The Feminization of Migrant Labour in Asia

Asia Europe People's Forum I
29 February 1996


Asia Europe People's Forum I,
Bangkok, Thailand, February 27-29, 1996

Carolyn Medel-Anonuevo
Paper presented at the conference Beyond Geo-politics and Geo-economics: Towards a New Relationship Between Asia and Europe, Bangkok, 27-29 February 1996
Published in ASEM Trading New Silk Routes. Beyond Geo-politics and Geo-economics. Towards a New Relationship Between Asia and Europe

The Asian stewardess with a sweet smile, the alluring Asian woman welcoming the Caucasian men to come and visit her country or the contented Asian wife and mother serving her tired husband and unruly children all contribute to the dominant image of the Asian woman as docile and subservient, always ready to serve, ready to please and ready to take care. In the more recent years, a different image seems to be emerging..wanton abuse of the Filipina or Sri Lankan domestic helper in the Middle East, illegal trafficking of a Thai woman in Japan, Indonesian domestic helpers working without documents in nearby Malaysia and Filipinas and Thais being smuggled across borders of Europe. Nonetheless, it is easy for many, men and women alike to say, it would have really been better if these women all stayed at home, then they would not have suffered all these.

But the startling reality is that in the last two decades more and more Asian women are leaving their families and countries to work abroad, whether in neighbouring Asia, in the oil-rich Middle East or far away Europe. According to figures cited in the UN ESCAP report on the conditions of women in the region, in Indonesia, 78% of registered labour migrants were women in 1988 and in Sri Lanka, it is between 60-70%. For the Philippines, from less than 50% in the eighties, women now comprise 60% of workers deployed abroad.

The same report describes the high incidence of export of female labour in Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Thailand at the same time that some Asian countries like Brunei, Hongkong, Malaysia and Singapore are major recipients of Asian female labour. The increase of outflow of women migrant workers to the Middle East can be seen in the Indonesian example where from 8,000 domestic helpers in 1979, this grew to 50,000 in 1989, and now a hundred thousand, most of them in Saudi Arabia (cited in Heyzer et. al, 1994). In Europe, thousands of Filipinas, Thais and Sri Lankans work in Italy, Spain, UK, France, Germany as domestic helpers and other service-related occupations.

Media sensationalism of human rights violations committed against migrant women, while important in highlighting and bringing pressure to the resolution of a few cases, in one way limits the understanding of the intricate relationship of the patriarchal culture Asian women are brought up with to the changing labour demands of the international economic 'disorder'.

Migration of women has not been given due notice in the past because traditionally mobility of women have been linked with the movement of men as it has always been assumed that as appendages, women are expected to accompany or follow their fathers or husbands. In the Philippines for example, permanent immigration flows show the predominance of females where one of the most frequent reasons for leaving is to join their foreigner spouses (Carino, 1994). In the United States of America which has the longest history of Filipino immigration, Filipinas together with the Korean and Japanese formed the bulk of wives of US citizens who have entered the country. These women come from the three Asian countries which have the largest concentration of US military personnel (Pido as cited in Carino, 1994).

On the other hand, temporary migration (or what is also considered labour migration) has always been associated with men (Arcinas, 1984; Carino, 1994) where they dominated both sea and land based occupations consistent with the stereotype technical, construction and production related education and training available to men. Given the changing demands of the Middle-East and Asian labour market, the eighties however, signalled the start of a shift where eventually female OCWs would outnumber their male counterparts. So by 1992, Filipino women had overtaken the men and by the first half of 1995, sixty-one percent of the new hires were women (POEA data).

Due to the nature of the phenomenon of migration itself, it is difficult to get exact figures on international migration. For example, it is estimated that out of 6.21 million Filipinos overseas as of December 1994, 1.82 M (or 29.31%) are undocumented (CFO Handbook, 1995). The UN ESCAP report cited a survey on Indonesian undocumented workers in Malaysia which showed a sharp increase in the flow of undocumented workers in the late 1980's. Given the nature of their work, it is difficult to ascertain the exact numbers of Asians working as domestic helpers. Furthermore, sex desegregated data has been collected only recently hence the task of reconstructing the history of the magnitude and trends according to gender can be quite complex. Nonetheless, available figures point to the growing feminization of Asian migrant labour hence the focus of the paper.

Where do Asian Women Go?

In the last two decades, the figures show deployment of Asian women in three regions: the Middle East, Asia and Europe. The particularities in the development of receiving countries in these regions show how the demand for male migrant labour slowly transformed to a high need for female migrant labour as the so called modernization process unfolded.

The increase in the world price of oil in the 1970's spurred the economic boom in many Middle East countries. Driven by a development approach that put emphasis on infrastructure, the governments of these countries embarked on a building spree where highways and all kinds of infrastructure were constructed. Given their small and relatively unskilled population, most of them had to import male foreign workers first from other non-oil producing Arab neighbours and then later from Asia, for their construction and oil- related projects. With the completion of most of their projects by the mid-eighties, as well as the clamour for nationalizing labour, the demand for male foreign workers slowly declined. The growing nationalism in the countries which has also been labelled as 'Saudization' or 'Arabization' introduced tensions between the foreign workers and locals as the latter looked at the former as competitors. Nationalist policies which employed cost-reduction strategies to cope with the diminishing oil revenues also affected the recruitment of foreign workers. Meanwhile there was a need to provide personnel to maintain and service the new buildings as well as health personnel for the hospitals that have been constructed. As more and more Middle East households became more affluent, following royalty example, they began to employ domestic helpers, usually women.

The extent to which the many sending countries' governments have grown dependent on the so called 'Middle East Connection' was of course, highlighted during the Gulf War crisis of 1990 where Filipinos in Kuwait and Iraq were caught in the crossfire resulting to many of them fleeing from their employment as well as pending departures cancelled. It is estimated that over a six-month period, the lost of revenues (whether in the form of remittances, placement and processing fees) totalled 2.2 B pesos (POEA Annual Report, 1990).

An unexpected consequence of the war was a new migration route where many affluent Kuwaitis moved to the United Kingdom with their Asian domestic helpers, many of whom refused to go back to Kuwait even after the war and now comprise a sizable amount of the undocumented workers in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, the Iran war and the Middle East conflict in the late 70s also paved the way for many Filipinas to work in France as they accompanied their fleeing Iranian and Lebanese employers (Babaylan, 1993).

Meantime in Asia, while some countries were experiencing economic decline, nations experiencing prosperity like Singapore, Malaysia, and of late, Taiwan opened employment opportunities for its women who could now hire the services of foreign domestic helpers, to take over their household chores. On the other hand in Hongkong, which has grown to be an international financing and industrial centre in the region, highly paid expatriates initiated the hiring of foreign domestic helpers. With increasing affluence, Hongkong nationals later also availed of the liberal terms for employing foreigner domestic helpers. For all these countries, as the Philippines is close-by, the costs of bringing in Filipinas are not as high. The Hongkong Immigration Department 1991 statistics showed for example that out of the 73,060 foreign domestic workers, 90% were Filipinas, 6.2 % were Thais and , 1.66 % were Indonesians. Given this demand, domestic helpers have ever since dominated overseas workers deployment in the region in contrast to the Middle East which started out as male-dominated and is now undergoing shifts to becoming female-dominated.

In Japan, one could also find a large percentage of entertainers coming mostly from the Philippines and then from Thailand. The rise of numbers of women in this category started in the mid-eighties just as when figures for Japanese tourists (mostly men) to the Philippines slowly declined. One of the development strategies launched by the Marcos government was to emphasize tourism, most of which were actually a front for what is now known as 'sex tourism'. As the women and church groups uncovered and protested the presence of large numbers of Japanese men (for example, by the end of the seventies, Japanese were the largest group of tourists in the Philippines) who were primarily interested in sex with Filipino women, the business of sex tourism slowly declined. Aside from going to other destinations (e.g. Thailand), the new tactic was to bring Filipinas to Japan as shown by the gradual increase of Filipina tourists.

This is one disturbing trend because as figures for Filipinas show, the trends for the deployment of women have not changed drastically in the last four years where Japan remains to be the number one destination for the women while countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Hongkong, United Arab Emirates (UAE) continue to be in the top five.

Meanwhile for Europe, Asian female migration is not highlighted enough as faced with recession, many European countries have stopped recruiting foreign workers. Yet, the numbers of Asians especially Filipinas in the region continue to grow as for example, it is estimated that there are about 200,000 Filipino workers in Italy, 95% of whom are females. Sixty thousand of them can be found in Rome and 30,000 in Milan. The rest are scattered nationwide, with northern Italy having the biggest number (Ardivilla, 1991). In Spain, the Philippine embassy estimates that including undocumented workers, there are 55,000 Filipinas, majority of whom are working as domestic helpers. (Alfonso, 1991).

In summary, one could see that the Asian women migrant workers fill the shortage of work force in occupational areas which are slowly being left behind by the receiving countries citizens, whether in Asia, the middle East or Europe. Concretely this means that household chores previously done by the locals are now taken over by foreign domestic helpers as the receiving countries' women find more financially rewarding activities and/or as their households become more affluent where there is a higher status for having a foreign domestic helper. In one way, one could say, that such a taking over of household chores is not different from the phenomenon of rural women moving to the cities to work as domestic helpers, taking over reproductive chores of their urban counterparts as the latter gain more access to other employment opportunities. Would crossing national boundaries make a difference? Or is it evident that unequal patterns of growth among and within countries of the region have drastically changed the life stories of women.

How do Asian Female Migrant Workers Live?

In many countries, it is usual to have labour contracts binding the employer and employee to certain terms. In the Philippines for example, a Standard Employment Contract (SEC) for Asia (covering Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia and also to three European countries, UK, Belgium and France) provides the ff. conditions: 1) minimum wage of US $200; 2) four days off monthly; 3) eight working hours a day (overtime shall be given exceeding this); 4) other employment terms as passport custody, leave entitlements, legitimate salary deductions; 5) insurance bond or banker's guarantee of $2,000 for Singapore principals; 6) cash bond of US $100,000; 7) screening of Malaysian employers as to their financial capability; 8) free insurance coverage for workers.

Of course, the most important question is the extent to which the terms of SEC are followed and under which conditions, violations are reported. But in reality, violations start as early as the pre-deployment stage where thousands of Asia women fall prey to the dubious ways of illegal recruiters and continue even as the migrant worker comes back to her country in an effort to reintegrate, where she finds out the lack of sustainable employment opportunities that would no longer drive her to foreign land.

Whether in Europe, Asia or the Middle East, stories of human rights violations resonate. According to KALAYAAN and the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers, in the United Kingdom where they have worked on 4,000 cases they have worked with since 1987, problems range from 'confiscation of passport; enforced change of contract including the withholding of wages; a 16-20 hour workday, seven day weeks and no holidays; being made to sleep in corridors or on the floor; frequent deprivation of food and malnourishment, with no access to medical and health services or compensation for injuries. Overseas domestic workers are often kept in virtual or literal imprisonment in the home of their employer; prohibited from engaging in normal social contacts, including talking to the other staff or outsiders; and the interception of letters from their families. Physical abuse such as beatings, hair pulling and spitting are 'normal' as well as racist and degrading name calling is common. Likewise, women regularly experience sexual harassment and abuse which includes actual, threatened or attempted rape.(Briefing Notes on the Plight of Overseas Domestic Workers, 1995).

Meanwhile at the same time that the Middle East remains a major recruiter of Filipino women, it is also the region where one can find the highest number of complaints. In 1986, POEA data shows that Kuwait, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are the top three countries as far as complaints of Filipina OCWs are concerned. Aside from the isolated nature of the work of domestic helpers which largely shapes their conditions of work, there are three factors that have aggravated the living and working conditions of Filipina domestic helpers. The non-compliance to the terms of the contract is affected by many factors among them, a system in some places where the Arab middleman/ broker arbitrarily assigns the women to various households. The extreme cultural diversity constrains adaptation as Filipinas are not prepared to live and work in a society entirely different from their own where Islam permeates the lives of the ordinary Arab, whom a domestic helper is constantly confronted. This is in contrast to the male overseas contract workers who interact mostly with fellow foreign workers and are usually living in camps or villas separate from the local population. The last factor is the conservatism of these countries when it comes to women. The veiling and seclusion of women in these countries necessitate that Filipinas also have to follow the rigid and strict rules of conduct for women (Anonuevo, 1994).

It has already previously been mentioned that the kind of skills required for women overseas contract workers differ considerably from those of men. The international division of labour, where people from the poor and underdeveloped countries provide unskilled labour rich and industrialized nations, intersects with the gender division of labour, with women bearing the brunt of a sharply sex-segregated character of the labour demands. It is therefore no accident that Third World women like Filipinas end up in jobs like domestic helpers, nurses or entertainers. First, the training they obtained in the country through the socialization process, fits the stereotype functions assigned to women (to save, to care for, nurture and to entertain). Second, the economic conditions in sending countries make it an easy choice for women to try their luck abroad (Anonuevo, 1994).

Given the nature of the jobs of many Asian OCWs, where most of them have to work in isolation and separate households, it is easy to understand how human rights violations can suddenly increase when women are deployed abroad. The rearing up of women which emphasizes docility, acceptance of hardship as part of the sacrifices one has to bear with, the internalization that women have to take care of the individual members of the family as well as the preservation of the unit, all contribute to the OCWs widespread acceptance of the situation they find themselves in. ions.

Another level of analysis is to distinguish the conditions of documented and so called undocumented workers. While they may be employed in the same kind of occupation, it can be argued that there is a qualitative difference between a documented contract worker where the issue of compliance to the terms of contracts is primary compared to the undocumented worker who may have an entirely different set of problems related to her legal stay which has implications for job security, living and working conditions and a psychological mind-set of fear of being caught.

Nevertheless, it has to be emphasized that reports in media and studies show that any of the above can happen to an Asian woman irregardless of where she is and the legal circumstances of her stay as the nature of her work makes her vulnerable to such a situation. Educated and trained in traditional roles in her country, she becomes easy prey to the inhuman living and working conditions which the labour market has managed not to highlight. For while the recruitment and contract transactions happen at the public sphere, the actual work is carried in the private sphere, in the confines of a house not easily laid bare to the public and is actually a continuation of her traditional role as a woman. While the market has mediated her entrance to the overseas labour force, it also leaves her on her own defense once she is out of the public sphere.


The international labour market no doubt plays a crucial role in the deployment of the OCWS where the private sector continues to dominate. Given the existing market- driven overseas employment programs, what options are still open to the governments? How can it best protect the interests of OCWs, especially the more vulnerable women?.

Among Asian sending countries, the Philippines has the longest history of an overseas employment policy so it would be interesting to examine the policies and laws. CFMW and KAIBIGAN (1995) show that in spite of the 135 parliamentary, state and congressional bills and resolutions on migrant issues during the Marcos and Aquino administrations, only 2 eventually became laws (which means less than three percent).

A further analysis of existing laws, rules and regulations will show that they are addressed to three different actors: 1) Philippine government; 2) private sector; and 3) overseas workers. Examining the trends at different levels reveals the following: a) creation, streamlining and reorganization of government structures; b) licensing, accreditation, regulation of the private sector; and c) guidelines for remittances, protective mechanisms, information dissemination and reintegration programs to the overseas workers. Concerning the last, it has to be noted that the most number of policies relate to ensuring the remittances of Filipinos working abroad, consistent with the Philippine government overseas employment policy's primary aim of generating foreign exchange.

Meanwhile, aside from the responsibility of the sending countries government, one should also examine the receiving countries mechanism for protecting foreign workers. Sending countries and migrant organizations as well those advocating for migrant rights have already recognized that the most difficult barrier in the deployment stage would be the legal impediments for there exists a general incompatibility of labour and immigration laws between some host countries and the receiving countries.

While one cannot come up with a comprehensive and detailed picture of laws in the receiving countries, it is possible to cull two trends in laws affecting Asian women whether as OCWs or spouses of foreigners. The first tendency is to treat domestic helpers, usually women, as appendages of their employers who can not be considered independent workers. For example, upon entry to the UK, domestic workers are given no independent immigration status as workers as they are tied to the original employer and thereby effectively deprived of their worker's rights, all of which ultimately depend of the right to change employers. (From Briefing Notes on the Plight of Overseas Domestic Workers, KALAYAAN, 1995).

In a similar vein, under the New Conditions for Stay (NCS) or two week rule implemented in Hongkong in 1987, in the event of contract termination for whatever reasons, NCS automatically reduces the DH employment visa to two weeks or shorter. There is also an existing rule that those with DH contracts (unlike those with employment visa) cannot change their employment in HK unless they reapply and process a new contract in the country of origin. The NCS therefore can easily be used by the employer to harass the women.

A parallel situation is created by the German Law on Foreign Persons which requires marriages between Germans and foreigners to last at least four years - a period of validation - before the foreign wife can be issued residency independent of her husband. Consequently, foreign women who happen to marry into an unhappy relationship are deprived of any exits from the marriage for at least four years. (Alampay, 1995) This 'minimum marriage period' is also found in Switzerland, Denmark and Netherlands.

The second tendency which we can call 'regularization' paves the way for the gradual integration of the worker by granting residency once certain conditions have been met. For example, the new Italian Amnesty Law applies to nationals from non-EEC countries who arrived in Italy before Dec.1, 1989 where they are granted the right to regularize their status within 120 days from January 2, 1990. (From Report of Albert Valenciano, OWWA Welfare Officers in Italy) Overseas Employment Info Series - Vol3. No.2 - August-September 1990). Through the possible regularization of more than 200,000 migrant workers, the law facilitates the integration of legal migrants into the Italian social environment, ultimately allowing them to enjoy parity of treatment with Italian citizens.

Along the same line, the Spanish Council of Ministers approved in 1991 an administrative measure providing for a six-month period by which all undocumented alien workers may regularize or legalize their status in Spain. This means that workers may apply for regularization if they can prove that they have been in Spain prior to July 24, 1985 or that they can prove that they were in the country since May 1991, provided they meet conditions. Twenty thousand Filipinos, mostly women in the service sector have applied for legalization and 10,000 permits have already been issued. (Overseas Employment Info Series, Vol.4 No.2 Dec. 1991).

Of course, the other side of this regularization strategy is to have stringent measures for undocumented workers. In Spain, there is the Ley de la Estranjera (Law for Foreigners), in Italy, the Martelli Law and in Greece, the Epihirisi Skoupa (or Operation Clean-Up), all paving the way for street searches, police raids, closer surveillance in the border and massive deportation (CFMW and KAIBIGAN, 1995) and more often than not violating human rights of undocumented workers.

So while a first glance at regularization related policies would seem that these are positive efforts to integrate migrant workers to the broader society as they are afforded more rights, closer examination will show the double-edged nature of such moves as they are usually accompanied by measures that virtually take away the rights of those who are not able to prove that they have legal documents.

Furthermore at the EU level, one can discern the washing of the hands on migrant issues at the regional level as the Maastricht treaty effectively transfers them to ad-hoc intergovernmental groups like the TREVI group in 1976, the Schengen Group in 1985 and the Ad-Hoc Immigration Act in 1986. This is problematic as it mixes migrant issues with crime-related concerns like the terrorism, drug trafficking etc.. So up to know, there is no common EU policy on migration (CFMW and KAIBIGAN, 1995). Immigration flows come and go and change direction and in all these, governments have often been more sensitive to the labour market demands rather than in protection of overseas workers. Often caught in a bind to protect their own nationals' interests, foreign governments in one way, either through direct measures or indirect ways, contribute to the perpetuation of human rights violations whether racist or sexist in nature. It therefore can be argued that Asian migrant women workers are triply vulnerable in foreign countries as 1) their living and working conditions continue to isolate them and do not lay bare the oppressive and exploitative situation of household and sex- related work; 2) there is a low regard for such occupations resulting in discrimination and marginalization in the larger society and only succeeds in reinforcing racist views; and 3) there is lack of a legal framework for the protection of their rights and welfare which effectively denies them the right to seek recourse whenever these have been violated. Already vulnerable as a woman in her own country, the Asian migrant woman worker is effectively exposed to more dangers as her own government, the private overseas work industry and receiving countries (whether it be their individual citizens, communities or governments), through different mechanisms, all contribute to the non-protection of her welfare and rights as well as the non-recognition of her contribution to her country as well as well as the receiving country's economy.

What are the Options for Action?

Given the living and working conditions of Asian migrant women, the most crucial step to take is to break their isolation by developing and implementing education and training sessions that will provide them with information and skills that facilitates their understanding of their conditions and their rights as women and as workers in foreign countries.

In Europe, BABAYLAN (a Europe wide Filipino women organization) has developed its own migrant women orientation course which looks into the specificities of women conditions in the different European countries and its interconnectedness with her upbringing as a Filipino woman.

The dissemination of education and training modules and workshops has to be a priority concern of migrant groups as this is intricately linked with the organizing of migrant women which remains to be the biggest challenge. Advocacy and lobbying efforts can only be successfully sustained if large numbers of migrant women are organized and act together on pressing issues that affect them as well as other migrant women.

An organized Asian migrant women will then be able to develop a migrant agenda that will not only take into consideration the diverse realities of migrant women but perhaps more important allow them to forge a stronger migrant identity certain of their contribution to their families, sending and receiving economies and more important, of their own self-value.

At a different level, linking with other migrant groups as well as local people's organizations, labour groups and NGOs is a task that has to be addressed to show the interrelatedness of the struggles and resistance waged at different arenas and spaces.

The lobbying efforts of migrant groups in the UN Conferences of Human Rights (1993), Population (1994), Social Summit (1995) and the Women's Conference (1995) already show some gains as migrant women's issues have become more visible. As the written documents and the implementation of such Declarations show however, there is still a lot to be done as migrant issues remain largely marginal. Making public the private issues of domestic work is part and parcel of the developing agenda of migrant women.