Migrant labor and human rights: building connections between civil society in Japan and Southeast Asia

Managing international labor migration in an increasingly global society has emerged as a paramount challenge of the 21st century. As migration flows continue to grow worldwide, Asia has become a key region that is both the source of as well as the home to the largest number of international migrants in the world according to UN statistics. However, in spite of the growing need for coordination among sending and receiving countries, the international conversation, particularly among civil society stakeholders, has not been sufficient. In light of these emerging trends, the Asia Social Integration Department at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) launched a new initiative to encourage networking between ASEAN countries and Japan to promote a more holistic discussion of migration issues and bring the voices of migrant workers, advocates, and academics to an international audience.

As part of this effort, SPF invited three migration and human rights experts from countries that send a large number of migrant workers to Japan – Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – to meet with advocates, academics, and other stakeholders in Japan. The three participants were Mr. Daniel Awigra, program manager for ASEAN Advocacy with the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) in Indonesia; Ms. Cecile Pauline Sanglap Montenegro, president of Batis-AWARE (Association of Women in Action for Rights and Empowerment) in the Philippines; and Mr. Vu Ngoc Binh, senior advisor at the Institute for Population, Family and Children Studies (IPFCS) in Vietnam. Over the course of a week from the end of November to early December, the three participants attended a series of workshops and field visits in Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, and Tokyo.

When discussing the inspiration behind this new initiative, Fumiko Okamoto, director and senior program officer for the Asia Social Integration Department at SPF, explained that her group was impressed with the advocacy work in ASEAN, but noticed a lack of coordination with Japanese NGOs working on similar issues. “If civil society in both sending countries and receiving countries understand the issues, we can collaborate with each other to improve the situation,” said Ms. Okamoto, noting that SPF as a private foundation has the ability to connect these actors. Mariko Hayashi, program officer for the Asia Social Integration Department, also observed that often non-government actors in sending countries and receiving countries tend to focus only on their direct concerns without grasping the bigger picture. These countries “need to know what’s happening before migrants come here, what happens to the families and communities left behind, and what happens after they go back” said Ms. Hayashi. “Migration is really continuous, so that’s why we think there should be more of a network between the sending countries and receiving countries.” With this visit as a first step, the program is poised to welcome participants from a variety of countries and possibly bring Japanese civil society stakeholders to ASEAN countries to deepen regional networks moving forward.

Three perspectives from Southeast Asia
Cecile Pauline Sanglap Montenegro

While the program participants each specialize in different fields, they are united by their dedication to the human rights dialogue in their country as well as the concerns of migrant workers. Cecille currently serves as the president of Batis AWARE, an organization that supports women survivors of human trafficking and other abuses who are returning to the Philippines after working overseas. Her years of advocacy on behalf of female migrant workers have been informed by her own experience working as an entertainer in Japan in the 1990s. “I was a migrant worker for 10 years here in Japan and all of the discrimination and unequal support from the companies, the managers, and employers that I had is still happening right now,” said Cecille.

Beyond her personal experience, Cecille’s artistic talent served as the key inspiration for the program she currently runs at Batis AWARE. “I asked myself, as a former migrant worker, what is the best of me that I can use to help other people, especially other women who are also having this experience like what I had before?” said Cecille. She found that interpreting her memories through painting became therapeutic, which led her to design an empowerment program based around art. She noted that the reaction has been very positive “because some of the women and children can’t speak about their issues vocally because some of them are ashamed.” However, Cecille envisions a future for women to become more than the products of their experiences. “I really want victim survivors to not only be a victim and not only be a survivor, but to also be an inspiration for women.” Moving forward, she hopes to connect the program participants with academics and universities to increase awareness and push for change in the local community.

Daniel Awigra
Daniel Awigra

Awigra is currently a program manager with the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), an Indonesian coalition of NGOs seeking ASEAN integration and regional implementation of human rights standards. While ASEAN countries in particular have reaped the economic rewards of labor migration, Awigra pointed out that “the huge benefit of these people working abroad is not followed by the protection of their rights.” To address this disparity, Awigra is currently working on a project to increase the accountability of ASEAN governments and other regional players to ensure meaningful implementation of migrant labor protections agreed to by heads of state at the 2017 ASEAN Summit. “We are trying to fill the gap to say to governments that you can’t just say good things in the international forum. You also have to follow up,” said Awigra.

As part of this effort, Awigra and HRWG in collaboration with SPF published a baseline study in 2018 outlining the conditions for migrant workers in ASEAN countries to serve as a starting point for regional discussions. “By sharing our baseline study and the mechanisms that we have in Southeast Asia, hopefully we can create tools to communicate [with other countries] so that we can make a bridge between sending countries and Japan,” said Awigra.

The full article can be read on the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s website.