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Asian Women and Labor Migration: The Beijing +5 Review

Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA)



The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing September 1995 is a historic landmark in the women's movement. Four years ago this date, 6,000 delegates from 187 countries came to discuss and plan together strategic actions that should be taken to address women's issues in all aspects of life, from the economic, political, cultural to the social aspects. Specifically, these concerns were divided into 12 critical areas of concern: poverty, education and training, health, violence against women, armed conflict, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, human rights, the media, environment and the girl child.

It is the concern of this paper to address a particular issue of women and migration under the critical area of women and the economy. Specifically, the paper aims to: 1) present an overview of the context and present situation of migrant women; 2) review the strategic actions in the Beijing Platform of Action (BPFA) that concerns women in migration 3) vis-a-vis above, review the responses of the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and 4) to recommend steps to more effectively address the issues underlying the issue of women and migration.

Globalization, Migration and Women

It cannot be denied globalization has brought about changes for the better or worse of the Asian economy, that is, for the better of already industrialized countries and for the worse of developing and less developed countries. Globalization with its emphasis on the lowering and eventual removal of trade barriers has put the less developed countries to a greater disadvantage. Competition and comparative advantage became by-words in the field as governments are forced to "meet the challenges of globalization" by opening up their economies to foreign investors. And not without grave consequences: in countries where foreign capital is encouraged as (an unsaid) national policy to solve social problems like poverty, underemployment and unemployment, governments race to outbid the other by offering more attractive incentive packages in the form of relaxed labor laws and tax exemptions. It is now a question of where labor is cheapest at the expense of the local workers. The environment is also put at risk as more and more productive farmlands are being converted into industrial zones. The same goes for other public domains such as the uplands, fishing territories, and even ancestral domains of indigenous people, which caused mass displacement and unemployment of people. Pushed by desperation, people would take on whatever available job there is than face unemployment, despite its exploitative working conditions.

But where and when foreign capital cannot be moved into countries, then labor must be transported to where it is. The result is migration of large numbers of Asians to work in other countries. It is very significant to note that the 1990s have seen a greater number of women migrating overseas for work indeed resulting to the feminization of migration. Approximately 1.5 million Asian women, both legal and illegal, are working in foreign countries with 800,000 women leaving for overseas jobs every year as estimated by the International Labor Organization (ILO). In countries like the Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines, women migrant workers outnumber their male counterparts by 84%, 70% and 60% respectively. In Thailand, although women accounted for 25% of migrant workers, Thai women leaving the country through clandestine means are estimated to number significantly higher than the total number of male migrant workers. Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan are also exporting women migrant labor at an increasing rate. Asian women migrant workers are usually found in factories, domestic work and in entertainment. Main receiving countries are Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. In Japan and South Korea, they have introduced "trainee" and "guest worker" systems under which migrants are not regarded as full-time workers but rather people who are in the country for months-long training. However, these trainee and guest worker systems have been used as way to import cheap labor and without having to comply with national requirements of minimum standards. Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, is also major labor importing countries although male workers predominate the number of migrants. Migrant women working in the Middle East are usually domestic workers or nurses.

For most of these women, migration has not been a choice but more of a necessity for economic security if not economic survival. Others opt to immigrate altogether to escape the chronic poverty and hard life in their home countries, giving rise to the number of Asian mail-to-order brides.

Other "push" factors to migration include the encouragement by the government of overseas labor as an answer to mass unemployment and also, as a means to prop its economy through foreign exchange remittance. It was noted that overseas labor has become an industry in itself, as proved by the establishment of national overseas labor offices and proliferation of legal and state-authorized recruitment agencies and recruiters.

On the other side of the coin, "pull" factors from the labor-receiving countries include the industrial restructuring where the local workers move up to higher-technology jobs creating a vacuum in labor-intensive, 3D (dangerous, dirty, demeaning) jobs. Also because of the rising cost of living, and the changing roles of women in society, more women join the workforce to augment the family income, leaving housework to foreign domestic workers.

Wherefore, then, the Asian migrant women and women migrant workers? In the context of globalization, Asian migrant women and women migrant workers face three-fold exploitation:

These abuses are magnified in the case of undocumented women migrant workers. From the experience of migrant support groups, undocumented women workers would rather not report the violence done to them than be deported.

In line with this, trafficking is also another alarming concern in the issue of women and migration. The economic desperation of women is capitalized by traffickers to lure them into migrating to other countries under false promises of work. Upon arrival, however, the women would find themselves sold into prostitution or other kinds of forced labor.

The three-fold exploitation of women migrant workers can also be read as violations of their rights prior to their departure from their home country, on-site at the host country, and on their return.

The Beijing Platform of Action

Although the issue of women and migration has not figured predominantly in the Beijing document, it recognized the special vulnerability of migrant women to abuse and violence. The concerns of women in the context of migration have been subsumed under seven of the 12 critical areas of concern identified, and mostly as strategic objectives for governments and other relevant bodies to adopt. The seven critical areas of concern are: women and poverty, education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and armed conflict, women and economy, and the human rights of women (see pp. 10-12). It is primarily under the women and economy area that the issues and concerns of women and migration were tackled.

The BPFA also recognizes and encourages the NGO efforts towards women empowerment (paragraph 26). Even so, the government must still be the lead actor in implementing social change and development (Women and Poverty, strategic objective A.1 paragraph 60 (a) ). This is important to emphasize in the context of women and migration where NGOs, particularly church and church-based groups, have lead the developmental efforts on migrants concerns than the governments. In some countries, it is even the government who encourages migration as a foreign policy without putting the necessary structures to protect the migrants.

Another noted characteristic of the BPFA with regard to women and migration is its silence on undocumented women migrants. While strategic objectives for governments on the issue of trafficked women were given focus in the BPFA (Violence Against Women, strategic objective D.3), not all undocumented women migrant workers can be said to be trafficked. Undocumented women migrant workers also include women who:

Undocumented women migrants bear special attention because they face the similar exploitative situations as documented women but compounded by their lack of legal status in the country. They are seen as "illegal" people, often, seen also not "entitled" to human rights. It is the experience of NGOs and support groups that undocumented women migrants would opt to remain silent on the violence inflicted against them than be deported thus giving a lie to the idea of an empowered women migrant. Looking at the whole context of women and migration, most women migrant workers are not empowered women: forced to take on dirty, demeaning and dangerous jobs in foreign countries for economic survival, their social mobility and relative afforded to them by migration is such a small victory.

Government Policies and Initiatives on Women Migrant Labor

The government role with regard to migration has been primarily to 1) regulate the flow of migrants leaving the country, or in receiving countries, of migrants entering the country through foreign polices and legislation; and 2) protect the rights of migrant workers and promote their well-being. Promotion of the well-being of migrant workers on-site include sending labor attaches, creating community centers for migrants, and providing emergency repatriation in the case such need arises. Bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries are also done to set standards for working contracts and minimum salaries among other things.

Some countries like the Philippines also impose country-specific and occupation-specific bans in order to protect their workers. However, as with the case with Singapore when the Philippines banned sending workers there, the Singaporean government ignored the ban and allowed the entry of "tourists" who later changed their visas to work permits. In the end, migration is still a question of economics and the market-demand.

Listed below are the Asian migrant women's issues and the governments' responses to them:

1. Welfare and protection

Reading between the lines of policies institutionalized by governments of Asian labor-sending countries to protect its women migrants, the protection of women migrants lie primarily in their age of deployment and skills. With regard to the latter, age restrictions range from 20 years old up (Sri Lanka for domestic workers) to 35 years old up (Pakistan for domestic workers).

The governments also encourage the migration of skilled workers more than the unskilled ones. However, it is noted that the distinction between skilled and unskilled workers is not clear. In Indonesia for instance, "skilled" babysitters was listed as a category for deployment. However, "skilled" or "unskilled" the babysitter might be, it does little to change the nature of her work and working conditions. Given also that the jobs available to women are usually found in gender-stereotyped work such domestic work and in the entertainment industry-sectors where women are more vulnerable to abuse-- skills offer very minimal protection for women migrants.

Aside from the occupation, the government's prerogative in the selection of countries for deployment is also negated by market forces. It cannot risk aggravating its market for its unemployed by insisting on more favorable conditions for them. Cutthroat competition, which characterizes national labor in the sending country, also characterizes that of the international labor setting: the cheaper and more compliant workers are, the better chances they will be hired. At the expense of the migrants, bilateral agreements to set-up standards between labor-sending and labor-receiving countries become unilateral in favor of the receiving country.

Incidents of violence against women migrants are also on a rise. Among the better known cases of violence against women are those of women migrant workers in the Middle East during the Gulf War early 1990, and also migrant women facing decapitation.

Some initiatives from the governments to promote migrant welfare include crackdowns of illegal recruiters, establishment of 24-hour shelters for domestic workers abused by their employers, provision of counseling services and setting-up training centers. Not all countries where migrant workers are deployed, however, have labor attaches for them, and even if there are, there is still the question of gender sensitivity to be addressed.

Also integral in the protection and welfare of the migrant workers is the ratification of the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. To date, only 12 countries have ratified the convention, with only the Philippines and Sri Lanka as the Asian countries who ratified. Bangladesh had already signed the convention but have yet to accede to it.

2. Labor rights

Non-payment of wages, contract substitution, long-working hours without compensation, withholding of passport and other travel documents, and unhealthy working conditions are just some of the problems encountered by migrants with regard to their work. Right to organize and forms unions are also strictly curtailed in some countries. Because of the nature of their work, which is demand-driven aside from dirty, demeaning, and dangerous, women migrant workers are rendered further vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. Exacerbated by the fact that most women migrants work as domestic help in private homes, they are further isolated hence unprotected from abuse. Women in entertainment on the other hand are made to satisfy to customers' egos whether by serving them, dancing for them, going out with them, or sleeping with them or else face termination from their jobs.

The Asian economic crisis of 1997 would best illustrate the plight of migrants as workers with no job security. As expected, migrants bore the brunt of the crisis. Increased lay-offs, wage-cuts and deportation of migrant workers characterized this period. In Hong Kong, employers pushed for the freezing and worse, a 5% wage cut of foreign domestic workers' salaries. Although no mass deportation happened, migrant support groups in Hong Kong reported an increase in terminated domestic workers. In South Korea, 10,800 to 18,000 migrant workers left the country in January 1998 alone-back to their home country where unemployment also awaited them.

Other unfair labor policies for women migrant workers include regular pregnancy screening with the purpose of deporting them when found pregnant.

3. Health and occupational safety

The main health problem of migrants relates to the little, if any at all, access to medical care. To put it bluntly, they are not "allowed" to be ill. Sick migrant workers are seen unproductive hence must be replaced to prevent losses for the employers. In Taiwan, five Filipina workers in chemical factories have died from what was diagnosed as the Steven Johnsons Syndrome (SJS). It was found out that these workers had been working with very little and inadequate protective gear. As of 1997, 38 victims have been claimed by the SJS according to media report, at least 150 according to NGOs.

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Health delegated the task of regular monitoring of migrants' health to private companies which, NGOs fear, would lead to further abuse due to fee hikes.

4. Education and training

With regard to skills, while governments would rather that they deploy skilled workers, market for overseas labor demand workers for 3D jobs in factories (garment, toys, textile, etc.), domestic work and entertainment for women. This has resulted to the de-skilling of women migrant workers, which negates the justification that migration is a way for technology and skills transfer. It is not unusual to find college graduates or teachers from less developed countries in domestic work in industrialized countries. Mostly for economic reasons, women opt to work in these jobs that offer no opportunity for further skills development, education and training than in professional jobs in their home countries that pay much less.

5. Undocumented women migrants

Undocumented women migrants are in a much worse condition than their documented counterparts. On top of the abuses encountered by documented women workers, undocumented women lie under the threat of being exposed and jailed or deported back to their home countries. As legally non-existent in the host country, they cannot file charges against their abusive employers, instead very much under their mercy. As raids on undocumented workers step up, so do the incidents of human rights abuse. Migrants advocates in Japan are particularly worried that the country's amendment of its immigration law could spell out punishment for people who give aid to undocumented workers even for humanitarian reasons.

Amnesty campaigns adopted by the Malaysia and some Arab Gulf states on one hand may be seen as beneficial to undocumented migrant workers as they are either granted legal work permits or repatriated to their countries with light punishment. However, there have been cases where the amnesty program was used by employers to further abuse migrant workers: they would collect money from the migrants promising that they would apply amnesty for them. In fact they never did, instead reported them to the police.

6. Re-integration

Given the present state of migration, the sooner women migrant workers can settle back to their home country the lesser chances that they will become abused. However, from experience, migrants will not settle to their home countries unless the economic security afforded to them and their family by their overseas work would also be available in their home countries. However, again, given that most labor-sending countries prop their frail economies with the foreign exchange remittances from their migrant workers, a real government-initiated re-integration program will not be possible.

The NGO Response

Non-government organizations, particularly the church and church-based groups, have always taken the lead role in the protection, promotion and preservation of migrants' rights. At the national level, with the exception in countries where establishment of NGOs are not allowed, NGOs have provided services from pre-departure orientation to women migrant workers, to on-site services such as counseling, education and training, and shelters, to their return to their home country through re-integration programs and organization of migrants savings groups.

NGOs have also spearheaded several campaigns to prevent further violence against women migrants, as with the case of the almost beheading of Sarah Balabagan in the Saudi Arabia. Sarah was charged with murdering her employer who had raped her. Through the active campaign and advocacy of Philippine NGOs and the international community, they were able to reduce the sentence of death to caning and imprisonment. A similar campaign is being done by groups in Indonesia to prevent the decapitation of 16 Indonesian, also in Saudi Arabia.

Organizing and empowering work is another characteristic of NGO work with women migrants. Research and publication remains an important component in the work of NGOs with migrants in order to bring about more holistic approaches to the migrants' situation. Information dissemination through media is a powerful tool that has aided in raising awareness to the plight of migrants and shatters the myths about them. However, it is observed that there has been a decrease on media reports on migrants and migrants rights abuses. Unless the circumstances are particularly unusual or sensational, incidents of migrant abuses will not be reported-perhaps a grim indicator of the growing apathy for migrants and tolerance for violence.

Networking with migrant groups and advocates in the region and beyond is also an important component of working with migrants. In Asia, the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), which is a network of migrant support and advocate groups, is actively lobbying for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. The MFA is the regional partner of the International Migrants' Rights Watch Committee, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Formed as a loose network in 1990, and consolidated four years after, the MFA has been working to protect, promote and preserve migrants' rights through information exchange, regional advocacy campaigns and organizing bilateral and multilateral help among the network in support of migrant issues. To date, after nine years since its adoption, the UN convention on migrants' rights ratified by only 12 governments: Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Caper Verde, Colombia, Egypt, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Senegal, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Uganda. The governments of Mexico, Morocco, Uganda, Colombia and Egypt have ratified the convention with reservations. The convention needs 20 ratifications and/or accessions in order to come into full implementation. Notably too that all the present ratifications to the convention came from labor-sending countries.

Beyond Beijing: The Challenges

What now, then, for the migrant women?

In the end, the long-term measures that need to be undertaken to address the issue of women and migration and its connecting concerns must also address its root cause: economics. Why do women migrate? Why, particularly in less developed countries, do women still want to go overseas despite the threat of violence to them as women, as non-nationals and as expendable labor in foreign countries? In most cases if not for economic survival, women migrate for economic security for themselves and also for their families. Taking the discussion on more holistic scale, the issue of women and migration is an issue aggravated by globalization: globalization as it relates to economy, poverty, education, health, human rights and women's welfare.

Yet in the meantime that mass migration of women brought about by poverty and hard economic conditions cannot be stemmed, structures must be put in place to ensure the rights of migrants, vis--vis active lobbying against globalization and empowering work with documented and undocumented migrant women. Governments are ultimately accountable for the welfare and protection of migrant women. They should acknowledge their part in the migration process and thus be responsible. At the national level, the governments of both labor-sending and receiving countries:

  1. Recognize the particularity of the context and condition of women migrant workers, both documented and undocumented;
  2. As appropriate, create, integrate, develop and implement gender conscious legislation to address issues regarding documented and undocumented migrant women;
  3. Carry out the strategic objectives concerning migrant women stated in the Beijing Platform for Action;
  4. Being more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in foreign countries, create provisions for undocumented women migrants that their human rights are not violated.
  5. For labor-sending countries, as long term goal, create economic conditions where women, people in general, need not migrate in order to find means of living and for survival;
  6. Establishment of re-integration programs for the returning women migrants in particular would require government support for access to resources, financial or otherwise for the women migrants.

At the international level:

  1. Ratify the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families;
  2. Establish and implement bilateral, multilateral, regional and international agreements to protect, promote and preserve women migrants' and women migrant workers' rights, both documented and undocumented;
  3. Actively monitor migrant rights violations through the creation of international migrants watch bodies, with particular regard to human rights violations against undocumented and / or trafficked women migrants.

To date, the United Nations have appointed a special rapporteur for the migrants' human rights in the person of Ms. Gabriela Rodriguez Pizarro of Costa Rica.


1998 Asian Migrant Yearbook. Asian Migrant Centre, Ltd, 1998.
Asian Women in Migration. Battistella, Graziano and Paganoni, Anthony, ed. Quezon City: Scalabrini Migration Center, 1996.
The Beijing Declaration and the Platform of Action. United Nations, 1996.

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