Concerns about Asian countries doing less to protect the rights of migrant workers and the reality that most countries have not ratified United Nations and International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on the rights of migrant workers were high on the agenda of a recent ecumenical workshop on migrant workers held in Bangkok, Thailand.
The regional ecumenical workshop took place from 25 to 27 October 2012, and was organised by the Commission of Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Justice and International Affairs programme of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) as a follow-up of their consultation on rights of migrant workers held in May this year.
The workshop addressed various aspects of migrant workers' rights, focusing on ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families and the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Migrant Workers (C-189).
A number of women participants representing various national ecumenical councils in Asia noted that the number of female migrant workers is on the increase in the region. This trend has paved the way for exploitation and an increase in human trafficking. They were referring to several Asian countries where 95 percent of domestic migrant workers are women.
Presenters spoke about issues migrant workers face in Asia and the Arabian Gulf countries. They noted that national labour laws often do not apply to the domestic migrant workers; hence they remain an invisible workforce with little or no legal protection at all.
“The lack of legal protection makes domestic migrant workers more vulnerable to domestic servitude at the hands of recruitment and placement agencies in sending countries and ultimately at the hands of their employers,” said the Rev. Yohanna Taruk in the workshop.
Taruk herself was a domestic migrant worker in Hong Kong, and now serves as a pastor of the Toraja Church in Indonesia.
The Rev. Jang Chang Weon, coordinator of the Osan Migrant Workers Centre in South Korea, said that ecumenical solidarity networks need to strengthen their advocacy efforts in protecting the rights of the migrant workers. He went on to say that “churches’ mission and witness” should incorporate the concerns of migrant workers.
Ratifying UN and ILO conventions
Despite the fact that labour migration serves the economic interests of both sending and receiving countries, most Asian countries have not yet ratified the 1990 UN convention on the rights of migrant workers, the participants observed.
“The adoption of the ILO convention on the rights of domestic workers is a breakthrough for millions of exploited domestic migrant workers, yet the implementation is a key to ensure that workers in precarious jobs have an effective access to decent work,” said Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the CCIA. “The Philippines is the only country in Asia which has ratified the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Migrant Workers,” he added.
Presenting theological references in the discussions on migrant workers, the Rev Revelation E. Velunta, pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines said, “the church has always contemplated on the image of Christ who said, ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ (Mathews 25:35).”
Velunta added that “The condition of the stranger, the migrant worker, in our midst is a challenge to the faith of all believers, who are called to protect the rights of domestic migrant workers and discover the plan God pursues for the voiceless when this condition is caused by obvious injustices.”
Awareness raising was one of the priority areas identified for action by the churches. Proposals were made to sensitise congregations about the exploitation faced by migrant domestic workers; and for the CCA to initiate advocacy in Asia along with civil society organizations for the ratification of UN and ILO conventions.