As Demand for Migrant Labor Grows, Opportunities for Women Emerge, But Risks Prevail
March 7, 2012
While in Saudi Arabia this week for bilateral talks, Nepal’s finance minister, Barsha Man Pun, made a much-needed request to Saudi Arabia’s government to grant amnesty for at least six months for illegal Nepali migrant workers. According to the Department of Foreign Employment, 10,000 Nepalis enter Saudi Arabia every month for work.
In Nepal, where 42 percent of the population of nearly 30 million lives below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is at a high of 46 percent, labor migration to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Malaysia is emerging as a real economic option, particularly for women. According to Amnesty International, more than 294,000 Nepalis migrated abroad for work in 2010, compared with just over 55,000 in 2000. Remittances from migrant workers are critical to Nepal’s economy, as they make up 23 percent of the country’s total GDP. And these official figures do not account for the large number of migrant workers, primarily women, who are using irregular or undocumented channels to migrate for work in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, and the UAE, with most using India as their transit route. Women migrant workers primarily work in the unskilled or low skilled labor sectors, such as domestic work or caregivers and other jobs that are not recognized as a part of the formal labor sector in the receiving countries.
The growing demand for labor in sectors like domestic work and caregiving has led to an increase in the “Feminization of Labor Migration,” which on the one hand, has provided greater opportunity for women from the lower-economic strata to obtain livelihood opportunities that are not available at home. On the other hand, limited or non-existent protection policies and regulations in both the sending and receiving countries often lead to exploitative conditions for women. In most South Asian countries, labor recruiting agencies operate with little or no governmental oversight. The risk of exploitation and trafficking increases exponentially in irregular migration, and there is little scope for redress.
Historically, well-intentioned but gender unresponsive measures have actually further disadvantaged female Nepali migrant workers who are often already marginalized. In 1998, following the death of a female Nepali migrant domestic worker in Kuwait after being physically and sexually abused, the Government of Nepal in its zeal to “protect women” banned them from migrating as domestic workers to Gulf countries. Unfortunately, such policies end up increasing the risk of exploitation and abuse, as migrants start using unsafe routes to get around such bans and access much-needed jobs. Though Nepal lifted the ban on labor migration to the Gulf countries for employment as domestic workers in 2008, the negative fallout is still being experienced by women migrants. Public knowledge on lifting of the ban is still very limited, so brokers and traffickers continue to convince potential migrants to use irregular channels. This has allowed brokers and traffickers to escape responsibility when the process becomes dangerous, during transit or at the site of employment. This has made the line between trafficking and irregular migration even murkier.
A recent case of a repatriated migrant worker, Anita (name changed), is a classic example of a migration journey gone wrong and a testimony to the abuse and exploitation women often face. Anita traveled to the Middle East to work as a domestic worker with a valid work permit and visa for the destination country, but she traveled on a forged passport arranged by a broker. Being too young (16 years old) to get a valid labor permit from the Government of Nepal, she chose the irregular channel and transited through India. Her cycle of abuse began as soon as she reached her work site in the Middle East. She was denied food, beaten, held in confinement, made to work excessively long hours, and did not get paid for her services. In less than a year, Anita was moved by her agent in the destination country to three different abusive households. She finally managed to escape and was repatriated by the Nepalese Embassy. She had no recourse to compensation, as she had migrated through the irregular channel, and the broker could not be traced. She remained undocumented in the official migration records of the government. Anita’s story is neither unique nor isolated.
In the absence of effective monitoring by the government in the first four months of the current fiscal year, 222 cases of cheating have been filed against various recruiting agencies by victims demanding compensation of Rs 124.57 million; and these numbers are just for documented migration. The data on cases of fraud and abuse in irregular migration does not exist, but if it did, it would presumably be significantly higher.
It has become imperative to advocate with both sending and receiving countries to recognize and protect the rights of women migrants in the informal labor sector. The benefits of migration cannot be conceived as a one-way flow favoring the sending country alone. The Government of Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act of 2007 has taken some positive steps to better protect Nepali migrant workers. The Act provides for appointment of labor attaches in countries where there are more than 5,000 Nepali workers or more than 1,000 women migrant workers registered with the government. In November 2011, the Nepali government appointed labor attaches for six receiving countries – Kuwait, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, South Korea, and the UAE. This initiative is a step in the right direction, as it reduces the onus of safety solely on the migrant worker – the most vulnerable actor in a migration journey – and puts the responsibility of protecting migrant workers on the governments. It is imperative that sending and receiving countries sign the UN conventions that protect the rights of migrant workers according to international standards.
The Asia Foundation is currently embarking on a South Asia regional research study of Nepal, India, and Bangladesh to understand what triggers or influences the choice and route of journey for the migrants. The research aims to identify the links, if any, between the agencies operating through official and unofficial channels; understand what drives the choice of a migrant in selecting the process of migration; study the gender dimension of the selection process; and define what accountability systems and mechanism are needed to ensure an informed and empowered labor migration process from start to end.
Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s chief of party for the Combating Trafficking in Persons Program and Srijana Chettri is a program officer, both in Nepal. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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