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School of Law

Migration, gender and the law in South East Asia and beyond

Course Code:
15PLAH023
Unit value:
0.5
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Term 2

This unique course has its roots in its instructor’s own experiences of the problems faced by many low-waged, unskilled migrant workers in Hong Kong. It builds on her current research on migrant workers in Hong Kong and Singapore.

While many parts of the world has seen a rise in migration for work, low-skilled labour migration provides a particularly timely lens through which to consider the laws of Southeast Asia. A number of economies in Southeast Asia have benefitted from the processes of globalization, the movement of cheap labour being a part of this development. Both outward and inward migration of workers from within the region has occurred and continues to occur. With large numbers of women migrating to work as domestic workers, the region has also participated in the worldwide feminization of migration.

The course was first taught in 2009 when the ILO had already started to discuss the possibility of a convention for domestic work premised on the treatment of domestic work as work, and as such, based on contracts of employment and employment law. This is more ground breaking than it appears because of the continued employment of domestic workers without written contracts and because in at least some jurisdictions, countries in Southeast Asia included, domestic workers are expressly excluded from the standards and protections offered by core legislation on employment. It is also ground breaking because of the history of domestic work as (women’s) reproductive work and as such, part of the private sphere that is often shielded from regulation.

With some variation each year, the course surveys the treatment of migrant workers in a few of the largest recipient countries in the region, paying attention to similarities and differences in the legal frameworks governing the work that migrants do. It is interested in charting how unskilled labour tends to be more tightly controlled than skilled and professional labour. It examines the impact of sending country efforts to protect their nationals abroad and looks also at developments in regional efforts to protect migrant labour.

The course takes a particular interest in domestic workers and to that end encourages students to understand the nature of domestic work and the experience of migrant domestic workers in Southeast Asia.

A key part of the course is the assessed presentation outlining the student’s project. The essay topic is usually chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor. A number of essays written for the course have subsequently been published. These include:

Mary Austin, (2012) ‘From Entitlement to Experience: Access to Education for children of Migrant Workers from Burma’ (2012) Asian Pacific Migration Journal 21:3, 405.

Syed Reza, ‘The Convention on Migrant Workers' Rights: Some Complexities in the Obligations of Host States’ (Rahman and Ullah (eds.) Human Rights and Critically Disadvantaged People, ELCOP, Dhaka).

Dinita Setyawati, (2014) ‘Assets or Commodities? Comparing Regulations of Placement and Protection of Migrant Workers in Indonesia and the Philippines’ 62(2) Austrian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 264.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

  • Understanding of the empirical context in which migrant labour in South East Asia occurs; the impact of labour and welfare policies of the sending and receiving countries; and the process and experience of becoming a migrant worker;
  • Knowledge of how migrant labour is facilitated, defined and controlled by law;
  • Knowledge of the framework of immigration and labour rules through which migrant domestic workers arrive to work in some of the countries in South East Asia and beyond;
  • Understanding of common abuses of the law by employer and other actors and how rights may be enforced;
  • Ability to assess the effectiveness of law in this area of study.

Method of assessment

  • Presentation: 10%
  • Coursework: 90% (4500 words)

Suggested reading

  • Hugo, G. 'International Migration in Southeast Asia since World War II' in Aris Ananta and Evi Nurvidya Arifin (eds) International Migration in Southeast Asia (ISEAS: Singapore, 2004).
  • Wickramasekara, P. 'Rights of migrant workers in Asia: Any light at the end of the tunnel?' International Migration Papers, No 75 (Geneva: ILO, 2004).
  • Tan, Carol G.S. ‘Enforcing Socioeconomic Rights: Everyday Agency, Resistance and Community Resources Among Indonesian Domestic Workers in Hong Kong in J. Elias and L. Rethel (eds) The Everyday Political Economy of Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).