One of the goals of ASEAN integration is to make ASEAN countries be economically integrated in 2025. By “economically integrated”, it usually means that there exists “free movements of goods, services, skilled labor, and investment” in ASEAN region. Of course, the details of how to make goods, services, skilled labor, and investment move freely is complicated. In an attempt to make it comes into reality, ASEAN creates among others an AEC Blueprint 2025 and an AEC 2025 Consolidated Strategic Action Plan.

Here, I am not interested to discuss the mentioned documents per se since those documents probably are discussed heavily in some places else such as a public event about how to face and familiarize ourselves with ASEAN integration. I am interested in the question of, especially in the context of free movement of skilled labors, how will ASEAN, as an intergovernmental body, deal with discrimination claims from the workers?

I ask this question because, as far as my observation goes, the discussion about ASEAN integration only stay at the point where the message is “Let us embrace ASEAN integration; it is good!”. As for the question of ‘how’ to make such integration run smoothly, it will depend on the ASEAN-level meeting in which, in my perspective, some how left an ordinary citizen like me to just observe from far away and just ‘accept’ the outcomes of such meeting. If ASEAN really wants to make “an inclusive Community that is people-oriented…” -as it is one of the goals of ASEAN Socio-Cultural pillar, ASEAN should really think a way for an ordinary citizen in ASEAN to have a voice even at the ASEAN-level meeting. If one says that national governments of ASEAN countries already represent its own citizens, I will reject this idea simply because what national governments want do not necessarily inline with the aspiration of the citizens. This does not mean to reject the involvement of national governments in ASEAN at all. But rather to push ASEAN to create another channel for ordinary citizens in ASEAN to voice their concerns which include a channel for discrimination claims in the workplace.

Back to my question, in the light of free movement of skilled labor, how will ASEAN, as an intergovernmental body, deal with discrimination claims from workers?

Firstly, interpreting the word ‘discrimination’ can be a tricky and difficult task especially in the ASEAN context whereby ASEAN countries do not have a single ‘culture’ in which, as of now, the meaning of the word ‘discrimination’ and the legal recourses to fight against discrimination especially in the workplace can be varied among ASEAN countries (as depicted here: the International Labour Organization (ILO) guide on “Equality and non-discrimination at work in East and South-East Asia”). Nonetheless, one could demand that a fight against discrimination in the workplace should not depend on the cultural context (two of the global and hence ‘universal’ examples are the gender pay gap and the leaders’ position in the company). Moreover, one could ask since ASEAN will be integrated in term of economy and socio-cultural anyway, why should not ASEAN make an ASEAN legal recourse to entertain claims regarding discrimination in the workplace? It is worth to note that the answer to this question might involve a discussion of the diversity and complexity of the legal cultures of ASEAN countries.

Secondly, one could ask what constitutes “discrimination in the workplace” specifically in the context of ASEAN integration and its free movement of skilled labors. Based on the aforementioned ILO guide, the discrimination in the workplace can be in many forms. For example, the curfew imposed by a national government that women can only be “out of home” for certain hours and hence restrict what kind of job(s) that women can have will arguably fall into discriminative measure based on gender (as Asmarani pointed out here for Indonesian context). In 2025, where ASEAN is fully integrated economically and socio-culturally, there should be a way for anyone who wants to challenge this curfew policy imposed by a national government. The arguments for such challenge may include such curfew prevents women to have a job and move ‘freely’ as a skilled-labor in ASEAN, and such curfew does not apply to men and hence it is discriminatory policy. Another example of discrimination in the workplace, as given in the aforementioned ILO guide, is about the leadership position in a company; that women will be more likely to be rejected for higher position because of the perception that women are weak therefore women cannot deal well with stress; not to mention that women must take care of the kids (if she has a family).

Last but not least, the notion of free movement of skilled labors in ASEAN itself is arguably problematic for several reasons. It is still unclear what the free movement of skilled labors in ASEAN wants to achieve. Yes, it will make the skilled labors move easily. But then, one could ask whether such movement will really increase opportunities to find jobs. The scenario where such movement will be beneficial only for those who are high-skilled and can afford to ‘move’ around ASEAN is possible. Moreover, as commonly pointed out, such movement can also create a brain drain for a country (see Malaya, p. 47). Another question that worth our attention is what about other types of labor? (since ASEAN frames it as ‘skilled labors’, I think it is fair to assume that this framework excludes those who are ‘un-skilled’ in the eye of ASEAN). As the ASEAN border will ‘open up’ as a result of the movement of (skilled) labors in 2025, it is likely that those who are ‘un-skilled’ want to participate in such movement as well. When this happens, ASEAN then has to prepare itself.

To conclude, as this writing is far from answering how will ASEAN deals with discrimination claims from workers, there is a plenty of rooms to discuss this matter more and such discussion can be done based on the above-mentioned concerns.

*The image is taken from here