This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Migration and development

Women migrant workers: seizing opportunities, upholding rights

Nearly half of the world’s migrants are women. Increasingly, migration provides them with opportunities to find better jobs. However, many still accept lower skilled jobs for higher pay and some may even become victims of exploitation and abuse. In partnership with the ILO, UN agencies and NGOs, the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women is holding the International Conference on Gender, Migration and Development in Manila on 25-26 September to focus on the issue. ILO migration specialist Gloria Moreno-Fontes Chammartin speaks about the link between migration, gender equality and development.

Article | 24 September 2008

ILO Online: How does migration impact women’s status in the world of work?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: For many the migration experience seems to play a role in modifying gender roles and women’s status and enhancing gender equality. Women who find employment abroad gain access to financial resources that permits them to influence how funds are used in the household. They can also experience more autonomy over household decisions.

ILO Online: Does this mean that migrant women also find better, decent jobs?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: Though migration may be empowering for many women migrants, such empowerment cannot be deemed automatic. A significant number of migrant women experience downward occupational mobility, de-skilling and a re-orientation away from paid work and towards the domestic sphere. Furthermore, too many women migrants still today experience extreme exploitation and abuse in situations of trafficking, bondage and slavery.

ILO Online: Are women particularly prone to become victims of trafficking?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: ILO estimates indicate that women and girls make up the overwhelming majority of those trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation (98 per cent) (Note 1). With regard to forced economic exploitation, while women and girls represent 56 per cent of victims, men and boys nevertheless account for 44 per cent. Since a larger number of women than men resort to the services of would be traffickers and end up in abusive and exploitative situations, experts in the field have called for anti-trafficking interventions to be gender-responsive and to address trafficking as a development issue at national and local levels.

ILO Online: What about labour exploitation?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: In general, violence, abuses and labour exploitation in male-dominated sectors are well-documented and more exposed since men usually work in groups in construction and agriculture. On the other hand, violence, abuses and exploitation against women migrant workers are less known since they occur in more invisible labour market situations such as the domestic sector and the entertainment industry.

ILO Online: Do women migrant workers also play an important role as domestic workers?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: Women migrant workers play essential roles in the labour markets and make valuable contributions to the economies and societies of receiving countries. They provide human resources in the paid economy – in jobs that national women do not want but that are essential and that allow a country to maintain its global competitiveness. They also play key roles in the care economy – in terms of household chores and the care of dependent children, the elderly, the infirm and the disabled – freeing national women to take up higher status and better paying jobs in the national economy.

ILO Online: What about women migrant workers’ rights?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: Women migrant workers are usually employed in jobs, that are not covered or inadequately covered by labour legislation or other social security or welfare provisions - even more so than those jobs occupied by their male counterparts. Domestic work is a typical example. The majority of countries’ labour laws still refer to domestic workers either to exclude them completely from their scope or to grant them lower levels of protection by depriving them of the rights accorded to other categories of workers.

ILO Online: Is the share of skilled migrant women rising?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: Recent reports indicate that the share of skilled emigrant women from most third world countries to almost all industrialized destination countries increased between 1990 and 2000 with the growth rates of skilled women emigrants always higher than the growth rates for unskilled women or skilled men. Indeed, emigration rates to industrialized countries of highly-skilled women (with tertiary education) often exceed those of their male counterparts. A worrying issue is the fact that most of these skilled and highly-skilled women migrants are leaving to find a better-paid job abroad, but end up in occupations below their qualifications.

ILO Online: What can be done at the national and international level to improve the situation of women migrant workers?

Gloria Moreno-Fontes: A very significant starting point is that policy-makers recognize the importance of integrating and mainstreaming labour migration issues in national employment, gender equality, labour market and development policies as key in maximizing opportunities and minimizing risks for the benefit of both origin and destination countries and for women and men migrants themselves.

This includes work in countries of origin on such policies and measures as: facilitating orderly migration, but always ensuring migrant workers’ protection abroad, as well as equal treatment and opportunities; signing and implementing bilateral agreements on recognition of diplomas, skills and competencies; signing and implementing gender sensitive social security agreements to ensure social security protection of men and women migrants abroad; and finally, monitoring recruitment to promote and enforce ethical recruitment practices.

At the same time, ensuring that migration policies and measures in countries of destination are gender responsive and can ensure greater gender equality and benefits for development.

For further information see: Migration, Gender Equality and Development, by Gloria Moreno-Fontes Chammartin, International Labour Office, 2008.

For more information on the Conference and the ILO role, please contact Minette Rimando on +632/580-9905 or

Note 1 – ILO, Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, 2008, Geneva.