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MPI, Asian Development Bank Report Explores Challenges to Achieving ASEAN Economic Community’s Goal of Free Flow of Skilled Labor, Suggests Way Forward

Press Release
Friday, February 12, 2016

MPI, Asian Development Bank Report Explores Challenges to Achieving ASEAN Economic Community’s Goal of Free Flow of Skilled Labor, Suggests Way Forward

Mobility for Highly Skilled Professionals Essential to ASEAN Region’s Competitiveness

WASHINGTON, DC – Progress towards achieving the ASEAN Economic Community’s goal of a free flow of skilled labor has been slow and uneven, according to an issue paper released by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) face a number of key challenges in lifting barriers to the movement of skilled professionals within the region, which was set as a goal to reach by December 2015. The report makes clear, however, the importance and urgency for policymakers and other stakeholders to put in place a roadmap toward freer movement within the ASEAN labor market over the next decade and beyond.

“Despite real and perceived barriers, the ASEAN Economic Community aspiration to facilitate a free flow of skilled labor is a timely policy goal for ASEAN, particularly as major demographic, economic and social changes sweep not only across the region but worldwide,” said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, MPI president emeritus and distinguished senior fellow. “Unless real progress is made in this area, ASEAN member states risk falling behind in a global economy that is increasingly competitive and skills-driven.”

The MPI researchers who authored the report, which was previewed at a forum in Bali, Indonesia in September 2015 that brought together high-level policy and business leaders from ASEAN countries, identified three key challenges to mobility within the 600 million-person region:

  • The complexity and difficulty of recognizing academic and professional qualifications gained in another country. Professionals in the region typically find their skills and education underutilized—and undervalued—because their qualifications are not easily recognized.
  • Restricted access to the labor market. Even with the advent of the AEC, there is no guarantee of labor mobility among professionals within ASEAN. This is the result of national-level barriers that hamper mobility, such as constitutional provisions that reserve particular occupations for nationals and complex procedures to get an employment visa.
  • Limited interest in movement within the region by highly skilled workers. Many professionals do not consider taking a job elsewhere within ASEAN due to perceived cultural, language and socio-economic differences.

While ASEAN member states have signed mutual recognition arrangements to facilitate labor movements within six sectors (architecture, dentistry, engineering, medicine, nursing and tourism) and have taken steps to establish framework arrangements for accounting and surveying, the progress has been largely on paper and implementation has been lacking, the report finds.

“The cost of these barriers is staggering for the region,” Papademetriou said. “Without the ability and real prospects to move within the region, many ASEAN professionals are unemployed or forced to take jobs significantly below their education and skill levels. Others may move beyond the region, since talent is increasingly a global commodity.”

The report notes that an estimated 1.3 million college-educated Southeast Asians have relocated to North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and New Zealand, a number that has risen 40 percent since 2000.

The issue paper, the first research published as part of a multiyear effort by ADB and MPI to better understand the barriers to freer movement of professionals within ASEAN and develop strategies to gradually overcome these hurdles, outlines a two-pronged strategy. First, ASEAN Member States must cooperate to fully address the immediate challenges in recognizing the qualifications of mobile professionals and increase their access to the region’s labor market. Second, governments should also take a longer-term view by investing in national training and education systems that prepare workers in accordance with common ASEAN-wide standards.

The issue paper can be read at: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/achieving-skill-mobility-asean-economic-community-challenges-opportunities-and-policy.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI, which has offices in Washington, Brussels and New York, provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, visit www.migrationpolicy.org.