Asean needs inclusive social security

Chatsumal Mongkolsiri

Should Thai people working in other Asean countries continue being part of the Thai social security system so they can enjoy the benefits, especially the pension, when they return home?

Should Thai workers receive the same labour rights as the locals when they are working in other Asean countries?

If the answer is yes, shouldn’t Thailand honour the same labour rights and benefits to workers from Asean members and other countries?

These questions about migrant workers’ labour rights need to be answered not only in Thailand, but also in all Asean member countries if they want to be a fully integrated community.

Actually, the Asean Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) has already vowed to make the region an inclusive community by 2025. One of the strategies is to expand social security coverage to migrant workers from member countries with the aim to make the system affordable, easily accessible, and with the same standards as for local citizens.

Yet the gap between reality and the goals remains huge, raising doubts if Asean labour inclusivity will end up as a pipe dream.

At present, there are over 9.8 million migrant workers in Asean and the number is steadily on the rise. The increase of regional migration has occurred given more affordable transportation and the extensive reach of the internet, which enables people to find employment outside their countries.

However, migrant workers often find themselves lacking in social protection when residing and working abroad.

To overcome the challenges, we need to understand what the obstacles are.

For starters, Asean countries have their own complex social security systems. Each member has its own set of laws and regulations concerning its social security system, and a number of relevant authorities in charge of implementing such legislation.

Suffering more due to a lack of information, and a gap in language proficiency, migrant workers are often prevented from getting social security information and services in their host countries.

Moreover, social security laws in some Asean countries do not treat migrant workers equally to their nationals.

In Singapore, for example, some benefits are reserved for citizens and permanent residents only. In Indonesia, migrant workers are required to have made at least six months of contributions before they can receive their benefits.

That’s not all. Significant social security benefits such as old age, invalidity, and survivor benefits usually require many years of financial contributions.

Migrant workers’ frequent moves and job changes prevent them from meeting the required period of contribution, so they end up having no social security benefits after working hard all their lives.

Another significant hurdle is the social security bureaucracy.

More often than not, the registration system for social security benefits involves intricate red tape. In addition, the social security office is often far from a labourer’s place of work. Squeezed by time and money, many migrant workers are obliged to go without.

Despite the obstacles, the following measures may help drive the region toward a uniform set of labour rights sooner rather than later.

First of all, their home countries should provide workers with information about how they can receive their social security benefits in the host countries, both before and after they depart.

Next, each member nation should revise its labour laws and regulations to ensure equal treatment and benefits for local and migrant workers.

As Thailand becomes an ageing society, and given the growing tendency for the young generation to choose self-employment, the contributions from migrant workers will help prevent the social security fund from weakening.

While standardising social security benefits across the region remains difficult, one effective solution to help workers retain their rights would be through bilateral social security agreements (SSA) between their countries of origin and new places of work.

This agreement would ensure that the workers’ social security contribution period is not disrupted, enabling them to receive a retirement pension and other benefits when they return home. Without a pension, the workers would be vulnerable in old age.

At present, this bilateral agreement is non-existent among Asean member nations.

Equally important, social security agencies in Asean countries must shape up. Red tape should be cut. Online technology should be put in place so workers need not spend time and money to travel to register or claim benefits.

Going online would also cut paperwork and costs, making the system more friendly to users and the environment.

Extending social protection and social security coverage for workers regardless of nationality is also necessary.

Greater confidence in people’s labour rights would speed up the sharing of human resources within the region, strengthen economic growth, and enhance cultural exchanges and integration that promotes innovation.

As the current chair of Asean, and a country that dispatches many migrant workers around the region, Thailand has a special responsibility to push for this.

Better social security protection would increase cross-border migration among professionals and unskilled workers alike. This is also in line with Asean’s goal of improving people’s welfare in the region.

Thailand and other Asean member nations should leave no one behind. Higher social security standards not only promote productivity, they are also the right thing to do.

Chatsumal Mongkolsiri is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published on Bangkok Post