In the past several decades globalisation, unequal development between and within countries, and conflict and environmental degradation, have prompted unprecedented levels of international migration. It is estimated that there are currently nearly 250 million migrants worldwide, half of whom are women. In developed countries, demographic changes, such as aging societies, a larger female workforce, and labour market shortages prompted by a move towards service-oriented economies have created a demand for (low-wage) female workers, especially in the hospitality and care work sectors, and the entertainment sector. In developing countries, economic restructuring and industrialisation have led to the loss of traditional livelihoods, with a disproportionate effect on women, pushing many to seek work outside their communities. At the same time migration policies have not responded to this change in labour market supply and demand, leading to increasingly precarious migration and work for many women, especially those with lower education and social status.

In the past 20 years, feminists, including GAATW, have tried to bring attention to the violence, abuse and exploitation that women experience in the process of their labour migration. GAATW has tried to stress women’s perspectives, and had detailed the unintended consequences of protectionist policies like the anti-trafficking initiatives undertaken by states in ‘Collateral Damage’ back in 2007. However, the conversation about trafficking has backfired and contributed to further violating the rights of migrating women. Governments of destination countries have restricted migration opportunities, especially for low-wage workers, and increased border controls, while origin countries have placed restrictions on women’s mobility, to ‘protect’ them from trafficking. However, instead of protecting the migrant women workers, these restrictions have led to a market for clandestine and debt-financed migration, leading to the very vulnerabilities including risk of violence and trafficking that they were intended to prevent.

Access to Justice has been one of GAATW’s three thematic priorities since 2005. Through this programme, we try to understand how migrant women themselves view ‘justice’ and what factors enable and hinder their access to justice. We’ve learnt from them that justice should not solely be seen through a legal prism, which is often male oriented and focused on prosecutions. Rather, justice should be viewed comprehensively to include gender and social justice that is rooted in a right to dignity and in state accountability, that values the indivisibility and interdependence of political, economic, social, legal, and cultural human rights, and sees all of these as cumulatively leading towards the greater goal of justice.  

Justice for migrant women workers needs to be embedded into migration governance mechanisms. The international community has recognised and responded to the urgent migration and refugee crisis that exploded in 2011, prompted by European and indeed a global lack of empathy towards migrants, by initiating the process of drafting Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees. They are intended to provide countries with an international roadmap on migration, which sets enforceable human rights-based standards for states in dealing with migration and its resultant impacts. At the same time, the Global Compacts need to include strong, binding protections that allow women to access justice, when their rights have been violated.

At GAATW, we are excited to be among the civil society organisations that will come to bear on this process and to bring our expertise in working with women migrant workers. If women migrant workers are able to access dignified employment opportunities, it would facilitate sustainable development and inclusive growth throughout the world. At this momentous time in history, we laud the Commission on the Status of Women 61st session and UN Women International Women’s Day, 2017 theme of ‘Women in the Changing World of Work’. The issue is pertinent in the context of the Global Compact on Migration as female migrant workers make up approximately 90% of all female migrants worldwide.

We are heartened to see the voices raised on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017 and we lend our voice in support and solidarity with civil society and women across the world.