Asian Women Migrants: Going the Distance, But Not Far Enough
By Maruja M.B. Asis
March 1, 2003
In some parts of Asia, such as the Southeast, journeying was traditionally a male preserve. Those returning could expect not only a warm welcome but also an esteemed place in the community, as the completion of a journey gave them a badge of honor. In more recent times, particularly in the last 30 years, journeying in Asia has meant international labor migration, initially to the Gulf countries in the 1970s, and to the dragon economies in Asia from the 1980s. And men are not the only ones engaged in it.
In the beginning, labor migration involved mostly men from South, East, and Southeast Asia availing themselves of job opportunities in the Gulf countries. The slowing down of infrastructure projects, the second oil crisis in 1979, and the changing labor needs of the Gulf countries resulted in a lower demand for male workers and an emerging need for female workers to fill the demand for medical personnel, maintenance workers, and domestic workers.
At about the same time, the expanding economies of Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Thailand became new destinations for migrant workers in the region. Since then, labor migration within the region has increased tremendously. The number has climbed from about a million migrant workers in the major receiving countries at the start of the 1980s to at least 6.5 million at this time, including both legal and unauthorized migrant workers.
What unfolded in the Asian region is a gendered migration process: male migration in response to the requirements of industrialization (construction and manufacturing; plantation work in Malaysia), and female migration in response to the shortage of domestic and childcare workers (with Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan as major destinations in East and Southeast Asia). In the past 30 years, most female migrants have come from three countries: the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. In these three countries, women comprise some 60 to 80 percent of migrants legally deployed every year. Legal migration from Indonesia and Sri Lanka is dominated by women who take up domestic work in Middle Eastern countries, with Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as other secondary destinations.
In the Philippines, female migrants began to outnumber male migrants after 1992; moreover, although the majority are in domestic services and a large number are in entertainment work, there are also women taking up professional, clerical, sales, and production work. Compared with their counterparts from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Filipino women migrants are found in all the world's regions. Thailand and Burma are also major countries of origin of female migrants, but these are mostly unauthorized flows. Other countries of origin — Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan — do not allow or have very restrictive regulations concerning female emigration, which their governments consider fraught with danger. Nonetheless, female migration does occur, but through irregular channels (including trafficking), resulting in even greater dangers and risks to women and girls on the move.
The participation of women in migration has raised both prospects and pains. The fact that women are migrating on their own rather than as part of family migration seems to suggest greater freedom and choice. However, their concentration in vulnerable sectors has generated much debate on how migration can have a positive impact on women's lives. Both domestic work and entertainment are not covered by labor laws in many countries, hence women's working and living conditions are very much dependent on the "charity" of their employers. In the case of entertainers, the dangers include being pushed into prostitution, violence, and run-ins with criminal elements.
From the time female migration has become visible, the protection issues raised have been the same issues that migrants and migrant advocates fight for today: minimum wages, adherence to basic protection standards, and protection from brokers and agents in source countries who often charge migrants excessive fees. For the most part, however, women migrants cope with their situation by tapping their own strengths, relying on the support of their networks, and accessing non-governmental organizations' assistance where available.
Responses to Women Migrants
Although female migrants face many challenges, the phenomenon is not likely to fade away. Unlike male migration, which is subject to variable economic conditions, female migration has proven not only to be stable but also resilient in the face of economic changes. Countries of origin and countries of destination have different perspectives and responses to this durable phenomenon.
The volume of remittances and the employment generated by labor migration weaken the resolve of countries of origin to demand better wage scales and labor rights, which would lessen their workers' competitiveness. The revenues of some source countries — $6 billion for the Philippines in 2002 and about $1 billion for Indonesia and Sri Lanka — have also, to some extent, encouraged a degree of national economic dependency that discourages concern about the social costs of massive outflows of citizens. For similar reasons, the initial hopes harbored by most source countries that labor migration could be temporary has faded.
For their part, all countries of destination in Asia have insisted on keeping labor migration temporary. In contrast, highly skilled and professional workers are welcomed. Some countries, like Japan and South Korea, maintain an official policy not to admit less-skilled workers. In most destination countries, foreign workers are held to contracts of limited duration, usually two years. Some countries (e.g., Singapore and Malaysia) establish levies on the hiring of foreign workers to discourage dependence on cheap migrant labor. When the economy falters, such as the 1997 economic crisis in the region, countries of destination may decide to repatriate migrant workers to make way for local labor.
In some ways the women-dominated domestic and family work sector has proved more resistant to such measures. While the period post-1997 saw a temporary decline in demand for migrant workers in construction and manufacturing, the demand for foreign domestic workers was unchanged. Studies conducted in some countries of destination have suggested that families and households have become dependent on foreign domestic workers. This is the major reason why government policies to limit the hiring of foreign domestic workers have not made a dent. Prospects of declining and aging populations in the advanced economies foreshadow continuing demand for migrants, including migrants to care for the elderly.
Women's migration reflects how globalization has affected and reordered family life. By taking care of all things domestic, women migrants make it possible for local women to take up paid work outside the home. Despite their contributions to their host countries, women migrants are not generally assured of basic protection. As part of the efforts of some countries to ensure that migration is temporary, women migrants cannot easily change employers, even if their conditions are far from satisfactory. Nor can they move to a different job outside of domestic work. In some countries, there is a perception that migrant women childcare workers could have a negative cultural impact on their wards. This includes the concern that children could become closer to their nannies than they are to their own parents. At best, women migrants receive an ambivalent welcome.
Also hidden from the picture are other costs that are shouldered by families in the countries of origin. Sociologist Rhacel Parreñas has observed that, as "servants of globalization," women migrants, in turn, transfer their caregiving responsibilities to other female family members or other less-privileged women in the countries of origin. In the process, while migrant women contribute to making family life more comfortable and easier for their employers, they are separated from their own families, who have to fend for themselves.
Up until now, labor migration has been a very inequitable process. It does not have to be. Countries in the region can foster more cooperation to make migration more humane and more equitable. This cooperation is critical in view of the increasing incidence of unauthorized migration and trafficking in people, especially women and children. In recent years, concerns about trafficking have resulted in regional discussions to curb this business, which channels women into roles as sex workers, brides, or forced labor. Ideally, such regional cooperation on trafficking could lay the groundwork for more cooperation on labor migration as a whole. One fundamental change will involve viewing migrants not just as workers but also as human beings. Another will be valuing reproductive work or care work as very important to human and social life, and as work that should be shared by women and men alike.
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Maruja M.B. Asis is a sociologist whose major field of interest is the phenomenon of population mobility in Asia. She is Director for Research and Publications at the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila.
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