Globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities to fill gaps in nations with a dwindling labour supply. While globalization may foster the acceleration of trade and investment, it does not create an environment that protects migrant workers’ economic, social and physical security. This is even more so when it comes to women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constituting 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America.
By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who provide safety nets that sustain communities at home. Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — remittances from their incomes account for as much as 10 percent of the GDP in some countries. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US$305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals.
Yet, while migration can bring new employment and opportunities, it also bears great risks for women, many of whom end up at the lower end of the job market. Female migrants often work as domestic workers and entertainers — a euphemism for sex workers — in unregulated informal sectors that do not fall under national labour laws. Migrant women routinely lack access to social services and legal protection and are subjected to abuses such as harsh working and living conditions, low wages, illegal withholding of wages and premature termination of employment. The worst abuses force women into sexual slavery.
UN Women’s work with women migrants draws upon international human rights standards and encompasses countries of origin and destination. Working with governments, civil society and the private sector, efforts focus on promoting safe migration for women, eliminating trafficking, and enabling policy, institutional and socio-economic environments that ensure women’s equal opportunities and benefits from migration. Specific programme support goes towards establishing laws and practices that protect women migrants’ human rights, drawing connections to national poverty reduction strategies, strengthening migrants’ organizations, and brokering exchanges between source and destination countries to advance labor rights.
In Jordan, UNIFEM (now UN Women) supported efforts for inclusion of women migrant workers in the national labour code. This resulted in the formulation of a minimum standard contract for migrant women that stipulates their rights, such as the right to medical care, rest days and timely payment of wages. Information on a shelter and hotline for domestic workers was also included. In addition, the Government has established a monitoring committee to assess the situations of migrant women workers in their employers’ houses. Media campaigns have raised awareness in this destination country regarding the rights of migrant workers.
With UNIFEM's (now UN Women) support, a law on the Protection of Migrant Women was developed and adopted in Indonesia's Blitar district. The law and complementing decrees mandate significant protection for migrant women, including a protection fund to cover legal costs of discrimination and abuse cases faced by migrant women, and a provision to assign female doctors for medical check-ups to prevent sexual harassment. This law is being replicated in other districts of Indonesia.
In the Covenant of Ethical Conduct and Good Practices, recruitment agencies of nine Asian countries agreed on far-reaching business standards geared towards protecting women migrant workers. Financial exploitation and deliberate misinformation of migrant women workers through illegal recruiters lead not only to economic ruin, but also to physical and sexual abuse of countless women. Through the Covenant, which UNIFEM (now UN Women) helped develop, the recruitment agencies commit themselves to information campaigns for migrant workers and employers, to social security and insurance programmes that benefit migrant workers, and to the establishment of resource and welfare centres in labour-receiving countries.
In Nepal, UNIFEM (now UN Women) supported efforts to revise discriminatory provisions and pass a new law on foreign employment. Advocacy began in 2002, with a view to remove restrictions on women working abroad. A previous cabinet decision had prohibited women from seeking employment in Gulf countries. The 2007 Foreign Employment Act not only bans discrimination based on gender but also adopts special measures to guarantee women’s security and rights when seeking jobs abroad. Nepali women migrants now receive information about the contractual obligations of the employer and about migrant assistance centres in destination countries. The new law also contains provisions to regulate recruiting agencies and includes programmes for the families of migrant workers.