Workplace restrictions squeezed talent further in 2021

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

YEAR IN REVIEW: Covid-19 has disrupted Southeast Asia’s labour markets, causing manpower shortages, migration issues, and the imposition of pandemic regulations throughout out the course of the last year.

High numbers of cases were recorded in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. On the low-end of the spectrum have been Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Singapore.


But even with this broad range of case impacts, lockdowns, movement restrictions, and workplace challenges triggered an exodus of millions of rural migrant workers in Vietnam. Cambodia repatriated its unemployed workers from Thailand. Malaysia regulated the inflow of foreign workers. The Philippines started a gender-inclusive post-pandemic work environment.

Labour regulations in Southeast Asia have been put in place. The region is still reeling from the after-effects of the pandemic on attrition, labour shortage, and how pandemic regulations, such as vaccination, can balance the situation.


As part of its support policies for employers and workers impacted by Covid-19 in Vietnam, over 3,000,000 Ho Chi Minh City labourers and almost 1.5 million Hanoi workers were due to receive special allowances from the Social Insurance Agency’s unemployment fund. Each eligible worker was expected to receive between VND1.8 million (USD79) and VND3.3 million (USD145).


Before this, Vietnam’s industrial zones experienced a serious manpower shortage when their factories reopened after an extensive lockdown mid-year. Only "green card" holders, those from the safe zones, have been able to work. Travel bans have further impacted manpower availability.


In the last quarter, some 90,000 migrant workers fled Ho Chi Minh City for fears of unemployment and work disruptions if quarantines were to be reimposed. Factories lacked 50% of workers. At manufacturing company Long Rich, for example, only 125 of its 4,000 vaccinated workers were expected to be back at work. Only 900 of the 4,000, who stayed in Ho Chi Minh City, received the second vaccine shot. Dong Nai Employment Exchange stated that more than 4,500 positions opened, but only 150 applied. The vaccination rate in most Dong Nai companies was only 40% to 50%.


Suppliers for Nike, iPhone, and Adidas struggled due to the labour shortage, some of them suspended operations. The government ordered businesses and local authorities to coordinate for smooth production, goods circulation, travel and accommodation of workers, and compliance with pandemic safety requirements.


In Cambodia, some 700,000 textile and footwear workers will receive a USD2-hike in the monthly minimum wage, bringing the rate to USD194/month starting in January. For workers’ unions, it is still insufficient for this unprecedented time. They demanded a USD12 monthly increase. The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia said the raise could be problematic with rising operating costs. Workers pay pension and healthcare as a mandatory workplace measure. Cambodia’s USD7B-garment industry is one of the country’s largest employers.


Still, in Cambodia, the country repatriated its unemployed migrant workers from Thailand. The Thai government shut down the borders in August when stranded Cambodians travelled to the border. The influx caused a spike of Covid-19 cases.


Malaysia also dealt with migrant labourers’ issues, beginning with the policy that obliges companies that hire foreign workers to pay the total expenses, including levy payment and quarantine. The Human Resource minister plans to pattern the foreign worker salary payment system after the United Arab Emirates.


For economic recovery, the Philippines has reopened to travellers. Over 65% of the nearly six million workers in the tourism industry are fully vaccinated. For instance, Boracay Island has 91% fully vaccinated workers. The tourism department pushes the vaccination drive across the country. Covid-19 cases drop daily, and local governments are easing up on restrictions. This would reopen jobs.


As for inclusion, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said that the Philippines needs a gender-responsive recovery plan. The Philippine Statistics Authority said, as of January 2021, more men were working (73.9%) than women (46.9%). ILO offers its Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Workforce Readiness and Development Programme to the initiative between the Employers Confederation of the Philippines and the Philippine Women’s Economic Network.


This feature was extracted from Chief of Staff Asia's report on 2021 in Review: Talent back to the forefront. For further coverage, and access to the full report, please see any of the below links:


2021 in Review: Talent back to the forefront (full report) December 23, 2021

Talent returns to the forefront of HR agendas (news highlight) December 24, 2021

Labour shortages demand new retention strategies (feature) December 27, 2021

Workplace restrictions squeeze talent further (feature) December 28, 2021

Digital disruptions became the norm (feature) December 29, 2021

Looking back at HR Technology in 2021 (feature) December 30, 2021

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