Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Migrant Women Workers

Image: MS Office
Migration ceased to be a venture of a select few looking for better avenues long time back. One can safely say that since medieval period it has become a compulsion for farm workers, domestic workers and small landholders workers who are simply looking for a source of income to survive. It is estimated that 1 out of every 6 persons, that is, more than 1 billion persons, are migrating within countries and internally, in search of employment. Of these 1 billion, 72% are women[1]. This is even more so when it comes to women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constituting 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America[2]. According to a study that focuses on women’s migration labour from and between six countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region[3], the numbers of women who undertake migrant labour in Southern Africa have been increasing significantly over the past decade. Most people when they think of migrant labour, usually imagine a male face. But over the years, due to several socio-economic and political changes the face of the African migrant labour is changing into a twin woman-man face. Women now make up almost 50% of migrants in the SADC region.

Globalization of labour:

Globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities to fill gaps in nations with a dwindling labour supply, for eg, from Somalia to Canada, or in nations which may offer better remuneration for the same work, for eg, from Afghanistan to Iran. Globalisation has also opened up markets for skilled workers and the decrease in traditional labour employment areas such as mining and agriculture. This has provided new entry points for the migrant labour into economies, for example in the service sector. Women are increasingly participating in the trans-national informal sector (for eg, as construction workers in countries other than theirs), and cross-border trade (for eg, between Tanzania and Kenya). This said, since globalization of labour is also characterized by increasing demand for skilled workers and is, therefore, leading to job losses and further impoverishment of unskilled workers. Globalization, in this sense, has created a complex tension between the demand for skilled labour and constraints imposed on unskilled workforce.

Globalization pushes the States to open up the borders for economic transactions. This is leading to increasing number of free trade agreements between countries, emergence and growth of multinational corporations and common markets such as the one mooted and promoted by the East African Community (EAC) for the free flow of products. While the borders are opened for the free flow of products, the borders remain closed for the labourers. Globalization, in this sense, has created another kind of tension between the rich and the poor countries. The developed countries, more than ever before, are banging their doors shut on those seeking refuge or work. Since global concept of production is based on comparative advantage, production sectors within developing economies are losing the diversity of production and labour employed in subsistence production, which benefitted from the diversity of production, is forced to cross borders hiding in trucks and boats or clinging to lifeboats adrift in the oceans.

Within Africa both rural to urban and cross-border migration has been significant due to domestic economic reasons as well as due to colonization. Colonization crated new boundaries, divided communities and separated families and clans. These separations had the effect of increasing cross-border movement. Since the end of colonization, intra-regional migration in SADC includes temporary migration, including workers and seasonal migrants, permanent migration, forced migration and refugee or asylum-seekers. Refugees/Asylum-seekers usually come from politically unstable countries such as Angola, Mozambique and more recently from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as countries that do not belong to SADC.

Recent trends in migration are increasingly marked by movements linked to cross border-trading and related businesses and street vending, and less by formal employment because, as mentioned earlier, formal employment opportunities are becoming more and more demanding on skills.

Women as migrant labour:

The migrant labour endeavour is a double-edged sword for women. On the one hand, becoming a migrant labourer can mean the acquisition of new skills and uplifting one’s family and community financially, but on the other, women migrant workers expose themselves to several risks during this process.

While globalization may foster the acceleration of trade and investment, it does not create an environment that protects migrant workers’ economic, social and physical security. By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who provide safety nets that sustain communities at home. But here’s the flip-side of the story: Many of the smugglers of human-labour are part of a growing ring of sex-traffickers. Huge numbers of poverty-stricken girls and women accept the promise of a good job or forced into so-called marriages with financially well to do husband but find they have been tricked into sex work as has been revealed from several cases in the South Asia. Cases noted from Nepal and Philippines suggest that some girls are even sold to smugglers by poverty-stricken families who see them as their only hope for an escape from poverty. Most women trafficked for sex work come from Asia, but increasingly Eastern European women are also getting into ‘international sex trade’ due to the hardship created after the erosion of the social safety nets in their countries.

The chain of exploiters for migrant workers, especially those seeking unskilled jobs include the brokers who facilitate passport, etc, recruiters who find employers and help obtain visa, employers who secure work-permit, and migration officials. Migrant workers are often illiterate or semi-literate and often have limited knowledge about and access to information regarding their rights. Women migrant workers are vulnerable as women, and like the rest, as foreigners and as unskilled labourers, and are exposed to possible abuse and exploitation such as physical and social isolation, and sexual and physical violence. Countries, where the migrant workers migrate to, also resent them when they have to pay for medical and legal services required by the migrant workers.

Marginalization, racial discrimination and suspicion are all too well known to the migrant women workers. Some countries do racial profiling on grounds of suspicion of a threat to security or sex work. Many women, unable to understand the bureaucracy around migration, find themselves declared ‘illegal’ and in detention centres for months or even years at a time, imprisoned for reasons not known to them. Women and girls going for either domestic work or sex-work, are usually left high and dry by the brokers, recruiters or employers who take their passport and a large chunk of their income. It is not unknown to find cases of women migrant workers being kept imprisoned, unable to escape. When the police of the receiving country reaches them, women migrant workers are usually hesitant to speak out about abuses they suffer because of the fear of deportation or greater sense of economic insecurity.

Combinations of poverty, gender discrimination, abuse, armed conflict, HIV & AIDS and climate change push women to seek employment in other countries. Though there is no data to establish, migrant women have been noticed to be more likely to be divorced, separated or have been abandoned. Similarly, migrant women are also more likely to be widowed than men. The study of migration of women from SADC countries suggests that increasingly, women migrant workers are primary economic providers and heads of households. They often travel alone and need to return to migrant occupations repeatedly.

Key sectors in which women migrant workers are involved:

Image: Christian Aid
As far as unskilled of semiskilled women are concerned, women and girls from all over the world are recruited to be domestic workers. In Africa and Asia girls from rural areas are often expected to move to urban areas and become domestic workers in order to help support their families financially. In North America and Europe, women from South America and Asia and in the Middle-east, women and girls from South-east Asia and South Asia work in the homes of the rich sending money back home to their families abroad. Common experiences of domestic workers include low wages, long working hours, no time off, loneliness, verbal and sometimes physical abuse, being forced to wear uniforms and act in roles of servitude, heavy work demands, homesickness, the denial of a family life of one's own, racism, and vulnerability to sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS[4].

Many women are involved in cross border informal businesses, crossing borders for small periods of time or even daily. Their daily life, therefore, is marked by daily saga of exploitation and abuse.

Migrant women in SADC region, usually find employment as domestic workers or entertainers, or other fields that are not regulated by labour laws. The agricultural sector absorbs a large amount of migrant workers, but its seasonal nature does not make for a stable year-round income. Thus a combination of elements, such as local conflicts and global restructuring of work, result in an array of migration patterns in Southern Africa.

Women migrant workers and economic development:
Image: Christian Aid
Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — Ethiopians in diaspora sent a total of $591 million to Ethiopia in 2006, which is nearly 4.4% of Ethiopia's GDP and Eritrea received $411 million in remittance money, which amounts to 38% of Eritrea's GDP[5]. In Somalia, remittances are regarded as the ‘lifeline to survival’. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US$305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals[2].

Some women acquire new skills through their migrant occupations, which they use to contribute to both the host and their own countries’ economies. The sending and receiving countries benefit from the remittances women send and the productive investments they are able to make with their earned income. In households, which receive remittances, the bulk is utilized to cover basic needs and services, with differences depending on the country. Most remittances are spent on education in Zimbabwe (57%) and Mozambique (57%), while a significant portion is also spent on medicine in Zimbabwe (40%), Swaziland (39%) and Mozambique (31 %). Recipient households reported having contracted loans to purchase food, etc also use the remittance to pay-off debts. These examples suggest that the households of migrant women workers are highly dependent on external sources of income. In general, remittances seem to be protecting human development because they allow families to pay for education, health, electricity, water and other services, when they are not provided by the State. It can be said then that poverty reduction and community development could be aided by these remittances. Examples from Kerala in India shows that these benefits include improved local physical infrastructure, growth of local commodity markets, development of new services, changes to cultural practices that harm girl children and generation of local employment opportunities.

Migration and the UN:

The UN has adopted several conventions to protect migrant workers including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. However this convention is not in effect because it has not been signed by enough countries. There is also a UN protocol dealing with the rights of trafficked women and children under the International Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and the Optional Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

To learn More:

For more information on migrant workers see the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Fact Sheet on and violence against women migrant workers on   


[1] Enaskhi Dua. "Beyond Diversity: Exploring Ways in which the Discourse of Race has Shaped the Institution of the Nuclear Family" in Enashki Dua and Angela Robertson. Eds. Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Feminist Thought. Toronto: Women's Press, 1999. pp 237-260. Quoted in Helene Moussa "Global Surge in Forced Migration Linked to Colonial Past".
[2] United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM - now part of UN Women).
[3] United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW - now part of UN Women) and the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). “Gender, Migration and Remittances in Selected SADC Countries: Preliminary Findings”.The study focuses on cross-border migration to and from Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland, although it refers to other countries when there are notable trends, particularly related to the relatively unexplored subject of gender
[4] Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis. Not One of the Family: Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
[5] UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

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