Migrant Workers: The Responsive Wave

It is estimated that migrant workers and their families
total around 120 million worldwide.

As we sat eating various lentil curries with rice, we discussed our background and family. Several men were fisherman in their homeland. We also talked about how long they had been in the country. Then, to our astonishment, one of the men who appeared to be a leader in the group exclaimed,

“We have nothing! We thought we would find a better life for our family. However, we were tricked. We spend all of our salary paying back the fees imposed upon us. All I want to do is go home.”

Several other men then said that when they were fishermen they had a better life and made more money. This story is one among a plethora of stories in the world of migrant workers.

It is estimated that migrant workers and their families total around 120 million worldwide.1 Migrant workers come with different ethno-linguistic backgrounds, worldviews and dispositions toward life. They are lives in transit, looking for ways to fill their homelessness and loss of roots. This article focuses on migrant workers in Asia Pacific, challenging church-missions to prioritize this large unreached bloc of peoples as a last frontier peoples.

Migrant Workers of Asia Pacific
Migrant workers have a long history in Asia2 and therefore the wave of migrant workers is not new to Asia Pacific. Estimates suggest that Asia Pacific countries house over twelve million migrant workers, a number which continues to show steady increases.

Most of these workers come from Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Most find jobs—legally or illegally—in Korea, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. Although many countries are dependent on foreign labor, none want large numbers of migrant workers—especially low-skilled workers—to settle permanently.3 As a result, many have made concerted efforts to prevent both illegal immigration and settlement. Despite such efforts, it is estimated that “half of migrant workers are illegal workers; in Japan and Korea, the percentage is more than eighty percent.”4 The following table provides rounded estimates of documented (legal) migrant workers in selected Asia Pacific countries:

TABLE 1: Number of Documented Migrant Workers in Selected Asia Pacific Countries 

Country  Number  Source of Information 
Korea  400,000 Kim 20075
Japan 760,000 Park 2006
Thailand  1,300,000 Kaur 2006
Malaysia 1,800,000 New Straits Times 2006 
Singapore 600,000 Piper 2005
Indonesia 500,000 Southeast Asia 2007
Australia 2,300,000 Austrialian Bureau of Statistics 2004
New Zealand  400,000 Statistics New Zealand 2005

Despite measurement difficulties, undocumented (illegal) migrant workers are clearly significant in many countries. The following table provides rounded estimates of undocumented migrant workers in selected countries in the early 2000s:

TABLE 2: Number of Undocumented Migrant Workers in Selected Asia Pacific Countries



Source of Information 



Asian Migration News, 31 December 2004



Tigno 1997 



Chalamwong 2005



Asian Labor News, 17 December 2004



Battistella 2002



DIMIA 2003

The majority of migrant workers are involved in infrastructure development (i.e. construction, building roads, etc.) and service occupations (i.e. gas station attendants, restaurant servers, etc.). Trends show female migrant workers moving into domestic services (i.e. maids, nannies, etc.). Clearly, women dominate the majority of migrant workers sent from the Philippines and Indonesia. Probably twenty percent of Asia Pacific migrant workers are women in domestic services. The following table provides data of selected Asia Pacific countries sending women as migrant workers:

TABLE 3: Selected Asia Pacific Countries Sending Women Migrant Workers

Country of Origin 


Workers Sent 

Source of Information 




POEA 2004




Chalamwong 2005




Soeprobo 2005 

Why a Wave of Migrant Workers?
There are many reasons (including the traditional push–pull factors) why there is a wave of migrant workers. Economic theory suggests an individual will migrate when the benefits of the push–pull factors outweigh the costs. Philip Martin contends, “Factors fueling migration include uneven population and economic growth (labor shortages in some countries; labor surpluses in others), cultural changes that affect the availability and expectations of workers, and the existence of well-established legal recruitment networks (and the smuggling of laborers).”6

Many Asia Pacific countries depend upon migrant workers to supplement their indigenous workforce if economic growth targets are to be achieved and if they are to maintain their international competitiveness and strategic position globally. For several countries, the migrant labor force (both skilled and unskilled) is a key to their economies. In Australia, New Zealand and Singapore migrant workers account for more than twenty percent of the labor force.7 Malaysia is not far behind where migrants make up about seventeen percent of the work force.8 For those countries that export many workers, the money they receive from the host countries is a key to their economies.

For many, becoming a migrant worker means economic gain. As such, they assume becoming a migrant worker will bring a better life. However, this is not always the case as their living and working conditions are not always ideal.

In some countries, unskilled or semi-skilled migrant
workers live in hot, cramped shipping containers.

Living and Working Conditions for Migrant Workers
Since 1997, issues concerning migrant workers have brought considerable discussion among scholars.9 A common concern is the worsening plight of migrant workers.10

Even in the most developed countries, their salaries, working conditions and living quarters are well below standards for other workers. In Japan, for example, migrant workers on average earn the equivalent of 15,000 USD or about one half the 28,000 USD considered necessary to live in Japan.11 Migrant workers outside the professional classes in Japan face an almost xenophobic prejudice from the Japanese public.

In some countries, unskilled or semi-skilled migrant workers quite often live in hot, cramped—and often short on sanitary facilities—shipping containers. In spite of government regulations granting certain rights in nearly all countries, employers are able to ignore the regulations. Abuses such as withholding pay, confiscating passports and working excess numbers of hours are common.

In Thailand, Mahidol University conducted a study on migrants. The study reports that “about sixty percent of the migrants employed as domestic helpers were not allowed to leave the homes in which they were employed, and forty-three percent of migrants employed in agriculture, fishing and manufacturing reported that their employers kept their identity cards to restrict their movement, although some migrants reported that they used cell phones to communicate.”12

A Responsive Wave
Even when atrocities and abuses do not exist, the new culture uproots migrant workers. Consequently, migrant workers struggle to adapt to a new culture as well as retain as many elements of their own culture as possible. In essence, they go through a type of rite of passage in order to make meaning of their new cultural environment.

After they arrive in their new host culture, they soon discover themselves in surroundings with different cultural expectations and values. They become separated from a culturally familiar social structure and are placed in a new social structure. When this happens, they enter a period of anti-structure,13 causing them to scrutinize the central values of their home culture. Consequently, they enter a limbo state of confusion and become more willing to accept new ideas. Until they begin to function within the domains of the new host culture, they remain confused and open to new ideas. As such, during this period of transition and loss of roots, they are open to become believers, ready to assume faith in Jesus Christ in a personal way.

For instance, in one Asia Pacific country, the migrant worker population of a particular people group has grown to almost ninety thousand in just three years. Cross-cultural workers as well as nationals do not face some of the hindrances and barriers that exist in the home country of these migrant workers. Moreover, they have discovered a wave of responsiveness that has not existed in this particular people group’s home country. Hence, they are creatively using this unique opportunity to minister to this people group. Their desire is that migrant worker converts will take the message of Christ back to their homeland.

Their approach is simplistic. They use “shepherd” pastors in sharing the gospel, discipling new believers and training leaders so that when the workers return to their homeland they are strong in their new faith and can stimulate a Church Planting Movement. Last year, one cross-cultural worker reported 110 new believers. Local Christians report hundreds more who have come to faith in Christ. There is potential for even more growth where large migrant worker populations reside.

Responding to the Wave
The wave of migrant workers is an unfinished story. Migrant workers continue to increase in significant numbers. Even though governments sometimes say they plan to reduce their dependence on labor migration, all indicators point to more, not less, labor migration in the years ahead. Despite this, many Christians often overlook this significant bloc of unreached responsive peoples. This growing wave and their responsiveness should demand increasing attention.

The number of migrant workers will certainly continue to increase in scale, diversity and impact. It is not a temporary, ephemeral phenomenon but is here to stay. Therefore, the time has come for Christians to make a conceptual leap with respect to the wave of migrant workers. These peoples are a last frontiers peoples. They have the potential to be the modern diaspora–returning to their homeland with a new faith.

Even before they return to their homeland, the radically improved technical possibilities allow migrant workers to foster links with their societies of origin through the mobile telephone, fax and the internet.

This increasingly enables migrant workers who have become Christians to serve as ambassadors simultaneously in distant places. With this in mind, how can the church-mission respond?

  1. Identify migrant workers in your locale. Sometimes migrant workers are at our doorsteps, we just fail to notice them.
  2. Voice opposition when migrant workers are abused. We can stand in the gap to alleviate social injustices and express faith to the real circumstances of today's world. We can also speak up when people stereotype migrant workers by making innuendoes or prejudicial statements against migrant workers.
  3. Set strategic priorities to reach out to migrant workers. Prioritization results in funds, manpower and committing time by visiting places where migrant workers assemble and befriending them.
  4. Show love and compassion in action. Love may come in providing food or answering cultural adjustment questions.
  5. Point them to hope in Jesus Christ. No matter how difficult the ethno-linguistic challenge may be, share the message of hope in Jesus Christ.

The wave of migrant workers is a challenge ethno-linguistically. However, the greater challenge comes from within: a challenge of changing attitudes within the Church toward different peoples and different cultures. But reaching out to the wave can bring life to the Church—a renewed missionary vision and vigor—right to its doorsteps.


1. Taran, Patrick A. 2003. “International standards and temporary migration in the 21st century: Rights Based Law or Market Law.” Paper presented for International Institute for Labour Studies in cooperation with the ILO International Migration Programme Workshop, 18-19 September 2003.

2. Hugo, G. J. 2004. “International Migration in the Asia-Pacific Region: Emerging Trends and Issues.” In International Migration: Prospects and Policies in a Global Market. D.S Massey and J.E. Taylor, eds. 77-103. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

3. Castles, S. 2003. “Migrant Settlement, Transnational Communities and State Region.” In Migration in the Asia Pacific: Population, Settlement and Citizenship Issues. R. Iredale, C. Hawksley and S. Castles, eds. 3-26. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

4. Martin, Philip. 1996. “Migrants on the Move.” Asia Pacific. no. 29, December.

5. All references not noted in the endnotes list can be found in the below Additional References list.

6. Martin, Philip. 1996.

7. Piper, Nicola. 2005. “Migrant Labour in Southeast Asia, Country Study: Singapore.” Paper prepared for Freidrich Ebert Stiftung Project on Migrant Labour in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2004. “Labour Force Statistics and other Characteristics of Migrants.” Published Report 6250.0, November 2004. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Bureau of Statistics; and Statistics New Zealand. 2005. “Labour Market Statistics 2004.” Wellington, New Zealand: Statistics New Zealand, Te Tari Tatau.

8. The Star Online. 2007. “Employment Rises Slightly.” The Star Online. 22 March. 

9. Debrah, Yaw R. 2002. Migrant Workers in Pacific Asia. London: Frank Cass Publishers.

10. Asian Workers News. 2001. Asian Workers News. no. 119. 16 December.

11. Park, Chung-a. 2006. “EPS Increases Illegal Migrant Workers.” Korea Times. 17 October.

12. Southeast Asia. 2007. Migration News. 14(1), January. 

13. Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Additional References

Asian Labor Migration 2006. 2007. Migration News. 14(1), January. 

Battistella, G. 2002. “Unauthorized Migrants as Global Workers in the ASEAN Region.” Southeast Asian Studies. 40(3): 350-371.

Chalamwong, Y. 2005. “Recent Trends and Policy Initiatives of International Migration and Labor Market in Thailand, 2004.” Paper prepared for the Workshop on International Migration and Labour Market in Asia organized by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training. Japan Institute of Labour, Tokyo, 20-21 January.

Department of Immigration, Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). 2003. “APEC Business Travel Card: Operating Framework.” Unpublished Document. Canberra, Australia: DIMIA.

Kim, Hailey. 2007. “Human Rights of Workers in Korea.” Korea Herald. 28 March.

Kuar, A. and I. Metcalf, eds. 2006. Mobility, Labor Migration & Border Controls in Asia. London: Pan-Macmillan.

New Straits Times. 2006. “Indonesians form Bulk of Workers.” New Straits Times. 19 July.

Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). 2004. “Annual Report 2003.” Manila, Philippines: POEA.

Soeprobo, T.B. 2005. “Recent Trends in International Migration in Indonesia.” Paper prepared for Workshop on International Migration and Labour Market in Asia organized by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, Japan Institute of Labour, Tokyo, 20-21 January.

Tigno, J.V. 1997. “ASEAN Labor Migration: Strategic Implications for Japan in Southeast Asia.” Asian Migrant. 10(3):86-89.

Bryan Galloway (left) has served in roles such as church planter and regional administrator in cross-cultural missions for twenty years with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church. For the past eight years, he has served as the regional research coordinator for the IMB-SBC Pacific Rim region.

Jessie Rushing (right) has been a missionary associate in the Pacific Rim region since 2000. He is involved in ethnographic research on unreached people groups of the region. He is also part of a church planting/evangelization team working among ethnic Chinese.