Monday, February 04, 2008

Migrant South Asian Women in the Middle East; Right Bearing Citizens?

Sanam Roohi

South Asia, home to almost 2 billion people, comprises of seven countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives. The status and conditions of women in all the countries is not at par with men in society, with the exception of Sri Lanka and Maldives where the social indicators are better than the rest of the subcontinent. This is manifest in the gender gap in education, economic activity and employment, the subordination of women, and in the negative sex ratio of 940 females for every 1000 males. Female labour force participation in South Asia between1995-2001 was 33.5 percent as compared to 42 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa and 44.5 percent in East Asia and Pacific. Similarly the gender gap in literacy over the same period in South Asia as a whole is 33 percent. With such a dismal condition, many such migrant women opt to work as housemaids and wage-earners (often sole bread earner) for the family. Middle east provides an easy gateway for such women to earn a meagre wage as help hands.

In this era of Globalisation, some fundamental forms of capital movement takes place throughout the global economy. An important category of capital flow is human capital, which includes the category of migrants. The flow of women migrants in the gulf region from South Asia has been on the increase in the last 2 decades, which can be directly linked to the liberalisation of the economy in the latter region. They are a small but important source of foreign revenue earner for their states. Women migrants’ account for about 20 to 40 per cent of the growing migrant workforce in the various Gulf States. They come primarily from South and Southeast Asia, as well as other countries, to earn enough money to support their families back home. Statistics show that the proportion of women migrants has increased significantly over the past 20 years — from 33 per cent in 1986 to 79 in 1994 and 59 now. The phenomenon began in 1976, following a sharp escalation in oil prices in the oil-rich Gulf countries.

But the benefits they receive from such employment can come at a heavy price. In all these gulf countries, women domestic workers are deprived of a wide range of their fundamental human rights. They have no protection under labour laws as domestic work is not covered by such legislation. Often, their identity documents are confiscated by their employers and their pay is delayed or withheld. They also face the possibility of rape and other forms of violence by their employers. However, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have signed up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which calls on state parties to condemn discrimination against women in all its forms and take appropriate measures to eliminate it.

Example of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is an important destination for these impoverished women, as are the other nations of Oman, Kuwait and other gulf countries. It is important to take the example of Saudi Arabia as non-Saudis make up 35 percent of Saudi Arabia's labor force. An estimated 2 million workers are from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Rampant human rights abuses fail to get the attention of the migrants’ home country. Human rights Watch publishes a 135 page report “Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia“, which depicts how many of the immigrant workers are abused and treated as slaves, most of whom are women migrant workers.

Some of the frightening and troubling findings of the reports are:
· Sexual abuse and rape of women migrant workers, both in the workplace and in Saudi prisons by Saudi male employers.
· Migrant workers from Bangladesh, India and Phillipines were forced to work ten to eighteen hours a day, and sometimes throughout the night without overtime pay.
· The pay is very meager (e.g. $133 for a month and 16 hours of work daily)
Hundreds of low-paid Asian women who cleaned hospitals in Jeddah worked twelve-hour days, without food or a break, and were confined to locked dormitories during their time off.
· Migrant workers experienced shocking treatment in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system.

Example of the Sri Lankan migrant Women in the Middle East
Sri Lankan women migrants constitute an important segment of the women labour force emplyed as domestic help in the gulf region. As demand for male construction workers decreased in the 1980s, a growing percentage of Sri Lankan women migrated to West Asia to work as domestic workers. In the 1990s, 84 per cent of all migrants from Sri Lanka to West Asia were women, most them domestic workers. Pension scheme Taking note of the important reforms by the Sri Lankan government to alleviate the sufferings of migrant labourers, including introduction of a pension scheme and free medical care, the HRW has urged it to further streamline the systems. It has asked the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion to provide the workers training and information about their rights before they migrate, and to monitor and regulate labour agents and their sub-agents.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should improve services to domestic workers at Embassies in times of crisis. The government also should improve complaint mechanisms and services provided to domestic workers after they return home,” the report said. The HRW urged the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE to extend standard labour protection to domestic workers, change immigration laws that make it difficult for workers to change employers, and ensure compensation to workers who suffer abuse. The report lamented that the government failed to adequately monitor and regulate abusive practices by recruiting agents and sub-agents in Sri Lanka. Consular officials often provided little or no assistance to the domestic workers who approached them with complaints of unpaid wages or abuse. Those returning home had to confront obstacles while filing complaints and received minimal services at a government-run shelter located near the international airport.

Promotion of Women's Migration
To promote labour exports, Asian governments have played a very active role. Female labour migration is a demand-driven, rather than a supply-driven, phenomenon. The volume and type of demand for migrant workers is determined within the context of the international and sexual division of labour. To respond to demand patterns in the host countries, labour-exporting countries have to promote female, and not just male, overseas contract work. In fact, demand from labour-importing countries for women migrants is often more stable than that for men, so that women migrants often represent a more reliable source of foreign exchange remittances than men. But sending countries have come under increasing pressure to protect their women migrants. More sending countries have entered the labour export market, fuelling competition among themselves, and providing wider choices and cheaper sources of labour to receiving countries. In the increased competition for a market share or in the attempt to carve out a market niche for themselves, sending countries could sacrifice the protection or interests of their nationals.

Towards More Effective Protection of Migrant Women
It has often been said that the most critical period in the migration process is prior to departure. At the community level, it is critical for women to receive accurate and realistic information about the economic and social costs and benefits of overseas employment before the decision to migrate. Governments should shift part of their focus to disseminating information at an earlier stage through mass media.

Efforts to reduce the volume of illegal migration and trafficking have been recognised as vital. To achieve that goal, lowering the costs of migration and simplifying administrative procedures can be viable and cost-effective options. The role of different social actors in protecting women migrant workers should be strengthened as much as the role of the respective states which send these migrant workers to earn vital revenues for the government treasury, yet fail to protect their basic fundamental rights.

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