Mobility of skilled labor in the ASEAN: Free or unfree?

Dr. Rene E. Ofreneo

University of the Philippines



The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has declared repeatedly its goal of transforming the Southeast Asian region into one ASEAN economic community (AEC). A major feature of this community-hood is the “free movement of skilled labor” across the region. This paper outlines how this ASEAN objective of promoting skilled labor mobility has progressed – first, through the ASEAN translation of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) into the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS), and second, through the ASEAN efforts to have a system of recognition equivalency or mutual recognition agreements (MRAs), purportedly to allow select professionals to practise freely in other ASEAN countries. And yet, to date, no ASEAN professional has registered under the MRAs that were already approved by the ASEAN. On the other hand, there has been a noticeable flow of skilled labor within the region due largely to the demand from ASEAN labor-receiving countries like Singapore. In fact, a veritable “war for talents” for certain skills, talents and professional expertise has arisen in the region as reflected in the difficulties of human resource managers to keep in-demand skills, talents and professionals. This paper argues that what is happening is the freer movement of select skilled labor due to the demand side in an emerging ASEAN labor market, while the anticipated “free” or unhampered movement of skilled labor under the MRA system is not taking off. The reason for the latter is the inability of the ten ASEAN countries to implement these MRAs at the “national” level because the ten have complicated and differing “national” standards and requirements in the practice of each profession. The paper concludes that the more immediate and urgent task to the ASEAN Member States is how to strategize skilled and semi-skilled labor as a “shared resource” and how to re-focus the human resource discourse on the overall promotion of social and economic development at the national and regional levels.

Read the full paper here, or download a PDF copy at this link:

Ofreneo_Mobility of Skilled Labor in ASEAN