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.

UK Takes Further Initiatives to Securities Borders with the New-Points System and A Hike in Immigration Fees

Ishita Dey

On 31 January 2008, UK Home Office announced a hike in its immigration fees as one of its measures to improve border security over the next twelve months. It is not the first measure that UK has adopted to control its borders. In the recent past there has been many an attempts to close its borders or rather to make space for those whom Britain needs. A month back on 5 December 2007, UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith outlined the forthcoming new immigration system for the United Kingdom during a speech at the London School of Economics. She spoke on the new immigration rules coming next year, including English requirements for prospective migrants, mandatory ID cards for foreign nationals living in the UK, stricter rules on bringing foreign spouses to the country, and details of the new points based system. The very systematic demarcation of citizens and non-citizens is an age-old phenomenon and in the recent times especially after the recent civilian atrocities in USA and to combat terrorism one of the basic areas of intervention that the state has chose is to classify and categorise through different surveillance mechanisms in the name of human security. Securitisation of borders in the recent times has been schematized with the global human capital in mind.

Global labour movements are being controlled in a systematic fashion. On 5 December 2007, the new points systems introduced by the UK home office was another initiative aimed at ensuring only workers with skills who could enhance UK’s GDP would be encouraged. The new points system is clearly an attempt to attract global labour to meet the demand of Britain’s needs rather than securitisation of the human capital. This initiative is an incessant attempt to securitise the European Union from encroachers. While in most of the international summits many a declarations are being adopted without being cynical One really wonders at what kind of human security are we really looking forward to. Are we heading for a “human security” that implies militarisation and control of borders rather than livelihood security?

Do questions of livelihood security figure in the agenda of the policy makers of immigration policy? Under the newly introduced new-points system, the application category has been devised according to five tiers. Tier 1, for highly skilled migrants, will has been broken into four sub-categories, including general highly skilled migrants, entrepreneurs, investors, and foreign graduate students of UK educational institutions. Tier 2 will be applicable for skilled workers who have a job offer. Tier 3 will be for a limited numbers of lower skilled workers to fill temporary shortages in the labour market and with this the low skilled category of workers will be suspended. Tier 4 for students and Tier 5 will be for youth mobility and temporary workers, such as those who come under Working Holiday agreements with other countries. Migrants coming under Tiers 1 & 2 need to have proficiency in English. Currently, migrants are only required to show knowledge of English when applying for permanent residence or citizenship. There is also a move to make basic knowledge of the English Language for international spouses.
UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in her address in London School of economics, observed that around 50,000 people were allowed entry to UK as spouse or fiancé and there should be some expectation as she stated, "I think it's fair that we should now set out our expectation that they're able to speak English before they come here."

This in way reinstates that the very process of securitisation of borders moves beyond mere territorial understanding of a geographic locale; rather it is a way to create secure stratified spaces with limited access to livelihood opportunities for people on the move.


Nehru University, Progressive Students & Our Civil Society

Rafique Wassan

Recently, I got an opportunity to present a paper on the subject of ‘health and social inequities’ in an international conference titled ‘Spheres of Justice’ organized by CRG, the policy research organization of Kolkata, India. I deem myself responsible to share with the highly reputed educational standard of the JNU of India, progressive active politics and civil society role of the students and professors and the research activism of civil society and policy research organizations in India. Especially when we look at the work of our institutions/organizations, education and research quality in universities, and positive progressive student politics in Pakistan it seems that we not only lag behind to our neighbor country but we don’t have an understanding of aforementioned positive democratic trends.

The research domain of CRG is of an international level. This policy research organization in India organizes workshops, seminars, courses, conferences, public lectures and discussions and produce research papers and reports of a qualitative standard at different times on the national & regional South Asian issues like forced migration, social justice, issues of socially marginalized groups, issues of the victims of forced displacement due to state and international development aid projects and poverty issues. This time in the conference on the subject of social justice, scholars and social scientists from Germany, Finland, Australia, France, Croatia, Argentine, Algeria, Nepal, Pakistan and participants from different states of India participated and presented their papers on the conference theme.

The international level and nature of the conference in terms of the scholarly discussions on the policy issues made me realize that NGOs are playing a role of civil society activism in India. On the contrary, in Pakistan, the same role is overlooked and the NGOs have not got the real essence of civil society in terms of its work and responsibility. Even, we see a very little role of civil society organizations in the situation of the dysfunction of the democratic institutions of the state at the hands of the military regime.

The educational and research quality of Indian universities is better than ours. In the conference, two young girls who were studying law in India also presented their papers. But, we don’t have such culture of producing research papers at universities level. Most importantly, social scientists are doing much work on policy issues in India, while we still lag behind in the social science subjects especially anthropology, political Science and Sociology in terms of the their utility. CRG also organized a public lecture by a French scholar Etienne Balibar. A large number of students and civil society members participated in the public lecture, which indicted the responsible and active civil society role.

In India, the state of West Bengal is one among the three states wherein Communist Party of India has a stronghold. The Kolkata region has a great importance at the national as well as international level in India. Historically, Kolkata has remained the capital of British India. Kolkata was the trade center in the British era.

During the three-day conference, various scholars presented their papers on the issues like gender justice, forced displacement & role of state, global justice, liberalism, Dalit question etc. Shritha, an Indian participant, presented an interesting paper on the women’s social space and gender discrimination.

After participating in the conference, I went back to my Sindhi friend who is studying in JNU Delhi. It was a nice experience visiting JNU with my friend in India. Like QAU Islamabad in Pakistan, JNU is very famous for its reputed quality education and research in India. Including India’s different states, large number of foreign students comes to JNU for higher education studies. JNU seems different compared to our universities in terms of the progressive role of students and teachers. The students play a very advance role and influence the national and international policy agendas of the state. The professors of JNU also play responsible role of civil society actors for the social change and democratization in different state spheres. On the contrary, in Pakistan, student political organizations and teachers in universities are sidelined to play the same role.