Women migrant workers from developing countries

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Since the later 20th century, there has been substantial labour migration from developing countries to high-income countries. This has included a substantial portion of female migrants. Studies on women migrant workers in high-income countries tend to focus on their employment in domestic work and care work for dual-income families.

In the early 2000s, a sharp increase of the proportion of women among the emigrants from certain countries was observed, specifically emigrants from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines as well as Latin American countries.[1]


Although "South-South migration" (migration between developing countries) is generally more substantial than migration from developing to high-income countries, the World Bank estimates that there are about 73 million migrants from developing countries living in high-income OECD countries; about half of them are female and half of them are male.[2]

The 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in women migrant laborers to France and Belgium.[citation needed] In Europe there were three million women migrant workers in the 1990s.[citation needed] Since then, the number of immigrants to Europe has continually increased, among other things due to a higher demand for care work for multi-income families.[3] In 2005, 191 million international migrant workers registered, and 94.5 million were women.[citation needed]

Women migrants work in domestic occupations that are considered part of the informal sector and lack a degree of government regulation and protection. Lourdes Beneria, a feminist economist, argues that the demand for care work in Europe in the 1990s and 2000s have brought young Latinas to countries, like Spain, to provide care work for the aging population. The demand for these workers has risen because an increasing number of European women are moving toward the formal sector of work, and leaving their domestic duties for hire.

Women leaving their country of origin are often considered to be temporary migrants. They leave for an unknown amount of time, but intend to return to their homeland after they have made and saved enough money. Given that women are statistically better at saving their capital gains, they are becoming more and more economically significant to the capital gains of their country of origin.[4] This can be measured through remittances and how much is sent back to the country of origin. Documentaries, such as Letters from the Other Side, illustrate that after some time, remittances may cease due to new responsibilities or new circumstances on the migrant workers abroad.[5]

Economic impacts and the impact of women working abroad has both negative and positive impacts upon the traditional family roles, children, and gender roles. Not only do migrant workers globalize the domestic workforce, it also broadens the impact of women on the global economy. Remittances by women migrant workers help bolster the GDPs of their countries of origin.

Feminization of migration[edit]

Although migration patterns have changed dramatically over the past 50 years in many respects, the overall percentage of women has remained stable. But when limiting the statistics to the international migrant population, it has been found that the number of women who migrate for work has increased "to over half the international migrant population".[clarification needed][6]

The term "feminization of migration" has been coined[according to whom?][year needed] to refer to a supposed increase in the proportion of female migrant workers.[citation needed]

These women often end up in gender-segregated positions of low status, because they are often unskilled and uneducated.[citation needed] In addition to this, "women migrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, a multimillion-dollar business." [7]

Many women in Latin America respond to demands created in Europe, especially Spain, to work as care workers for dual income houses (Beneria 2008). This demand is created by the increase in European women moving from their traditional household labors to the market work, where they can contribute to the bottom line.

Lack of education is a key factor. Limited education can force those with lack of skills to move to a foreign country to help support their family, but often these situations do not promote equality, but rather exploitation.[8]

Manufacturing workers[edit]

Women in China aka rural to urban migration[edit]

The young girls are sent to the cities to work for factories, where they work for low wages, and are often unpaid for quite some time.[9] Their value on the farm is unseen, and the families need money. The documentary China Blue, elucidates this situation well, and gives insight into the treatment and conditions in which these young Chinese women live.[9] Many of the laborers are migrant workers that travel from the countryside to the city to find work, and as seen in China Blue, these workers are often underpaid, and have strict regulations from being in the city. In both the article and the film, the factory controls the migrant workers, and the city provides legislation and/or policy that the factories must house them. By having dormitories onsite, the factory is almost its own little city. It provides food, shelter, and because they control every portion of the laborers life, they can force them to work late, and penalize them for bad behavior, or not meeting their quotas.

According to Ngai, the dormitory system is also stressful on these migrant workers as it removes them from their families.[10] Isolation and maltreatment in the form of cheap labor is how China expects to compete globally. The force their workers to work long hours, subsidize their living expenses, and keep their wages low. There seems to be a force dependency upon the work.

Burmese in Thailand[edit]

Ruth Pearson discusses the millions of Burmese women migrate into Thailand each year, and basically makeup the agricultural and manufacturing workforce. The Burmese who migrate are mostly undocumented, and there is very little regulation of the migration. These workers, more than half of which are women, are considered to be disposable, and receive aggression from the government and police forces in Thailand. The Thai manufacturing and agricultural businesses are far more dependent upon the Burmese migrants due to their low pay, and the amount of work that they can demand from them.[11]

Care workers[edit]

The most common work found by women migrant workers is in domestic care. 60% of Latin American women migrants are domestic employees in their host country.[1] In Spain 70% of all women migrants find jobs in this sector. Furthering the increase in women migrants from Latin America: in 2001, 70% of Brazilian and Dominican migrant workers going to Spain were women (FIDH). Domestic workers, who are employed by private households as nannies, caring for elderly or sick family members, maid/household services. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that care workers are more prevalent in developing countries than developed countries, about an 8% difference.[12] Many of these positions require that women stay with the families that hire them on. Which makes exploitation and abuse are highly likely in these situations, given that the work is often unregulated, and there is no real way to track the payment, or living conditions. Some of these care workers are illegal, and undocumented, furthering the issue.

De Parle shows through anecdote that a man from Manila was gone for twenty years to provide for his family.[13] However, this man's family learned from his example, all five of his children became migrant workers to live. Migrant workers make about 10x the amount of wages as they could domestically. There is often a dramatic need that motivates these workers to move abroad. Given that 1 in every 7 Filipino is a migrant worker, there is a hero complex associated with their willingness to leave their families and send remittances from their pay. Though these remittances do not cover the social costs and familial costs these workers face. Many children don’t recognize their parents, and grow up not knowing their closest family members. They receive the "red carpet treatment" and are often the recipients of various gifts from companies that celebrate them. Though there are some protections for families so that there is no family “left behind,” there is still the propensity that the remittances and migrant work has more of a negative effect on family dynamics. Though the situations for the children, in growth terms have improved, money is not a replacement parent.

Consequences and aid[edit]

Cheng states that there is an isolation of women who work abroad even within their own social circles. This discourages support systems, and often puts these women in even more vulnerable positions, placing more dependency on the family structure, and the household where they are employed. The first years wages are used to secure their place in their new job, and from there on out, the isolation of the household keeps the women obedient.[14]

Authors Tonya Basok and Nicola Piper discuss the global governance of international migration efforts undertaken by the non-governmental organizations trying to protect the rights of Latin Americans and those from the Caribbean moving to Europe. They argue that though the management of trafficking the women to and from their country of origin has improved, and the management labor rights abroad is difficult due to the lack of rights promotions as opposed to management efforts.[15]

Women who leave their homes in search of work abroad often leave their duties to another member of the family, or even the children. Often it is the female children, or another woman who assumes responsibility for these duties, further integrating a gendered role of domestic work, and perpetuating the cycle of traditional gender roles.

UNIFEM (now UN Women) is a branch of the United Nations dedicated to the support and defense of women workers. As the advent of migrant work has become more prevalent among women, UNIFEM has had to help keep their rights protected. This includes establishing human rights standard, timely payment, rest days, medical care, and investigation into housing. They have promoted several laws similar to the a law on the Protection of Migrant Women in Indonesia. Their goal is to make a universal code of ethics and treatment for all those engaging in migration for work or other reasons.[6]

Gender protections in migrant work has become a necessity, given the exploitation of migrant women and the propensity of sex trafficking, once they arrive in their destination country. As many women in these positions are either involved in the sex trade, or in domestic care, they are prone to abuse.


Economically, women enter the market to help support the family and the home in the country they have left behind. Women migrant laborers are often only skilled to work at factory or care work positions. The economic effect these migrant workers have on the domestic and foreign economies varies, and there is too little data to be analyzed to make any conclusive argument to the impact it has upon them. However, the impact can be seen through the continued globalization and monetary exchange, and the remittances by women.[4] "Remittances have had significant macro economic effects in several countries of origin in coping with trade deficits, reducing pressure on local currency, reducing external debt etc." This means that a major source of capital for developing countries are the wages sent home by these women.[7] "Formal remittance transfers of some $150 billion were reported in 2004. Possibly twice this amount was transferred informally. These financial transfers are growing in significance. In many countries, they are larger than either development assistance or foreign direct investment."

Rosenwarne argues that the lack of temporary migrant laws is a hindrance to the continual flow of remittances. Countries GDPs are becoming dependent on the flow of these remittances, as well as the families that receive them. There are various limitations though. Women traditionally have a more difficult time finding temporary employment due to their lack of education and the availability of jobs, and the laws to support them abroad.[16]

Changing gender roles[edit]

Some women migrate in order to escape oppressive gender roles leaving their home and obtaining increased economic independence and freedom, which challenge traditional gender roles. This can be seen to strengthen women's position in the family by improving their relative bargaining position. They have more leverage in controlling the household because they have control over a degree of economic assets, depending on their situation in their new economic situation. Gender roles often follow women from their rural or domestic environment to the labor they are allowed to participate in. It can have a stratifying effect on their work and social life. Jie-Yu Lui states that social roles follow migrant workers in their new environments. There is a strong connect to a woman's role in their rural life to their new life in the urban city or foreign country. They accept the treatment they receive because it is normalized by their traditional and domestic roles, i.e. their roles in their home, as homemaker and houseworker.[17]

Beneria says that the gender roles are changing more and more as women are leaving their families from Latin America, and moving to be domestic care workers in Western Europe.[3] The people of Europe create the demand as they are focused on providing income, and have to balance their domestic duties with theirs market work. She uses the argument that women's choice to leave and provide remittances for their families, provides a role reversal for the family as a whole, as well a new gender category. Given that most migrant workers work in the care field, their traditional roles are reinforced, and their traditional role with their family is the same. Their absence from their homes may cause resentful feelings from their children, but this dependent on the presence of family. She closes by saying that the reconciliation policy is affected by the availability of migrant care workers, who help balance the domestic and market work in more developed countries. If there are solutions that don't require policy changes, the governments are prone to use these examples as reasons against such policy change.

There is also a risk for infidelity abroad, which also erodes the family structure.[13]

Extortion and abuse experienced by migrant workers[edit]

Women migrant workers are often mistreated and isolated by their employers, particularly in the Middle East (IOM). Domestic workers experience this isolation, and become dependent upon their employers. They can be physically abused, as well as psychologically. Dependency and insecurity of their work makes extortion possible.[18] Women also are raped and sexually harassed while abroad, and are vulnerable to sex trafficking.

Care work deficit in country of origin[edit]

With the trend of women migrant labor, the absence of women, in particular mothers, leaves a deficit in family life. When women leave to provide for their families, the role of mother or care taker, falls to the other female members of the family. This can be the eldest daughter, aunts, or even further extended family members. These kin help with the domestic duties and childrearing for the parent(s) abroad, but the absence of the parents spark a trend and a cycle within the family.

Children's education falters due to lack of supervision and parental support."despite parents’ effort of remaining in touch via telephone, contact may be irregular and sometimes falls short of meaningful exchange between parent and child" (Suarez-Orozco, Todorova and Louie, 2002).[19] The reunion of these families leaves children isolated from their parents, and makes the women strangers from their children.


  1. ^ a b "Worldwide Human Rights Movement" (PDF). [unreliable source?]
  2. ^ these numbers include both refugees and migrant workers. Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011.
  3. ^ a b Beneria, Lourdes (2008). "The crisis of care, international migration, and public policy". Feminist Economics. 14 (3): 1–21. doi:10.1080/13545700802081984. 
  4. ^ a b "Women Migrant Workers Capacity and Contribution" (PDF). 
  5. ^ Courtney, Heather, dir. Letters from the Other Side. Side street Films, 2006. Film.
  6. ^ a b "Women migrant Workers". Archived from the original on December 19, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b "Migration: a world on the move." United Nations Population Fund". 
  8. ^ Hunga, Arianti Ina (1998). "The Social-Economy Impacts of Women Migrant Workers on their Families and Communities". A Case Study in Waru Doyong Village, Central Java, Indonesia. 4: 144–162. 
  9. ^ a b Peled, Micah (2005). "dir. China Blue". 
  10. ^ Ngai, Pun (2007). "Gendering the dormitory labor system: production, reproduction, and migrant labor in south China". Feminist Economics. 13 (3): 239–258. doi:10.1080/13545700701439465. 
  11. ^ Pearson, Ruth; Kusakabe, Kyoko. Thailand's Hidden Workforce : Burmese Migrant Women Factory Workers. London: Zed Books, 2012.
  12. ^ Bachelet, Michelle (2011). "Gender and migration: Care Workers at the Interface of Migration and Development". 
  13. ^ a b de Parle, Jason. "A Good Provider is One Who Leaves" (PDF). pp. 50–74. New York Times Magazine. 
  14. ^ Cheng, SJ (1996). "Migrant Women domestic workers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan: a comparative analysis". Asian Pac Migr J. 5 (1): 139–152. PMID 12291761. 
  15. ^ Basok, Tonya & Nicola Piper (2012). "Management Versus Rights: Women's Migration and Global Governance in Latin America and the Caribbean". Feminist Economics. 18 (2): 35–61. doi:10.1080/13545701.2012.690525. 
  16. ^ Rosewarne, Stuart (2012). "Temporary International Labor Migration and Development in South and Southeast Asia". Feminist Economics. 18 (2): 63–90. doi:10.1080/13545701.2012.696314. 
  17. ^ Liu, Jie-yu (2007). "Gender Dynamics and Redundancy in Urban China". Feminist Economics. 13 (3-4): 125–158. doi:10.1080/13545700701445322. 
  18. ^ "International Organization for Migration (IOM) 1995 Staff and Programme Policies on Gender Issues, adopted at the Seventy-first Session of the Council 2006 Breaking the Cycle of Vulnerability. Responding to the Health Needs of Trafficked Women in East and Southern Africa". 
  19. ^ Suarez-Orozco, C., Todorova, I., & Louie, J (2002). "Making up for lost time: The experience of separation and reunification among immigrant families". Family Process. 41 (4): 625–643. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2002.00625.x. PMID 12613121.