Ties that Bind

It's been almost three years since A-di first moved in with my relatives in Taiwan to work as a caretaker for my ailing grandmother. A college graduate from Indonesia with a reserved demeanor and an endearing smile, A-di, or Di Di as my family sometimes calls her, was found through an agency that places migrant workers in jobs abroad. Like her sister, a factory worker in Taiwan, she regularly sends a portion of her roughly US$550 monthly pay back home to her parents in West Java.

A-di, her sister and millions of other migrant workers in the region play an important role in the economies of their home countries. In 2012, Asia's overseas migrant workers sent home more than US$220 billion in remittances to family members. Many advanced Asian economies have long hired foreign workers from their less affluent neighbors to make up for labor shortages. But this help may be even more critical now considering the challenges of large aging populations and declining fertility rates.

Even during tough times, overseas workers have often continued to send money home. This has helped countries such as the Philippines, which officially recorded US$26 billion in global remittances last year, better weather economic storms, including the recent global financial crisis. India, China and Pakistan are other top recipients of remittances.

Besides being able to earn higher pay and contribute more to their family income, migrant workers often gain valuable skills overseas that they might not have gained in their hometowns. Such a workforce then becomes a vast talent pool. For example, when the Philippines began developing its own gaming industry to cater to Asia's rising tourism market, its casino operators were able to attract many Filipino employees who had already worked in resorts in Macau and Singapore.

When A-di first arrived at my aunt's home, she was impressively trilingual—fluent in her native Indonesian and conversational in both English (which she learned in college) and Mandarin Chinese (which she learned while living in Singapore). But since my grandmother speaks none of those languages, A-di has also picked up some Taiwanese, in addition to improving her Mandarin.

She is part of Taiwan's nearly 500,000-strong, and growing, foreign labor force—much needed as Taiwan struggles with birth rates that are among the lowest globally. The number of foreign workers in Taiwan is increasing rapidly in part due to more relaxed regulatory policies for domestic helpers as well as official efforts to raise the ratio of overseas laborers for industrial enterprises. Firms that launch new projects on the island are offered additional foreign worker quotas and other preferential measures to expand investment.

Intra-Asia migrant workers have helped foster economic ties that have led to a more integrated regional economy, benefiting the development of both the region's emerging and developed countries. What's more, when they return home, they bring more sophisticated consumer tastes adopted from their lifestyles abroad. Thai companies are counting on this—some have begun marketing consumer products in Myanmar where they hope to find an already-loyal customer base among migrant workers familiar with their brands.

Once again, the real Asia confounds a simplistic analysis of country versus country. Ties between nations are strengthened by trade links and by a relatively free flow of labor. All of this creates a shared experience—like that of A-di and my family. Hopefully, such links help nations bond politically and also allow companies to grow their businesses abroad and become regional players with products, services and brands that may cross borders with as much, if not more, ease as individuals.

© Matthews Asia

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