Asian female migrant workers require protection, says ILO

Asian women, who constitute the fastest growing componenet of international migrant labour are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and require special protection, says an International Labour Organization report.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

ASIAN women are now the fastest growing category of international migrant workers and need special protection since, as migrants and non-national workers, they are particularly vulnerable to various forms of discrimination, exploitation and abuse, according to a study by the International Labour Organisation.

While media reports in recent periods have focused on extreme cases of abuse of Filipino and Sri Lankan maids, the study focuses on the 'more normal' daily work environment and exploitation of these workers, and the lack of adequate international instruments to safeguard these women.

The report suggests that the UN, its specialised agencies such as ILO and intergovernmental organisations and NGOs should take advantage of the momentum of growing concern over the plight of migrant female workers and promote more concerted actions to protect this vulnerable group.

Legal and illegal

According to the ILO report, about 1.5 million Asian women, both legal and illegal, are working abroad, with a large proportion of them in other Asian countries - the Gulf countries and the fast growing Asian economies of the East.

According to the countries of origin, there is an aggregate outflow of 800,000 female migrant workers a year.

Were it not for illegal recruitment agencies, overseas employment promoters, manpower suppliers and a host of other legal and illegal subsidiaries, Asian labour migration since the mid-1970s would not have reached such a massive scale,' the ILO says.

Job-placement agencies, it adds, can be useful in facilitating access to scarce overseas jobs, but they can be costly and abusive, as when agencies keep the passports of the women they place or charge exorbitant fees and provide loans to be paid from future earnings.

While migration provides productive labour and an economic lifeline for millions of Asian women, the dramatic plight of unprotected female migrant workers has become an increasing source of public concern as evidence of abuse mounts, the ILO study points out. The study points out that while, from a gender perspective, women should have equal opportunities in immigration and emigration policies and access to international labour markets, their status as migrants or non-nationals, and as workers in a gender-segregated labour markets, makes them particularly vulnerable to various forms of discrimination, exploitation and abuse.

They therefore require special protection, the ILO study by Lin Lean Lim and Nana Oishi says, but adds that the policy issues are complicated, not only because they involve questions of equality versus protection, but also because they cover both emigration and immigration policies and employment structures and labour laws of both sending and receiving countries.

Also involved are socio-cultural attitudes and perceptions concerning the role and status of women in family, society and work place - gender biases not easily amenable to direct policy intervention.


The main exporting countries of migrant women are Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The main receiving countries are the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei are also receiving countries.

In the 1970s, Asian women accounted for less than 15% of the Asian migrant workforce of 146,400; but by 1987, they comprised some 27% of the Asian workers who had left that year to work temporarily abroad. Today, the ILO says, the flow of women emigrants, both legal and illegal, equals or outnumbers those of men.

In the Philippines, women account for about 60% of legal migrant workers, excluding seafarers, and constitute about 94% of those destined for Asia, excluding the Middle East.

In Indonesia, of documented migrant workers, for every male migrant there are two females. In Thailand, women account for only about 25% of recorded workers leaving the country, but clandestine female migration is known to be significant and the number of Thai women emigrating is growing faster than that of men. In Sri Lanka, an airport survey shows that 84% of migrant workers were females, and of them 94% were domestic servants.

While the recorded data refers to legal labour migration, and only the part officially recorded as overseas employment migration, it does not cover women leaving a country legally for reasons other than work (for tourism or education) but end up in fact working at the destination. Nor does the data cover those leaving a country illegally to work in other countries.

For example, illegal Indonesian overseas contract workers are estimated to outnumber the legal by as many as 7 to 1, while Sri Lankans leaving through official channels are about 40% of total migrants.

Increasing demand

While their numbers are not large, women from other Asian countries too are migrants. There could be close to 100,000 Indian women working in the Middle East, and there is also evidence of illegal emigration of women for domestic work in Singapore or Hong Kong. Though the ban on migrant women workers was lifted in Bangladesh only in 1991, Bangladeshi women are also working as domestic labour not only in India and Pakistan, but also in Hong Kong and the Middle East.

Asian women also migrate to work overseas as nurses, doctors, teachers and secretaries. They go not only to the main labour-importing countries in Asia and the Middle East, but also to the traditional receiving countries and Europe. They come not only from the traditional labour-exporting countries, but also from Malaysia, Singapore and even Japan - some 1,500 single Japanese women are known to be working in administrative and professional jobs in Hong Kong.

'Public policy in most Asian countries is now oriented towards diminishing the flows of migrant women workers, but the demand for them in receiving countries is increasing and agencies are proliferating to meet that demand,' says Lin Lean Lim, a co-author of the report.


The dilemma facing policy makers, to restrict or regulate emigration, is complicated because regulation often drives the process underground. The effectiveness of measures by labour-exporting countries is minimal if legislation and labour standards are poor in receiving countries.

'Once migrants leave their home country,' says Nana Oishi the co-author, 'the protection their own governments can provide is very limited.'

Most receiving countries in Asia and the Middle East do not allow the migrant women workers to come with their families, and so the women have to emigrate in their own right. The residence permit of these workers is linked to their employment, and subject to restrictions.

Foreign domestic maids in a number of Asian countries can't change jobs within two years of an employment contract. In some countries, for example, Singapore, migrant women are prohibited from marrying local citizens. They are not allowed to become pregnant, and are subject to six-monthly pregnancy tests, says the study.

Asian female migrant labour supply has been very flexible, relative to men or female migrants from other parts of the world. They respond quickly to changing labour markets overseas. Often they leave their family and home to become income-earners for their families and important foreign exchange contributors for their countries.

The migration is often a family survival strategy in the face of negative effects of the structural adjustment programmes in their home countries.

A crucial role of the predominance of Asian women in international labour migration has been the active role of sending governments in promoting such flows. And but for recruitment agents, overseas employment promoters, manpower suppliers and a host of legal and illegal intermediaries, Asian labour migration would not have reached the present massive scale.

The ILO reports that study after study has highlighted the plight of female migrants in the female-dominated occupations: domestic workers, entertainment industry (often a euphemism for prostitutes), helpers in restaurants and hotels, assembly-line work in labour-intensive manufacturing. All such jobs are at the bottom of the occupation hierarchy, generally shunned by local women because of low rewards, inferior working conditions and limited job prospects and security.

Filipino, Thai and Sri Lankan women have also gone as 'mail order brides to Europe, Australia, New Zealand or even Japan'.

Unfair labour conditions

Outlining the particular vulnerability to abuse of women migrants in domestic service and prostitution, the report notes that the domestic worker often embarks on an overseas stint holding on to a domestic helper contract which is more often than not violated or substituted on arrival with discriminatory and unfair labour conditions. Domestic workers are often paid sub-standard salaries, which are sometimes delayed or withheld; there are no days-off, food is inadequate, accommodation unsafe and uncomfortable, medical benefits are denied.

There have been innumerable cases of sexual harassment and abuse, excessive workload and income-related exploitation - a major proportion of their earnings is siphoned off to intermediaries.

Female workers in domestic service or entertainment services are particularly vulnerable since they go into individualised work situations involving greater isolation and lower level of social support networks.

The report also highlights the downgrading or waste of human capital involved. Of Filipino women tending to migrate abroad to work as domestic servants, 36% were found to be either college graduates or under-graduates. For a better income abroad, they under-state their qualifications to get the jobs. In the host countries they cannot shift jobs to move to a higher skilled category, but those with higher skills may end up in lower jobs - nurses for example, being forced into domestic service.

While Asian sending countries have played an active role in promoting labour exports, in the final analysis it is more a demand-driven rather than supply-driven phenomenon. The demand from receiving countries for female migrants - domestic workers, nurses or teachers - is more stable than for construction workers. The female migrants are a more reliable source of foreign exchange remittances.


But sending countries have now come under increasing pressure to protect their workers abroad.

But with more sending countries entering the labour export market, there is competition among them while receiving countries have wider choices and cheaper sources of labour.

Fearing loss of their market share, labour-exporting countries in Asia have contribution to the 'further institutionalisation of low wages for "female" jobs by establishing that the minimum standard wage that the overseas employer must pay could be lower for women than for men.'

But while Pakistan has been willing to deregulate the labour market towards this end, India has been averse to doing away with minimum wage requirements. The view that removal of minimum wage limits will make Indian workers more competitive is seen as illusory, and the authorities are against a 'wild export drive' that would cause social problems to workers abroad and families at home.

Many Asian countries have developed restrictions on overseas employment - partly to keep certain skilled workers at home and partly to protect vulnerable workers from abuses and exploitation abroad.

But governments in imposing restrictions have had to be careful to ensure that they do not end up motivating women and men to use illegal channels for emigration.

Countries in South Asia have tended to be relatively restrictive in sending female workers abroad. Of South Asian countries Sri Lanka has been most lax in regulations on emigration of women.

But a policy of restricting female migration has its limited effectiveness, the study notes, since bans only increase illegal migration, making the women migrating more vulnerable.

Sending countries have been adopting national, bilateral and multilateral efforts to protect their workers abroad.

Political sensitivity

Bilaterally, sending countries enter into agreements with receiving countries to protect their migrant workers - through operational agreements which are more difficult since it involves commitment from the receiving country; framework agreements or memorandum of understanding whose effectiveness is considerably limited.

In addition, the report suggests, both governments have to cooperate to reduce illegal migration, and impose harsher penalties on illegal recruitment agencies and unscrupulous employers.

As for multilateral approaches, the study notes that the political sensitivity of the issue has prevented a regional dialogue in Asia. There has also not been solidarity among sending countries for fear of losing their 'market share' to others, especially in the context of the current global downturn.

The ILO has established some conventions and recommendations: the 1949 Migration for Employment, and the 1975 Migrant Workers Convention and recommendations. There are also other conventions of relevance: the 1925 Equality of Treatment, the 1962 Social Security, the 1982 Maintenance of Social Security Rights and the 1987 one of Social Security for Seafarers.

Although the UN in 1990 adopted an International Convention on Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, that Convention has not yet come into force. It needs 20 ratifications for entry into force, and as of July 1995 there had only been five ratifications - Egypt, Colombia, Morocco, the Philippines and Seychelles. Mexico and Chile have signed, but not ratified it.

No enforcement mechanism

But none of the international instruments specifically cover the plight of female migrant workers. They also have a number of limitations, for example, the supervisory mechanisms function only for those who have ratified a convention. Neither the ILO nor the UN have an enforcement mechanism - beyond collective political pressure.

The report suggests recourse to other measures, including educating potential migrants and ensuring availability of information, including encouraging returning migrants to talk about their experiences and use of the mass media.

Another is fuller and more effective use of NGOs. Sending countries should also seek more active cooperation and networking with NGOs in receiving countries, maintaining strong ties with them through their embassies and consulates.

There should also be more concerted international action including for inter alia, specific measures to protect migrant workers by UN member states (including measures to regulate recruitment agencies); the provision of legal, social and education outreach to migrant women; the deployment of trained female police officers and protection from abuse by male officers; the training embassy personnel; better enforcement of local laws; and for the involvement of trade unions. (Third World Resurgence No. 67, March 1996)

Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) from which this article first appeared.