation between ASEAN member states will benefit millions of migrant workers and their families. This means that 2.8 million registered migrant workers in Thailand (2019), 1.98 million migrant workers in Malaysia (2019), 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore (2019) or 6.9 million migrant workers in the ASEAN bloc will be more likely to access social protection benefits. This workforce makes an important economic contribution to both sending and receiving countries. In Cambodia, migrant workers sent home a total of $3 billion in remittances in 2021 alone. In Thailand in 2020, remittances were $7.88 billion and the Philippines at $34.88 billion per year. At the same time, host countries benefit from billions of dollars in tax revenues and the increase in the labor force.

There will be a long way to go with difficult negotiations, but with this cooperation, ASEAN member states can work towards better and more coordinated social protection policies and legislation that provide migrant workers and their families with a access to social protection.

This cooperation will also allow ASEAN to better prepare for the growing risk of climate change and global epidemics.

A 2021 World Bank study found that Covid-19 added 88 million to the estimated total of 150 million people worldwide currently living in extreme poverty. This means that 150 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. Here in Cambodia, we have been hit hard by an economic growth report in 2020 that contracts by 3.1% and the number of people living in poverty increases to 17.8% in 2019-2020 (from 13, 5% in 2014).

This economic challenge increases with climate change, which is now “on our doorstep”. In a recent study, scientists estimate that up to 132 million people will fall into extreme poverty in 2030 due to climate change. Cambodia is highly vulnerable to the risks and impacts of climate change – ranking 46th out of 163 countries.

A stronger social protection system and multinational cooperation within ASEAN will help prepare for the unprecedented effects of climate change and the pandemic. In the worst cases, farmers can access compensation for lost crops, young people and women can access unemployment benefits when they lose their jobs, and the elderly can access pensions and health care in l lack of available family support.

This cooperation will contribute to ASEAN being better prepared for the rapidly aging population that is the most vulnerable and least protected.

Thailand’s aging population is expected to reach 22.8% in 2035, Singapore’s over-65s will make up 26.6% of the population in the same year. Vietnam estimates that 20% of its population will age by 2038 and here in Cambodia we are not immune with the Kingdom’s population over the age of 65 estimated at 7.7% of the total population of here 2035.

Oxfam and its partners are committed to working with the Cambodian government and countries in the ASEAN bloc to take these commitments forward and make them a reality for people in the region.

Let us make ASEAN a better home, our home, a home for all.

Sophoan Phean is Oxfam’s country director in Cambodia. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Joel C. Hicks