Business and Labor Mobility in the Asia-Pacific

On November 12, 2011, US President Barack Obama signed a bill into law which enables US citizens to join the APEC Business Travel Card (ABTC) scheme. The US already provides a ‘fast lane’ for entry for ABTC members, and the timing of America’s entry into the system is fitting given progress toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the recent and upcoming multilateral meetings in the Asia-Pacific. This weekend, other complementary initiatives are being launched as part of the APEC Travel Facilitation Initiative. But what is behind these initiatives, and who will they benefit? Are they stepping stones toward greater regional integration or another advantage for businesses?

According to the Business Mobility Group, the ABTC was originally developed “in response to the need for business people to gain streamlined entry to the economies of the Asia-Pacific region,” and “enables business people to explore new business opportunities, attend meetings and conduct trade and investment activities”. The main benefits are:

• “Fast-track entry and exit through special APEC lanes at major airports, and multiple short term entries to these economies for a minimum of 59 days stay each visit (click for details).

• No need to individually apply for visas or entry permits each time you travel to any of the participating APEC economies as the card is your visa.”

After trials in the late 1990s, countries have continued to sign onto the scheme, and the group now includes the following: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada (Transitional Member), Chile, China, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, PNG, Peru, the Philippines, Russia (Transitional Member) Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

A study by the Policy Support Unit (“an independent research unit at APEC”) found that those who participated in the scheme cut down on their transaction costs and saved time and money in their visa process. The target audience of the Mobility Initiative is explicit in its title: business. By saving time and money during repeated business travel to and within the Asia-Pacific, participants may be encouraged to travel even more frequently and create more business opportunities in the region with greater ease.

However, there has been no significant effort for greater mobility of permanent workers. There are several successful guest worker programs in the Asia-Pacific (primarily in Australia and New Zealand with Pacific Island nations), but each state maintains their own labor and immigration standards which conflict with the idea of a more mobile Asia-Pacific workforce. Oceania has the highest share of migrants than any other region, with 15 percent of residents in 2005 followed by North American with 13 percent. More specifically, 24 percent of residents in Micronesia were migrants in 2005, followed by 20 percent of residents in Australia and New Zealand.*

Despite movements toward closer economic relations through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, bilateral trade deals, and easier travel and access for business people around the Asia-Pacific, migration policies are yet to be coordinated in a way mirroring the Schengen Zone in Europe. Rather, countries prefer to create a global supply chain that links labor within their own countries, enabling them to better control the workforce and allowing the more powerful economies to dictate what industries are affected by ‘free trade’. In 2007 ASEAN states signed the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, but the agreement is not legally binding.

The UN Human Development Research Paper “Migration in the Asia-Pacific Region: Trends, Factors, Impacts”, by Phillip Martin, contains key points about migration in the region:

• “Most Asian nations receiving migrants have policies that aim to prevent migrants from settling, most do not consider migration essential for economic growth, and most do not want immigrants to change their culture and identity.

• Migration policies in the major Asian receiving countries can be framed by a triangle, with countries such as Singapore welcoming foreign professionals to settle and rotating less-skilled foreign workers in and out of the country, Japan allowing the employment of foreign professionals but remaining largely closed to less-skilled foreign workers, and the Gulf countries dependent on migrants to fill most private sector jobs.

• With migration restricted and considered temporary, there are few institutions developing data and long-term migration options or promoting regional dialogues to improve migration management.” (15)

The report points to factors motivating out-migration as well as the migration policies of the major labor-sending countries of the Asia-Pacific region:

• “Many Asian nations want to send more workers abroad to reduce joblessness, generate remittances, and accelerate development. Many governments have created agencies to―market their workers to foreign employers.

• Migrant-sending governments are also concerned about the rights of migrants, and many have agencies to regulate recruiters, prepare workers for overseas jobs, and look after migrants while they are abroad.

• Most governments measure the benefits of migration by the number of migrants going abroad and the amount of remittances received. These measures may not reflect progress in human or economic development that will make migration unnecessary in the future.” (34)

“Most international labor migration in Asia involves workers moving from one Asian nation to another for temporary employment” and “a culture of migration reportedly prompts many children to plan to follow their parents abroad to work”.* Moreover, remittances are an essential part of some states’ economies and provide uneven social and economic benefits. In the same way that business travel has been critical to creating avenues for state relationships and closer economic ties, real labor mobility will become critical to citizens’ ability to be lifted out of poverty, to experience unique opportunities or to create a new life for their families.

If businesses can readily have access to new markets and laborers, there should be reciprocal opportunities for laborers at different levels to have less constrained access to new employers and industries. International labor migration has accumulated a lot of baggage over the years despite its typically short-term or short-distance travel (primarily due to guest worker programs). A new generation of workers believes they are entitled to greater mobility given the ability of multinational corporations to create a base for influencing the economic and political structure of their countries. The APEC Business Travel Card scheme and others incorporated into the Business Mobility Initiatives demonstrate forward-thinking programs that move in the right direction; however for real progress to be made corresponding steps should be taken to make mobility more equitable.

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