APEC 2018 Senior Officials' Meeting (SOM) - Blog2

February 28, 2018

By David Dodwell

The ghost of former ABAC Philippine member Doris Ho’s cherished “Earn, Learn, Return” initiative was resurrected on Tuesday at APEC’s Human Resources Development Working Group, and looked in surprisingly robust shape as a “Labour Mobility Cooperation Initiative”.
As in the past, it was officials from Australian’s Jobs Ministry that led, emphasising the need to distinguish the management of labour flows to meet short- and long-term imbalances across the region from the issue of migration. How often in the past has the political sensitivity linked with migration muddled the need to deal separately with quite distinct challenge of properly managing the flows of workers across the region. World Bank data says that out of 250m internationally mobile people worldwide, 150m are mobile workers responding to global workforce imbalances, and accounting for remittance flows in 2017 amounting to US$596m. The fact that three quarters of these flows were to developing economies illustrated how important they are to poverty reduction and the acquisition of skills regionwide.
As with ABAC’s carefully-crafted Earn, Learn, Return initiative, Australia emphasised the critical “first step” need to gather data regionwide on skills shortages and mismatches. When they launched a Skills Mapping initiative six years ago, only six of APEC’s 21 economies submitted data – which in blunt terms hardly provided the basis for any clear insights on whether serious skills shortages existed, or where. Perhaps now, six years on, our new technologies, and capacity to gather “big data” may make the skills mapping process more successful. Little was discussed yesterday about the practical challenges of managing worker flows – like the opaque processes and corruption linked with fees and visa issuance, and the absence of social provision for workers, like health insurance and protection of pension plans – but our officials insisted these commitments were there. And more emphasis was being placed on the practical need for better regionwide recognition of skills and qualifications, which is a significant technical challenge in every economy. As in the past, it is suggested that we start in particular well-defined areas, like among health workers, and in the tourism sector.
Despite the phoenix-like resurrection of the labour mobility initiative, there was still evidence around the table of the political sensitivities that exist in certain economies over the management of international labour flows. The US, for example, gave highly conditional support, emphasising that this initiative was not an agreed-upon APEC-wide policy commitment, but was framing a voluntary arrangement that would fully respect local rights and differences on the management of the movement of labour.
It looks like there is still a long, slow journey ahead for ABAC’s cherished Earn, Learn, Return initiative, but at least we are back on the road.
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