Governments must protect the rights of South-Asian domestic workers migrating to the Middle East, says GAATW on International Migrants Day.
On International Migrants Day, Jebli Shrestha, GAATW's Programme Officer - Research, speaks out against the restrictive migration polices of countries of origin in South Asia and calls on governments to protect domestic workers' rights.
Migration for work has numerous benefits. Migrants fill labour force gaps in destination countries; countries of origin earn foreign currency; while workers gain personal development together with economic agency. However, migration policies of both destination and countries of origin, especially for domestic workers, are not centred on the rights of migrant workers. Instead they provide inadequate rights protection and deny further development opportunities for workers.
It is estimated that 40% of migrant workers in Gulf countries are women from South Asia, the majority are domestic workers, attracted by the free visa provision of destination countries. Despite this, governments in these countries shy away from providing conditions for decent work and a dignified life by failing to recognise domestic work as formal labour or provide protection for workers. This invisibility of domestic workers in the legal framework is reflected in the attitudinal issues faced by the workers within the household of their employers.
Similarly, countries of origin that benefit from remittances sent by migrant domestic workers also lack adequate measures that protect the rights of migrant workers. Many South Asian governments have imposed restrictive policies that have made migration for work for women riskier. Nepal's ban on women under the age of 30 migrating for domestic work is an example.
Governments defend their policies as "protecting" women from abuses they face at destinations. However, the move to curtail women's freedom has been seen as a reflection of cultural practices in the region where women's sexual purity is linked to the family's honour and, in a larger context, that of the nation's.
Such policies ignore root causes of women's migration for domestic work. Long-standing discrimination and inequality play an important role – the majority of these workers are rural women with lower levels of education and limited economic options. Many also decide to migrate to escape unhappy or unwanted relationships and violence, to access opportunities for development and sometimes for just an opportunity to see the world beyond. Many women view abuses and exploitation at destination merely as an extension of experiences at home.
Nepal's example shows that restrictions on migration have not discouraged women from travelling to Gulf countries to work as domestic workers – indicating the ineffectiveness of such policies in "protecting" women. If anything, restrictions have made their journeys more dangerous and their migration experiences worse.
For example, barriers and restrictions form the basis of business models of unscrupulous agents that aid women to move for work. Even when agents act with good intentions, women travelling in contravention of government restrictions may find themselves in situations of risk during the journey or at destination, and may lack state protection should they need it.
Regulated open channels for migration and enhanced measures for protection of rights of migrant domestic workers at destinations ensures safer migration. An important step both for countries of origin and destination would be to ratify and implement obligations specified in the International Labour Organisation's Domestic Workers Convention 189.
The economic and political influences of countries of destination allow them to shop around in the Asian region for the lowest cost workers, and disregard the rights of domestic workers to a living wage and other labour rights. Ensuring migrant workers' wage protection and fair remuneration is critical. This would only be possible if countries of origin refrain from undercutting each other by providing workers at lower wages.
Development of domestic workers also requires countries of origin to invest substantially in the workers – at the very least in quality skills and language training – so they can adapt to and perform their tasks. However, understanding of rights – as a woman, as a worker, as a migrant worker – is equally imperative. Women must be able to recognise when their rights are violated and to take action against it. It is the responsibility of both countries of origin and destination to guarantee a safe environment to migrant domestic workers through policies and laws that uphold their rights as workers and ensure effective implementation.