Migrant Workers

Globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities to fill gaps in nations with a dwindling labour supply. While globalization may foster the acceleration of trade and investment, it does not create an environment that protects migrant workers’ economic, social and physical security. This is even more so when it comes to women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constituting 50% or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America.

By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who provide safety nets that sustain communities at home. Studies indicate that women migrant workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — remittances from their incomes account for as much as 10% of the GDP in some countries. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US$305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet, while migration can bring new employment and opportunities, it also bears great risks for women, many of whom end up at the lower end of the job market. Female migrants often work as domestic workers and entertainers — a euphemism for sex workers — in unregulated informal sectors that do not fall under national labour laws. Migrant women routinely lack access to social services and legal protection and are subjected to abuses such as harsh working and living conditions, low wages, illegal withholding of wages and premature termination of employment. The worst abuses force women into sexual slavery.

UN Women's work with women migrants draws upon international human rights standards and encompasses countries of origin and destination. Working with governments, civil society and the private sector, efforts focus on promoting safe migration for women, eliminating trafficking, and enabling policy, institutional and socio-economic environments that ensure women’s equal opportunities and benefits from migration. Specific programme support goes towards establishing laws and practices that protect women migrants’ human rights, drawing connections to national poverty reduction strategies, strengthening migrants’ organizations, and brokering exchanges between source and destination countries to advance labour rights.

UN Women in Action

On The Move – Regional Consultation on Women Migrant Workers and Launch of New Website

25 August 2010, New Delhi – UN Women (part of UN Women) facilitated a Regional Consultation on Empowering Women Migrant Workers for Asia and Arab States. Countries represented at the Consultation included Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam.

A highlight of the Consultation was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Indian Council of Overseas Employment, Government of India and UN Women South Asia Sub-Regional Office. The MoU establishes an institutional framework for the Indian Government to work with UN Women and other agencies to address the challenges of migrant women.

At the consultation, UN Women shared its experience to date working on women and migration and sought suggestions from participants on how to best respond to the needs of women migrant workers in the future. Participants shared their countries’ experiences and worked on sub-regional strategies focusing on women migrant workers in South East Asia, South Asia and the Arab States.

Next steps

The Consultation concluded with a number of key recommendations for UN Women to focus on, including:

  • Incorporating gender perspectives in legal framework and policies.
  • Capacity building of key policy makers, service providers and women migrant workers.
  • Sharing of good practices for capacity building and advocacy.
  • Ensuring sex disaggregated data is available.
  • Focusing on domestic workers at sub-regional, regional and global levels of work.

Law to protect rights of women migrant workers in Blitar, Indonesia
With UN Women's support, a law on the Protection of Migrant Women was developed and adopted in Indonesia's Blitar district. The law and complementing decrees mandate significant protection for migrant women, including a protection fund to cover legal costs of discrimination and abuse cases faced by migrant women, and a provision to assign female doctors for medical check-ups to prevent sexual harassment. This law is being replicated in other districts of Indonesia.

Recruitment agencies sign Covenant of Ethical Conduct and Good Practices for women migrant workers
In the Covenant of Ethical Conduct and Good Practices, recruitment agencies of nine Asian countries agreed on far-reaching business standards geared towards protecting women migrant workers. Financial exploitation and deliberate misinformation of women migrant workers through illegal recruiters lead not only to economic ruin, but also to physical and sexual abuse of countless women. Through the Covenant, which UN Women helped develop, the recruitment agencies commit themselves to information campaigns for migrant workers and employers, to social security and insurance programmes that benefit migrant workers, and to the establishment of resource and welfare centres in labour-receiving countries.

The Youth, Employment and Migration (YEM) Joint Programme
China’s migrant workforce of 150 million, often described as a floating population, represents the largest movement of people in modern history. Female migrants make up a third of all migrants, and constitute over half of those aged 16-24. In China, about 15 million people are engaged in domestic service, 96% of whom are female.

Working together with other UN agencies and national counterparts, UN Women aims to promote young domestic workers’ rights and skills through the YEM Joint Programme. Supported by the MDG Achievement Fund, this programme brings together nine UN agencies and aims to develop the human capital of young people and protect and promote the rights of China’s young migrants. This joint programme will run from 2009 through 2011.

Initiatives in Cambodia to strengthen women migrant worker rights
In Cambodia, UN Women is engaged in multiple initiatives to strengthen the rights of women migrant workers.

  • UN Women has provided assistance to the ministry of Labour and Vocational Training (MoLVT) to develop gender-sensitive pre-departure training for migrant workers.
  • UN Women has supported the development of a standardised contract for Cambodian overseas migrant workers which sets a benchmark for secure and fair contracts for migrant workers.
  • Women migrant workers are building their knowledge on laws and government policies that affect them. Through training programmes and socialisation methods, UN Women is supported the women migrant workers to know their rights and claim them.
  • Advocates for women migrant workers are spreading the word about migrant worker rights on talk radio shows and television.