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Female Asian Migrants: a Growing But Increasingly Vulnerable Workforce


Press release | 05 February 1996


GENEVA (ILO News) - Asian women make up the fastest-growing category of the world's burgeoning, 35-million plus population of migrant workers. Asia is also the scene of a booming "migration industry," which operates both legally and illegally, providing contract labour to some of the world's wealthiest and most dynamic economies, often at a high human cost.

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 abuses mounts. An ILO report on the status of Asian migrant women concludes that efforts by sending countries to improve their working conditions are limited in their effectiveness and that more government and international efforts are necessary to guarantee the basic human rights of this vulnerable group Endnote1.

"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 report notes. The ILO warns that while job-placement agencies can be useful in facilitating access to scarce overseas jobs, they can also 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.

Approximately 1.5 million Asian women, both legal and illegal, are working abroad. The countries of origin report an aggregate outflow of 800,000 female migrant workers per year, and the number is increasing steadily.

The study notes that during the 1970s women accounted for only about 15 percent of the Asian migrant workforce. By the 1980s approximately 25 percent of overseas contract workers were women, and today the flow of women emigrants, both legal and illegal, often equals or outnumbers those of men.

In the Philippines, women account for about 60 percent of legal migrant workers (excluding seafarers), and this figure rises to 94 percent for those destined for Asia, excluding the Middle East. In Indonesia, documented flows show two female migrants for every male migrant. In Thailand, women account for only about 25 percent of the recorded workers leaving the country for overseas employment, but clandestine female migration is known to be significant and the number of Thai women emigrating is increasing faster than that of men. An airport survey in Sri Lanka revealed that 84 percent of migrant workers were females, of whom the vast majority, 94 percent, were domestic servants.

The main sending 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.

"Public policy in most Asian countries is now oriented toward 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 Lim, one of the report's co-authors. The dilemma facing policy makers attempting to restrict or regulate emigration is complicated because regulation often drives the process further underground. Moreover, the effectiveness of measures by labour sending countries is minimal if legislation and labour standards are poor in receiving countries. "Once migrants leave their home country," says Nana Oishi, an ILO researcher, "the protection their own governments can provide is very limited."

Women usually must emigrate in their own right, as autonomous migrants, because the receiving countries in Asian and the Middle East generally do not allow families in. The right to residence is usually linked to employment, which is subject to restrictions. For example, foreign domestic maids in a number of Asian countries are often not allowed to change jobs within two years of their employment contract. Migrant women workers are prohibited from marrying with local citizens; they are not allowed to become pregnant, and some countries can even subject them to pregnancy tests every six months.

Among the industries fuelling demand for Asian females one of them, "entertainment," is frequently a euphemism for prostitution. Outright prostitution is widespread, and forced prostitution, in which women are contracted to work legitimate jobs but are then forced into prostitution is a sinister but frequent practice. The report notes that domestic service and entertainment are frequently not covered by labour laws or social-security regulations in most receiving countries and that even where they are, enforcement of workers' rights is difficult. As for prostitution, even in countries where it is a legalised profession, female migrant prostitutes can expect little in the way of official protection. Women in any occupation who enter countries illegally or overstay their visas are subject to exploitation, but so-called "entertainers" are particularly vulnerable.

The report cites several reasons for so many women emigrating, such as large wage differentials between sending and receiving countries, the increasing economic burden of women as male unemployment rises and the existence of large overseas social networks that facilitate migration. In many cases, reductions in demand for male labour, due to economic slowdowns in receiving countries, spur female emigration. Women increasingly migrate to support their families, especially since the demand for maids and nurses continues to increase. Sending countries find it difficult to staunch flows of domestic labour due to the economic benefits in the form of reduced domestic unemployment and remittance income.

Parallel to the legitimate emigration industries are well-organised underground syndicates engaged in lucrative smuggling of immigrants. Due to the high costs and time-consuming procedures governing legal immigration, it is often the most desperate, and hence vulnerable, migrants who choose this path: women are frequent victims. The criminal nature of this activity only increases the likelihood of exploitation and further distances the migrant worker from legal recourse or official protection.

The ILO report highlights the need for increased bilateral and multilateral aid between receiving and sending countries and for the strict enforcement of domestic laws and observance of international labour standards. It also recognises the vital importance of efforts to reduce the volume of illegal migration, which in some countries accounts for well over half of total migration flows.

On a national level, countries should put more emphasis on providing potential emigrants with reliable and accurate information as to what they can expect in their overseas jobs. Where possible, the migrants themselves should be aided and encouraged to develop their own support structures and networks.

The report notes that in the absence of new regional or international initiatives, international labour standards assume greater significance. Migrant-specific ILO Conventions include N° 97 (Migration for Employment, 1949), which is designed to assist migrants and secure equality of treatment between nationals and non-nationals; Convention N° 143 (Migrant Workers 1975) calls upon Governments to respect the basic human rights of all migrant workers, male and female, to prevent clandestine migration for employment and stop manpower trafficking activities. Other relevant Conventions include N° 19 (Equality of Treatment, 1925), N° 29 (Forced Labour, 1930), N° 105 (Abolition of Forced Labour, 1957) and N° 118 and N° 157 (on Social Security, 1962 and Maintenance of Social Security Rights, 1982).



*/ International Labour Migration of Asian Women: Distinctive Characteristics and Policy Concerns by Lin Lean Lim (ILO Labour Market Policies Branch) and Nana Oishi (ILO Migration for Employment Branch), 1996, International Labour Office, Geneva.