Asian Women in International Migration

Abstract: Asian labour migration has undergone some major and dramatic changes since the early eighties. Overall, geographic mobility within Asia has increased enormously and the population flow levels of Asia are amongst the highest in the world. More specifically, the very model of migrant choice appears to have fundamentally changed. My goal in this paper is to link some of the macro level changes to insights derived from my micro level case studies of the lives of migrant workers. Before discussing the characteristics of the intra continental migratory movements in Asia that sets it apart from migration elsewhere, I flag two interesting features of these migratory patterns that have emerged in recent years. One is the direction of movement of migrant workers and the other is the presence of women in these movements.

Keywords: Intra-Asian migration, intra continental migratory movements, Asian Women domestics, outflow of migrant workers, migration flows to the Middle East, Labour import-export, illegal workers, women migrant workers, migration patterns

Direction of the Movement:

Over the past three decades, there has been a shift in the direction of migratory flows. Starting in the 1970s, migration to the industralised West, no longer dominated the picture. Instead, the movement was more in the direction of other Asian countries. Initially, this flow was primarily from the poorer Asian countries with oversupplies of labour, like India and Pakistan, but later many other Asian countries were also involved in the export of labour to the Middle East. But in the most recent decade, that flow has also changed and there is now a much broader pattern of Intra-Asian migration.

Between the years 1975 and 1990 the number of emigrants to the seven states of the Gulf Cooperation Council rose from 1.1 million to 5.2 million between 1975 and 1990 (Stalker 2000). At the same time, the volume of labour migration within the Asian regions was growing, along with rapid economic growth in East Asia and emergence of newly industrialising economies such as Malaysia and Thailand. According to ILO estimates, there were approximately 6.5 million foreign workers in 1997 in seven Asian countries or areas- Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, South Asia remained and remains heavily dependent on the Middle East as a source of employment for its migrants.

Table 1: Outflow of Migrant Workers, Selected Years (Thousands)




































Sri Lanka










Source: Piyasiri Wickramasekera, ILO (2002)

If we look at the overall flows as presented in Table 1 we see that between the years 1978 and 1998 the number of workers rose by (314.5 to 2034.6) six times and every country is sending a multiple of that it had sent in 1978.

The migration movement initially started with an exodus to Middle Eastern countries. After the dramatic increase in oil prices in the early seventies, demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers rose in the Middle East. Workers from all over Asia, were recruited in large numbers to participate in the various development projects that governments in the region took up. The Asian labour exported to the Middle East initially came from the nearby Arab countries, after that, from South Asia and later, from South East Asia. This movement consisted predominantly of male workers with low to no skills. Because of the Middle East’s relatively high wage rates, there was migration from all over Asia, Japan being a prominent exception.

As can be seen from Table 2 given below, until the early 1990s, more than ninety percent of the workers, particularly from south Asia, were moving to the Middle East. By the late 90s, there was a change in the destination of workers specifically, a shift from the Middle East to other parts of Asia, namely East and Southeast Asia.

Table 2: Migration Flows to the Middle East from Selected Countries of Asia in % ( 1993-1998)





Middle East


Middle East



























Sri Lanka










Source: ILO/ACTRAW 1996

Gender Composition

Not only has the direction of the migration changed, but the gender composition of migrants has also undergone a shift in favour of women. Until the 1980s, when one spoke of migration, it was assumed that one was referring to the migration of men. It was widely believed that the participation of women in international migration, particularly in the Asian region, was negligible. But such beliefs were not based on any statistical evidence, as there were no statistics at disaggregated workers by sex, due to the same assumption, that women were not migrating as workers.

Such statistics were not sought, as it was assumed that women were not migrating as workers. Thus while the different dimensions of male migrate on in all the regions have been well documented by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), no attention was paid to women workers and it is recognised that very little information and research exists in the area of women in international migration. All one could glean from the data was that there were a few women, only medical professionals, who were in the migration stream and that this was especially true in the case of India. When data on gender differences finally began to be collected, the fact that women were moving in large numbers across international borders in the Asian region as migrant workers and, in some streams, even outnumbered men, came as a surprise to many. Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines are examples of such streams. For example, in 1996, women constituted 79% of the workers migrating from Sri Lanka, 68% from Indonesia and 58% from the Philippines. (Hugo 1995, Lim and Oishi, 1996).

What I suspect is that changes in the gender patterns of migration began in the 1980s, when the demand for male workers in the Middle East started slowing down. The reason was the completion of many of the area’s development projects, In some cases, the women in a family switched places with the men so as to be able to continue to sustain their families. And although specific instances of this kind of intra family substitution may have been rare, there was a general substitution effect.

This shift in the gender composition of workers, along with a shift t lower skill levels among women workers, came as a shock and a surprise to both, labour-exporting governments and social scientists looking at migration trends. The shock was due to the fact that, women with decent levels of education and skills were ready and willing to migrate to low-skill jobs across borders. The willingness of women to migrate into such high risk and low status jobs probably has a few other factors, besides what their governments want. Out of them, in most countries it is the excruciating poverty at home, lack of work opportunities coupled with very low wages and unstable political situations which make migrating a sheer survival strategy for the household. A study of Filipino women intending to work as domestic servants, for example, found that 36% were either college graduates or undergraduates (Stalker 1994).

By contrast, men’s migration had been characterised by low skilled men moving to low skilled jobs. Or, to put things differently, the drop in skill level (and correspondingly, status level) that women were willing to take was more than that which the men were willing to take. The question is why?

I suspect that the changing migration trends were in part at least a function of changes in social norms, norms that now approved of the migration of women. Whether married or single, women were independently travelling to different countries and taking up low-paid menial jobs with the full approval of their families. The various labour-exporting governments also appear to have played a role in facilitating the changes in migration patterns particularly, the increase and the gender shift. Among other things, a number of these governments began to view labour as an export product. Consistent with this view, they provided information about job opportunities travel requirements, and training needs. Of course, the private sector also played a role here. There was a demand for training, travel assistance, and information about jobs and competitive markets emerged to provide these. Government scrutiny and regulation did help in coordinating the various private efforts and minimizing fraud.

On the point about the migration of women, the pattern was not of a uniform increase. Countries with a more liberal attitude towards women, for example, those having strong matrilineal traditions, had larger numbers of women willing to migrate, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Thailand being the most prominent.

I. Intra-Asian Migration Patterns

In what follows, the factors responsible for the changes in, gender composition in the migration patterns is going to be discussed in greater detail. First, however, a few of the characteristics that set the intra Asian migration patterns apart from the migration patterns vis-à-vis North America and Europe shall be flagged. I shall very briefly list a few of the important differences.

1) Finite Duration Migration

In the first place, the Asian system has been dominated by contract migration as opposed to permanent migration; that is. workers were moving between countries on strict contracts for specified periods of time with severely limited benefits and rights and few (usually none) possibilities of taking their families along. Indeed, in the intra Asian context, there developed a fine tuned system of contract migration where all sorts of innovative mechanisms were developed to enforce the contracts even in settings where legal recourse was lacking. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand have all established formal compact labour programmes to facilitate the entry, deployment, and control of workers from labour—surplus countries (Hugo 1980, 81). None of these countries allow any legal recourse to migrant workers in case they are summarily deported. This finite-duration migration had two related affects that were perhaps intended; i) they denied the worker recognition of her rights; and ii) prevented her social integration.

2) Direct Involvement of Governments in the Export and Import of Labour

Secondly, governments of labour-exporting and labour-importing countries became directly involved in the migration processes of sending and receiving workers. As the labour exporting governments in particular realised the economic importance of the huge amounts of remittances that workers were sending home, they began to see a need to regulate the markets for this migrant labour. Exploitation and outright fraud abounded in these markets because the workers often tended to be uneducated or, at least unsophisticated about foreign job markets. For these countries, it was the increasing dependence on low-income foreign labour that spurred them to take protective steps.

To move to specifics, one observes that in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh all labour-exporting countries special government departments have been established to work out policies and procedures to enable and encourage the external movement of labour. During prior decades, where much migration had involved permanent movements out of the countries, governments had little interest in intervening in the process. In Sri Lanka, the government established the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) in 1985 to promote and oversee the labour exports. In the Philippines, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) was created in 1952 to supervise and regulate the placement and recruitment of Filipino migrant workers. India, Pakistan and Indonesia also created analogous agencies. In India, the Directorate of Protectorate of Emigrants was established. This very direct role that governments were performing was something unusual in the history of migration.

3) Exporters and Importers and Overall Linkages

Another surprise about the labour movements in Asia is that a number of labour exporting countries were also labour-importing countries.

Table 3: Major Labour-Exporting and Labour-Importing Countries in Asia


Labour-importing countries

Labour-importing and Labour- exporting countries

Labour-exporting countries

Southeast Asia

Hong Kong (SAR)









Taiwan (Rep. of China)







Sri Lanka

Thus, for instance, Malaysia imports labour (more than a million workers) from low-wage countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh and at the same time sends large numbers of workers to higher-wage countries like Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. Taiwan is another example of a country that imports workers from the Philippines, where wages are lower, and supplies labour to Japan, where wages are five times higher. This same pattern holds true for many of the South Asian Countries. Cheap labour from Bangladesh moves into Pakistan and India, which in turn send their labour to the Middle East. Of course, there are more direct flows as well. Very poor countries like Bangladesh send migrants directly to the Middle East and almost no one migrates to their country.

Obviously, the large wage differentials that have emerged in recent decades among these countries are a primary cause for the flows. What we have then is an overall pattern of linkage all through Asia, where many countries are both importers and exporters of labour to each other. And a significant portion of these flows is taking place at the low-skill level.

4) Proliferation of Illegal Workers

A widespread feature of Asian labour migration is the presence of large numbers of illegal or undocumented workers in almost all labour-importing countries. In many instances, these flows are as large as the legal flows. Indeed, the underground market is so well organised that there are organised agencies in some labour-exporting countries that specialise in transporting and placing illegal workers.

Legal migrants become illegal when they travel either on a visitor, or a temporary visa and overstay their stipulated time period. There are others, who enter a country without any valid documents. The extensive land borders that many Asian labour-exporting countries share and the expensive procedures and difficulties involved in getting valid documentation are factors contributing to the creation of this underground market. Plus of course, in instances where there is labour protective legislation, for example, minimum wage laws or laws mandating minimum levels of vacation time. Illegal workers provide a means of circumventing these higher costs to the employers. Indeed, the illegality of the workers is what enables their employers to exploit them further because the employer has the threat of calling the police or immigration services at any time.

It is estimated that about 40% of the workers from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia are illegal. The figure for Malaysia, which shares a long border with Indonesia, is as high as 83.36% (KOMPAS 1998). Illegal workers from Thailand into Taiwan stand at 100,000; these are workers who entered as tourists and overstayed their visas. Both India and Pakistan also have large number of illegal workers. And although there are no good estimates available, the assumption is that a significant traction of the illegal workers are women.

There are also numerous reports of significant amounts of illegal migration (and that too of women) taking place in and out of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. For example, close to 1,00,000 Indian women were estimated to be illegally working in the Middle East (Gulati 1997). There is also evidence of illegal emigration of Indian women to Singapore and Hong Kong for domestic work. Bangladeshi women, similarly, have been working for years as illegal domestic workers, particularly in neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan and also in Hong Kong and the Middle East.

II. Asian Decision Making Model

How do Asian migrants decide to move? The social structures of most Asian labour-exporting countries make for an interesting decision-making model. The decision to migrate is not an individual one. Families, households and kin networks are central to the decision-making process. Migrants and non-migrants jointly decide and collectively take the responsibility of the risks of migration. The reason for this is that migration for these low-income workers is both a high-risk and a high-expense proposition. And if the migration is illegal, the risk levels increase even more. With a number of the poor families in Kerala, one sees that that the family borrows heavily, at high rates of interest, to invest in a proposition- that is, sending a family member to the Gulf — that has a high chance of failure. If the attempt fails, it can destroy the family in that. It puts in jeopardy basic things like education, food and health for the other family members. We all know individuals who take high-risk gambles. But gambling, which is rarely a family phenomenon, is what we see here. Why?

My hypothesis is that this has to do with the importance attached to jumping a social group or class. This appears so important that the entire family is willing to put its future at risk, despite the fact that the migrant, even if she succeeds, could decide not to help tout the extended kin. This collective decision- making phenomenon appears to be especially true for female migrants.

III. Asian Importers of Women’s Labour

Since the early 1980s the trend in women migrating within Asia has been consistently moving upwards. Further, in some national streams women migrants outnumber men. Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines are examples of such streams. For example, in 1996, women constituted 79% of the workers migrating from Sri Lanka, 68% from Indonesia and 58% from the Philippines.

The demand factor is crucial in understanding this shift in gender composition of migrants. The demand for women workers within the Asian region emanates from three different locations. It began initially with Japan and was followed by demand in the oil rich countries of the Middle East and later by the newly industrialising countries of Eastern and South Eastern Asia. Each of these locations are discussed separately, as the reasons for the demand for women varies from country to country.

Demand for Women Entertainers in Japan

The migration of women workers initially started with the demand for entertainers from Japan. Entertainers were the pioneers in the overseas migration workers. The demand for entertainers in Japan builds on a history of women serving as courtesans and prostitutes, a history that many other countries have as well. The precursor to the movement is the Martial law regime in the Philippines, when the local tourist industry aimed at providing for the needs of visitors from Japan. This later became the subject of vehement protests in both Japan and the Philippines, adversely affecting this particular brand of tourism in Philippines. The result was an outflow; Philippine girls going to Japan under tourist visas.

Modern-day demand for foreign workers in the entertainment industry Japan was due to a) the decline in the supply of local ‘geishas’ who usually performed the services provided by this industry and, b) the increased pressure under which Japanese men worked and their concomitant practice of seeking release through sexual ‘entertainment’.

Given the large demand for entertainers in Japan, the Japanese Embassy in the Philippines decided to create a special short-term visa category called the entertainer’s visa. Hence, there was a formalisation of the migration of women to service the entertainment and sex industries in Japan. The number of legal workers from the Philippines (90,562 in 1994) that the table below shows is on only part of the picture, as there were twice as many illegal as there werelegal workers. Between 1990-l 994, the number of illegal workers entering Japan quadrupled.

Table 4: Visitors and Entertainment from the Philippines to Japan, 1990-1994

























Source: Sasaki APMJ, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1995

Middle Eastern Prosperity

As income levels in the Middle East rose dramatically in the seventies and eighties, high-income households began luring domestic workers both, as a status symbol and a convenience. In 1990, approximately 20 per cent of the estimated 6 million workers in this region were foreign female domestic workers (Brochmann, 1990). It was estimated that every year as many as 30,000 Asian women migrated to Saudi Arabia alone to work as household servants (Weinert, 1991). In the region, the two countries that dominated the import market female labour were Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Demand for Women from the ‘Asian Tigers’

The newly industrialising countries of East and Southeast Asia were not only experiencing high rates of economic growth but also pushing for higher rates of female labour-force participation. There had been a massive shift women into the labour force in some of the East Asian countries.

The care of the household by a domestic worker came to be seen a necessity for the middle and upper class families in these countries. A combination of traditional Asian values regarding the family (the assumptions that elderly are to be taken care of at home, the educational progress of children should be carefully monitored, etc.) and the simultaneous demands of the work place in these countries, were difficult for women to cope with. A cheap migrant worker was one solution.

In the East Asian import market for female domestic labour, Hong Kong has been a major player thus far. A direct result of the high rate of female labour force participation has been the demand for domestic workers from the poorer Asian countries. Between the years 1990 and 1997, the demand more than doubled. In 1996, there were 1,65,059 foreign domestics, mainly from Philippines, working in Hong Kong.

Singapore, another major importer of women’s labour in south East Asia, had a history of importing migrant male workers. In these years, it has also started importing a sizeable number of women domestics. The demand for domestics was largely for the same reasons as in Hong Kong, namely local Singaporean women entering the labour force. In terms of specifics, in 1970, women formed only 17% of the workforce. By 1986 this had risen to 45.6%, and women accounted for 37% of the workforce (AWARE 1988). Since local domestic help was unavailable or too costly, people turned to foreign domestic helpers. lt is interesting that even though the government of Singapore, in some sense, had caused (or at least encouraged) the increase in demand for foreign domestics by encouraging local women to work, it did not seem enthusiastic about the importation of these domestics. Under Singaporean law, an employer engaging a foreign domestic helper had to produce a security bond of U.S. $5,000 and also pay a monthly levy of U.S. $250. Note that the Security bond required for foreign workers other than domestic helpers was only U.S. $2,000.

Malaysia is another country with a significant demand for women domestic workers. Most of the demand for these workers was being met by the neighbouring country, Indonesia (Kassim 998). Besides such formal inflows, Malaysia was believed to have received a far greater number of clandestine domestic workers. These possibly constitute the largest flows of undocumented women migrant workers to any country. In 1997-98 there were 1,87,218 migrant women workers in Malaysia.

IV. Countries Exporting Women’s Labour

Many major countries that export women workers were located in Asia. Several of these are the very same countries that are exporting large numbers of semi-skilled and unskilled men workers in the early seventies. However, not all countries involved in sending men workers are involved in sending women workers, at least not to the same extent.

The Migration of Workers as an Industry

The migration of women workers is encouraged by governments for the same reasons that men workers are sent, namely as a source of exchange earnings and as source of foreign exchange earnings and as a pressure valve for the prevailing high levels of unemployment and insufficient growth of income. The governments of Sri Lanka, Philippines and Indonesia treat it almost like an industry. But in most countries, the excruciating poverty at home, lack of work opportunities coupled with very low wages and unstable political situations also made migration a crucial household survival strategy.

In the movement of women workers, four Asian countries could be singled out, three from East Asia (Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand) and one from South Asia (Sri Lanka). Two other countries from South Asia, India and Bangladesh, which also export women workers, cannot be included because their data was not disaggregated by sex. Table 5, outlines the gender composition and social and economic indicators of these four-exporting countries.

Table 5: Estimated Overseas Migrations of Female Workers from Selected Asian Countries 1996


Total Annual Migration Outflows of Women Workers

Female Composition (%)

Proportion of Women Migrant Workers Going as

Female Literacy



Population below Poverty Line



(%) 15 and above






Sri Lanka*





83 (1990)








65 (1985)








85 (1990)








88 (1990)



Source: Nan Oishi, Gender and Migration, March 2002.

Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employement.

UN, ** Scalabrini Migration Center.

***UN Levels and trends of International Migration.

**** POEA

Table 6 sets out the labour flows of migrant women workers from four of the labour-exporting countries. In 1997, the four countries- Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand together export 6,63,965 workers. In 1998, Indonesia alone exported 5,91,303 workers giving us an idea of the pace of increase in migration of the women workers.

Table 6: Annual Flow of Contract of Women Migrant Workers by Countries of Origin 1995-1998
















Sri Lanka+














POEA for 1995

*Figure 2 for 1996 Philippines from POEA

** Asian Research Center for Migration, Female labour migration in South East Asia, Change and Continuity 2000

*** Source KOMPAS January 5, 1998

+ Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), 2000.

I shall now do a brief study on each of the above labour exporting countries:


Women migrant workers from the Philippines formed the largest number of migrant workers from Asia until Indonesia took over from them. They migrate to all parts of the world. One of the reasons for the migration of women workers is the economic situation that Philippines experienced during the thirty years leading to this period. Its success in reducing the incidence of poverty has been very limited in absolute terms and distinctly poor in comparison with what was achieved by its neighbors in spite of the very high literacy rate, which stood at 94 % according to the 1990 census (World Bank, 1995).

Female migration from the Philippines began with a modest outflow of 5,990 workers. This number increased to 2,56,000 workers in 1997-98. Female women migrant workers are concentrated predominantly in three sectors namely- domestic work, entertainment and health.


C:\Users\sony\Downloads\gulati indonesia.jpg

The migration of female workers from Indonesia started in the seventies with just a small number of about five thousand women. This number increased at a very rapid pace and women started outnumbering men in the emigration process. One reason for this rapid escalation in numbers could be the active involvement of the government of Indonesia in promoting migration of women workers. Its overseas employment programme concentrated almost entirely on the deployment of domestic workers. Of the 8,99,442 workers that Indonesia exported in 1998, 5,99,003 were women, indicating that 75% were women (Sukamdi and others 2000). In terms of destination of work men from Indonesia preferred to work in Malaysia, a closer and more familiar destination whereas the women travelled to the Middle East, mainly to Saudi Arabia where there was a great demand for Indonesian workers because of their religious affinity. Saudi Arabian employed virtually 50 per cent of the Indonesian women workers followed by Malaysian 31.66 per cent, and Singapore 11.05 per cent (Kompass 1988).

Sri Lanka

C:\Users\sony\Downloads\gulati Sri lanka.jpg

Sri Lanka was a major exporter of women workers. The Government of Sri Lanka encourages labour migration of both men and women. In fact, part of the function of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment established in 1985, has been to train and recruit female workers as domestic helpers for overseas employment. As many as, 65 per cent of the workers migrating from Sri Lanka in 1990 were women. Of these three-fourths went overseas as domestic helpers.

Initially, this outflow was directed towards west Asia, namely Saudi Arabia. But a new trend emerged whereby, Sri Lankan women migrated to Hong Kong and Singapore also. Female migrant workers from Sri Lanka in 1997-98 stood at 1,11,950. (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, 2000).


C:\Users\sony\Downloads\gulati Thailand .jpg

Thailand is a minor player in the field supply of women workers. The low levels of education and the high levels of poverty during the sixties and seventies, especially in rural Thailand, created a strong pressure on young adults to work overseas. In the seventies, the Taiwan Province of China was the most common destination of Thai woman who sought employment abroad, followed by Japan, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Women accounted for only 15% of the total labour placements in 1996. However, women constituted a large majority of the migrant workers to Hong Kong and Japan, representing 81 % and 63% respectively in 1996. The two main categories of work which Thai women enter into, were that of domestic work and entertainment. In 1997. there were 19,057 migrant female workers from Thailand. (Thailand NSO, 1998). The demand for entertainers from Thailand was mainly from Japan and, in the 2000s, their flow had been on the increase.

South Asia

Reliable information on the movement of women workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is very hard to come by and hence very little data is available. Though according to newspaper reports there was a large movement of women workers both legally and illegally, especially between the three countries, evidence of their movement is also based on records in destination countries. All the three countries have tried to impose bans to protect the women workers but have had to withdraw them as they only fuelled illegal outflow of women workers. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have prescribed a minimum age limit for work thus restricting the migration of younger women.

Based on the information available from the Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training in 1994, 6,017 female workers abroad, out of a total of 1,49 1,302 had migrated, that is 0.4% of the total migrant workers. Many of the women from Bangladesh are known to surface as domestic helpers in Hong Kong, West Asia, India, and Pakistan, even Japan. Perhaps their number in India and Pakistan far exceed those in other countries. Many of them also end up as prostitutes.

While no firm estimates are available on the number of Indian women workers in West Asia, the informal estimate is that their number could have well been in excess of 50,000 and perhaps closer to 1,00,000, if not as large as 2,00,000. In Kuwait alone, the number of women from India working as housemaids was put at 20,000 in 1987 while those from Bangladesh numbered only 500 (Shah, 1991). The numbers were estimated on the basis of a survey conducted under the auspices of the local government. Women from lndia were working in Kuwait not only as doctors, nurses and in other health related jobs, but also in clerical and teaching professions. There is also evidence that Indian women were going to Singapore and Hong Kong for domestic work (Menon, 1994).

It is very unfortunate that Government of India published no information on the gender composition of the Indian overseas workers. Whether or not such information is collected at all and what the level of desegregation are not known. Several other labour exporting countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka did collect such information and made their data public. Only when such information is readily available can we have a clear idea about the sort and extent of problems our women workers might have faced abroad and necessary safeguards can be introduced.

V. Problems Faced by Migrant Women Workers

Overseas employment for all workers, irrespective of sex, was a high-risk proposition. It involves workers having to face adjustment problems with a new social, economic and political set-up in an alien country. Moreover, they also brought worry on the contractual nature of their overseas employment. These problems highly aggravated in the case of women migrants, especially if they engaged in domestic or entertainment relate services. Given the predominance of these two categories of work in which migrant women engaged, the problems which overseas women workers had to contend with were dealt with under the following heads: a)those faced by domestic workers and b) those faced by entertainers.

Problems of Domestic Workers

The problems faced by immigrant domestic workers are mainly due the fact that they live in a situation of high dependency. The important domestic worker lived-in with her employer and his family, which itself lead to high of vulnerability. Once a housemaid left the shores of her country, her dependency on the employer even for the most basic needs such as food and shelter is absolute. The isolated working condition in separate homes, makes it difficult to build any countervailing power against the forces that control their works and lives (Lycklama 1989). This situation gets further aggravated because in most labour-importing countries since, labour laws, notwithstanding provisions of their individual contract, do not protect domestic work.

An idea of the sort of problems these women workers had to contend with can be had from the information available from the Philippines and Sri Lanka Overseas employment offices on the basis of the complaints registered with their agencies. These problems can be grouped under a few major headings such as a) contract-related problems, b) cultural adjustment problems and c) basic human right violations.

It is noteworthy that complaints of maltreatment and physical abuse, which included use of abusive language, imprisonment of domestic workers for several hours and sometimes days, and sexual harassment, accounted for between one- fifth to one-third of complaints of women workers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The remaining two-thirds to four-filths were almost entirely contract, salary or work related. These cover default in payment of salary as per contract, long hours of work, denial of weekly holidays, restrictions of movements and communications, lack of provision of accommodation which assured the worker a reasonable privacy. A most commonly prevalent practice is that of contract substitution. Instead of the contract on the basis of which a domestic worker may have been cleared by the immigration authority of his or her own country, she is made to sign another contract with inferior terms. It is also quite common for the employer to impound the domestic worker’s passport the moment she takes up her job, in the name, of course, of safekeeping. In fact, this practice is extremely disabling for the worker.

Unfortunately though it is, the incidence of death among women working abroad as housemaids are found to be quite high. In two years, 1988-89, as many as 48 deaths of Sri Lankan maids were reported. Of these 30 were listed as accidental, 8 were suicides, 6 murders and only 4 on account of natural calamities (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, 1990).

What about similar information with respect to Indian women workers ‘ employed overseas especially those engaged in an occupation like that of a housemaid which makes them particularly vulnerable to physical abuse? Unfortunately, Indian government does not either collect such information or, if it is collected, released it to public.

At present, the main refuge and help for foreign workers in all migrant worker destinations are their embassies and consulates. They act as intermediaries in disputes between women workers from their country and their foreign employers.

The complaints, which reach the embassies/consulates, are often only a fraction of the excesses actually inflicted upon the overseas workers. This happens for a number of reasons. The embassy/consulate staff are not sufficiently sympathetic and helpful. This could be a major factor preventing workers from registering their complaints. Also, domestic workers may not find it easy to go to the embassy/consulate. In fact, the more an employer is prone to abusive behaviour, the less likely it is that he will allow the domestic worker to communicate with any outsider, least with the embassy or consulate. And still, the information collected on the basis of registered complaints can be taken to convey some of the sort and extent of problems overseas domestic workers face.

Problems of Entertainers

Entertainers face many of the same problems that domestic workers face. Given the job description, the nature of their problems is not quite the same. Women workers going as entertainers are often not even classified as workers. They are classified as guest workers in Japan, the country that accounts for around 90 per cent or above of the employment of overseas workers in this category, if one excludes those driven to prostitution. As ‘guest performers’, they are issued a separate short-term visa called the entertainer’s visa. In 1989, 39,000 entertainers were deployed through authorised channels from the Philippines and approximately an equal number of about 40,000 entered Japan illegally to work solely as female entertainers. (Wickramasekera, 2002).

A major problem of the migrant entertainers is what may be described as, income-related exploitation. The very fact that women go as entertainers knowing ‘ their visa is for a short period of only six months means that they expect to e maximum money in a short duration of time. This however becomes an elusive objective, as a major proportion of their earnings get siphoned off to the various intermediaries. It starts with the recruitment agent and ends with the Japanese promoter. So while on paper an entertainer is supposed to make a gross monthly minimum of $ 1,500, in actual practice she makes a net income of more than $500 a month.

Since a very substantial portion of the entertainers are working illegally, because they overstay their valid permits or because they enter Japan illegally in the first instance, their vulnerability to extortion and exploitation of all sorts increases.

Overseas women entering Japan on entertainer visas usually opt to run from their promoters after six months have lapsed because they can then earn more for themselves. By thus extending their stay illegally, however, they become easy prey to the dreadful Yakuza, who are supposed to control most (80 percent) of the nightclubs in Japan. It is then, that the girls get forced into prostitution.

The practice of ‘Dohan’ followed by almost 80 per cent of the clubs in Japan is another problem faced by entertainers. ‘Dohan’ is compulsory dating or meeting with customers outside the clubs. The entertainer is supposed to bring the customer to the club after the date. Failure to deliver leads a very heavy penalty of $100 per dohan missed. There are times when fines exceed the

entertainers’ monthly salary.

In addition to proneness to sexual abuse and prostitution, entertainers from overseas are also vulnerable to drug abuse and venereal diseases. Studies of entertainers from the Philippines in Japan report not only problems connected with prostitution and drug abuse, but also poor working conditions, long working hours and violence. In addition, the problems of loneliness and language and cultural isolation are also reported (Gulati, 1993). Given the enormous pressures under which the entertainers have to work and the indignities have to constantly endure, it should not be a matter of surprise if several of these women ultimately suffer mental breakdowns.

Japan had the largest concentration of overseas entertainment worker and that too predominately from the Philippines and Thailand. The Philippine embassy has had to deal with a large number of complaints from entertainers particularly from those who are illegally working in Japan.

To concentrate on Japan alone in the context of women going overseas to work as entertainers could create an impression that the problems connected with their migration exist only in Japan. In reality, extreme types of exploitation might well exist in all those countries where entertainment is altogether a subterfuge for prostitution and where almost all foreign women in prostitution are illegal migrants.

A reference was made above to the need for the labour attaches to extend some protection to illegal workers. Informally it is believed that for every two legal migrant workers in West Asia there is one illegal worker from India.

Whatever the circumstance in which they are staying and working abroad, they are entitled to the basic protection of our diplomatic representatives in those countries, within their respective jurisdiction. The reason being that both employers and agents take full advantage of their vulnerability as illegal workers, to conclude, there is considerable scope for alleviating the problems women working overseas face through both appropriate policy interventions by governments and meaningful community efforts. Unfortunately, we are at the stage when the existence of the problem itself, is only slowly being acknowledged. Once this problem reaches the right-solving hands, the second question would be what sort of protection could be extended to those who are particularly vulnerable.


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LEELA GULATI. Distinguished scholar of international repute who has authored a number of books and articles. Formely with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Is widely credited with enlarging the scope of the discipline of Economics by bringing in perspectives from Ethonography and is Feminism. Her recent book is A Space of Her Own, edited together with Jasodhara Bagchi.

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Distinguished scholar of international repute who has authored a number of books and articles. Formely with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Is widely credited with enlarging the scope of the discipline of Economics by bringing in perspectives from Ethonography and is Feminism. Her recent book is A Space of Her Own, edited together with Jasodhara Bagchi.

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