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Restrictions on women’s labour migration can increase risk of exploitation

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ILO: Restrictions on women’s labour migration can increase risk of exploitation
Gender-based migration bans and restrictions are one way in which states attempt to address the risk of exploitation and abuse faced by women migrant workers, especially in the domestic work sector.

ed a joint study analysing the effects of restrictions on women’s labour migration in the ASEAN region. The study, Protected or put in harm’s way? Bans and restrictions on women’s labour migration in ASEAN countries, focuses on limitations on migration for domestic work from Myanmar to Singapore and Cambodia to Malaysia. 


(ILO news) – Gender-based migration bans and restrictions are one way in which states attempt to address the risk of exploitation and abuse faced by women migrant workers, especially in the domestic work sector. According to the report, policies limiting women’s mobility can in fact increase the risks associated with migration in addition to infringing international standards on non-discrimination and equal opportunity. 

The study’s title: Protected or put in harm’s way? is based on data and interviews with over 150 migrant and returnee women, private recruitment agents, government officials, lawyers, academics, and representatives from migrant organizations, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, religious institutions, and international organizations. 

The study finds that while meant to protect from harm, bans often result in women migrating irregularly, with less access to assistance throughout the migration process. “Bans do not stop women from migrating, instead many choose to migrate despite the known risks, judging that the potential gains outweigh the problems”, says Anna Olsen, Technical Specialist for the TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme. 

The report indicates that migration restrictions often lead to increased risks of forced labour or trafficking, as workers must rely on unregistered recruitment agents or brokers. Women who migrated despite the bans reported difficulties in accessing assistance when problems occurred, and the lack of government oversight was found to lead to abuses of power by recruitment agencies. A returnee domestic worker from Cambodia recalled: “Within three months of going, I was tortured and wanted to come back, but I was sent to an agency office and they told me that even if I was killed, no one would know.” 

The report points out some restrictions whereby women are required to obtain spousal or parental permission to migrate, thus denying their right to decide for themselves. “By limiting women’s livelihood options instead of protecting their rights as migrant workers, gender-specific migration bans reinforce paternalistic gender norms”, says Olsen. 

Other restrictions may have more indirect effects, such as undervaluing what is often considered ‘women’s work’. The study finds that bans on migrating for domestic work can further entrench the low value that societies in the region place on this highly feminized sector – an ‘undervaluing’ that can be used to justify under-payment of domestic workers and deny that domestic work is work. The compound effect is that migrant domestic workers suffer frequent labour rights abuses. 

Protected or put in harm’s way? underlines that restricting women’s mobility limits the potential benefits of migration for women migrant workers, their families, and their communities both in countries of origin and destination. “Migration can – and should – be a catalyst for increasing individual women’s economic and social power“, says Olsen. 

The study recommends that governments repeal all gender-based restrictions on labour migration and implement empowering and rights-protective policies for all women migrant workers. Such policies should include extending full labour protections to domestic workers, and recognizing the contribution they make to society. Ratifying the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), is a key step in this process.
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