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Disruptors Revisited: A retrospective look at Fragomen’s 2019 APAC Conference from the ASEAN perspective
| Kenneth Lau

Disruptors Revisited: A retrospective look at Fragomen’s 2019 APAC Conference from the ASEAN perspective

In September 2019, our firm hosted an APAC Regional Immigration Conference entitled, “Managing Immigration in the Age of Disruption.”  Little did we know at the time that less than six months from then, our lives would be consumed by the COVID-19 crisis.  We opened that conference with a Keynote speech from Charlie Ang, a Business Futurist and expert on disruption, who spoke about “black swan” events—events characterized by their extreme rarity—that have changed the course of history.  I recall he mentioned the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s as one of those events and, of course, given the magnitude of the current pandemic, one can’t help but wonder about the scale of changes that the current crisis is likely to have on the immigration landscape. 

The focus of the conference was to examine the key disruptors in the immigration space and to predict how they would alter immigration requirements and policy in the years to come.  Needless to say, the current “black swan” of COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate and accelerate some of those same trends we discussed in the region (and globally).  We are already seeing some of those themes and broader questions play out, while the countries in the region have been in various stages of lockdowns and community quarantines.

Digitalization

One of the major themes of the conference was digitalization, and how technology will further streamline and automate the immigration and work permit processes in many countries in the region.  We were already seeing this underway in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand (and, to a certain extent, Vietnam), but the COVID-19 crisis is likely to accelerate this trend.  As part of their lockdown measures, many countries in the region reduced the hours of or closed government offices that process immigration applications.  In most cases, the stated reasons for doing so included the health and safety of government officers (i.e., by reducing the number of touchpoints between officers and the general public).  This trend toward more online applications, which was already well on its way prior to the pandemic, is only likely to continue, as we have seen that some countries which already had online systems in place (such as Indonesia) were able to continue processing some applications (such as for renewals), even while the country remained in lockdown.  Those countries with robust online application processes in place prior to the crisis are likely to resume processing much sooner after the crisis abates (and to better handle backlogs) than those countries that did not. 

Compliance

Compliance with immigration rules in any country is likely to become even more of a focus after the current crisis, as governments around the region look to restrict their requirements and be more discerning toward applicants.  It is likely that applicants will be subject to additional documentary requirements (such as medical certificates) and employers may be subject to declarations. 

By way of example, during the current crisis, Thailand’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAAT) announced a requirement (effective 22 March 2020, before the lockdown and travel ban went into effect on 26 March) that any inbound travelers would need to present a health certificate issued within the previous 72 hours, indicating they posed no risk of being infected by the virus—which is a very high standard to meet.  Before the COVID-19 crisis, Thailand already had a medical examination requirement as part of the standard work permit process, although some applicants were exempt from the requirement.  Following the crisis, it may be that the medical examination requirement is expanded to include COVID-19 testing, or it may be emphasized further.  Similar trends could play out in the other countries within the region, particularly those that did not have a medical examination requirement in the past.

Future of work

In the 2019 APAC conference, we also examined the future of work and, in particular, changes to how assignments are being structured (i.e., a move away from traditional long-term assignments and towards short-term, fly-in/fly-out arrangements) and changes to how people work, including more telecommuting and work-from-home arrangements.  The current crisis has clearly accelerated the move toward the latter. It remains to be seen how this shift will impact the way assignments are structured moving forward. 

In most countries in the ASEAN region, telecommuting may not have been contemplated at the time the immigration laws and rules were drafted.  As such, even before COVID-19, an assessment would need to be made on the facts of each specific case, such as a determination of whether work authorization would be required for such an arrangement.  Considering the alternative work arrangements that companies have had to adopt, these systems will be forced to determine how to reconcile such situations in their immigration rules.

As to short-term and fly-in/fly-out assignments, with the additional documentary requirements mentioned above and the possibility that foreign national applicants may need to complete a quarantine period upon arrival, in addition to other requirements, such assignments may no longer be as attractive to companies and their assignees.

Protectionism and geopolitics

Perhaps the overarching trend that is likely to be exemplified by the pandemic is that of protectionism of local labor markets.  We were already seeing this play out in some countries within the region, as economies slowed over the last year or so.  Economists are predicting a global recession due to the crisis. Consider that the International Monetary Fund recently downgraded the anticipated 2020 growth rate of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand (the ASEAN-5, comprising the largest economies in the region) to minus 1.3%.  Given this scenario, it is likely that immigration systems within the region will largely scale back or restrict their immigration systems. 

Another interesting angle to watch is how these geopolitics will play out as certain countries push to reopen their economies and borders, as is already observed in countries such as Vietnam.  Countries that were perceived to be largely effective with the measures imposed to contain COVID-19 may now be more attractive locations for projects and assignments, which could also shift foreign investment to those countries.

Much of this remains conjecture, particularly as we are still in the midst of the pandemic and various lockdowns within the region, but it will be interesting to see how these disruptors continue to evolve and how the various immigration systems within the region react to them.  Undoubtedly, we will be looking back on these disruptors again toward the end of the year, as the post-COVID-19 playing field comes further into focus.

To discuss this topic, or any other issue related to global mobility and immigration, please reach out to your Fragomen immigration professional. Additionally, we have analyzed several evolving political, economic and cultural factors and scenarios to identify the shift of the three key themes of recent immigration policy changes in our Worldwide Immigration Trends Report Q1 2020 Supplement.