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     Volume 6 Issue 28 | July 20 , 2007 |

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Friendlier Policies for Women Migrant Workers

Shahnaz Parveen

Training in basic skills can significantly help women migrant workers.

Women, migrating to different parts of the world for livelihood are no longer the invisible army of globalisation. Their remittance counts. With all the opportunities opening up in the international market, migration of women workers abroad in quest of a better life will continue, even with the existing taboo, social barriers and systematic disadvantaged position. So why not make it safer?

Feminisation of foreign employment is a recent global phenomenon. Only a decade ago women in most cases followed their husbands abroad. Today women are travelling on their own for foreign employment, which has gradually transformed them into contributors from beneficiaries.

Recent reports by UNFPA indicate that today women constitute almost half of all international migration worldwide. Among the total number of international migrant workers, about 49.6 percent are women. During the last decades migrant women workers have become the breadwinner of many families.

In some countries such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines, the composition of women workers is higher than the male migrant workers, with the percentage of 79, 68 and 58 respectively.

Countries like Bangladesh and Nepal are in full-fledged competition as labour-exporting countries. With bans being imposed on and off, percentage of female migrant workers in these countries is increasing every year.

Women migrant workers need basic orientation about the culture, language and lifestyle of the countries they are going to.

All this and much more we learnt from a trip to Nepal organised by Bangladesh Ovibasi Mahila Sramik Association (BOMSA) with the help of UNIFEM Bangladesh (United Nations Development Fund for Women). The team comprised members from various sectors including returnee migrant workers, government officials, members of municipalities, journalists, representatives from BOMSA and UNIFEM.

The objective of the trip was to share insights with our Nepali counterparts about issues related to female migrant workers, their problems, ways to make migration safer, find out possible opportunities and ways to utilise them.

According to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, there are around 2, 65, 827 Bangladeshis working outside the country (up to May 2007). Among them officially 70, 000 are women. However, the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment estimates that the number is around 4 lakhs including the migrant women who have gone through illegal channels. The real scenario is therefore missing in the documents.

Officially there are around 10 lakh Nepali migrant workers. According to the Nepali Department of Labour and Employment Promotion the number is around 17 lakhs including the undocumented workers who went through irregular channels.

Among this number, 15 percent are women. It is estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 Nepalese women are working as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Of 12,000 to 14,000 Nepalese working in Israel, 80 per cent are women.

Throughout the five-day visit, we met Nepali think tanks, government officials, foreign employment association members, rights activists, lawyers and journalists.

One of our visits was to Pourakhi, a similar organisation like BOMSA working with and for the female migrant workers. Pourakhi in Nepalese means hard working and self-reliant. Pourakhi, a voluntary organisation started with only seven female migrant workers. Today with all the hard work, they have around 85 members, helping out thousands of female migrant workers in Nepal.

Their work includes disseminating information and providing pre departure training to aspirant migrant workers, legal assistance and counselling to workers in trouble. Their work includes not only the migrant workers; even the families left behind are supported by Pourakhi.

Pourakhi has expanded its work in rural areas trying to sensitise the local people and government officials.

Coordinator of Pourakhi, Bijaya Rai Shrestha, a returnee migrant worker herself said, “Women are migrating for foreign employment for years but they somehow remained invisible in the eyes of everyone. Their contribution to families were never acknowledged”

“The State has only discussed and made policies about male migrants workers. They even banned women from going abroad for work. Necessity takes people a long way. The ban never stopped women from migrating”, she added.

Sita Rupakheti, one of the voluntary members of Pourakhi and a returnee migrant worker said, “People have an aversion towards female migrant workers. They always confuse trafficking and women migrating for foreign employment as the same thing”

“I went to earn for my family through legal channels. They still hate us, look at us suspiciously as if we have done something wrong”, she added.

Both the returnee workers however admit that things have improved. People's outlook towards the migrant workers has changed in recent years. Migrant workers are also more open about discussing their issues.

The two counterparts BOMSA and Pourakhi discussed various problems faced by Bangladeshi and Nepali workers many of which are common. Women from both the countries vastly migrate to work in the informal sector mostly as domestic workers to the Middle East. Agencies or middlemen very often cheat aspirant migrant workers. Most of these women have no skills. They even lack the knowledge of using simple household appliances. Language barriers, cultural differences and lack of skills make them even more vulnerable in an unknown society.

They are often paid sub-standard salaries, which are sometimes delayed or withheld. There are no day-offs, food is inadequate, accommodation unsafe and uncomfortable, medical benefits are denied. There have been innumerable cases of sexual harassment and abuse, excessive workload and income-related exploitation.

Unable to handle these issues the Bangladesh government banned women migrant workers from going abroad in 1998. Finally the ban was withdrawn in 2005. However, women workers must be above 25 years to be eligible for foreign employment. While the Nepal government banned women domestic workers in the Gulf countries and they have lifted the ban in 2006. In both the countries it is mandatory for women to acquire permission from their husbands or fathers on paper.

Officials from both Bangladesh and Nepal however realised that restrictions could never stop migration of women seeking employment abroad. The only persons who benefited from the ban were unscrupulous recruiting agents, by sending thousands of women through irregular channel and cheating the governments millions of tax money.

According to Saru Joshi Shrestha, Regional Programme Manager for Migration, UNIFEM, “Restrictions only encouraged migration though illegal channels making migrating women more vulnerable to trafficking”

She said that lifting of the ban in Nepal only seems verbal. It is not yet being implemented properly. It is also important to remove the requirements of guardian's approval while women migrate for work. “To make migration safer, it is better to empower women at the pre-departure stage with training rather than controlling them”

Today with more sending countries entering the labour export market, there is competition among them while receiving countries have wider choices, which makes our labour cheaper every day. Fearing loss of their market share, labour-exporting agencies have contributed to the further institutionalisation of low wages for workers.

They have also established the practice that the minimum standard wage that the overseas employer must pay could be lower for women than for men.

Deependra Bickram Thapa, Secretary, Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, Nepal said, “We are not working to obtain better wages for our workers. Agencies from the South Asian countries are competing who can send their workers at the lowest wage, while our workers suffer. This system needs to be changed”

He stressed the need for establishing a regional human rights mechanism that could address the issues of labour migration, better wages, safeguarding of human rights and issues of trafficking in the region.

“SAARC countries should work together to create pressure on the host countries”, he added.

Thapa also mentioned, “We need to give our migrant workers the right direction about spending their income wisely”

This is where the Centre for Micro Finance (CMF) comes in. Nepal is trying to include migrant workers into micro finance programmes. A study by CMF shows that women workers manage their income more prudently than men. Women save almost all of their income for the family. Their income is used for health and education of their children and family while men use a considerable portion for entertainment.

Their study also shows that migrant workers do not have proper direction about where to use the money safely. 50 per cent of their income is spent on paying back the loan they had taken during departure. The majority of the remaining fraction is spent on daily consumption. Most of the migrant workers either buy land or keep their income in fixed deposit accounts after return. This is also the general picture in Bangladesh.

CMF is working to identify the needs of the migrant workers, train them to increase economic literacy so that they can use their money properly, investing in safe venture.

The need to create penalties, a code of conduct and unity among the agencies came up while visiting Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA). Hansha Raj Wagle, Secretary General, NAFEA said, “We are lobbying with the government for better policies. We are working to implement the code of conduct of agencies. To implement the code we are also training our members”

“There is a competition in the international market. We need to create healthy competition so that our workers get better wages and do not suffer for the decision of his/her agency”, he added.

In both Bangladesh and Nepal middlemen are considered as 'necessary evil'. Members of NAFEA agreed with the delegate that it is important to professionalise middlemen. “We cannot do without them. If they belonged to particular institutions them then it would be possible to bring them under a policy and the law”, said Wagle.

In both countries cheating by agencies is a common problem. There are countless numbers of stories. “There are no legal documents. Dealings between the agency and the migrant workers are verbal. This is why in case of cheating migrant workers cannot prove their cases to the police”, said Bijaya Rai Shrestha of Pourakhi during the meeting with NAFEA.

In response to this Wagle said, “We are executing nationwide awareness campaign to prevent irregularities in foreign employment sector”. Need to end the era of verbal understanding and develop signed documents came up.

During the entire visit other recommendations that came up is sending countries should create pressure for standard contract. Workers often suffer without it. The contract should clearly define work responsibilities and include regulations on work hours, rest days, regular payment of wages, and compensation for injuries.

It is important to provide workers with country specific orientation. This includes being acquainted with the culture, customs and norms of the country the female migrant workers are going to. The workers should be given training on immigration rules and regulations, documents to be presented to concerned authority, working conditions, job security. They must also have contact persons if there is any trouble. Training on the use of everyday household appliances to make their work easier would also be very helpful.

Protecting migrant domestic workers' freedom of association, freedom of movement, right to health, and other human rights was also an important concern. Most women workers stay isolated in one household. That makes them vulnerable to abuse, which they cannot share with anyone. Freedom of movement and association will bring them support and safety. Receiving countries should establish complaint mechanisms that are easily accessible to migrant domestic workers. Inspecting workplaces and detention conditions is also necessary as is providing redress for workers who suffered abuse and penalising labour agents, employers, and government officials who perpetrate abuses.Obviously labour agencies have to be regulated and monitored and penalties on agencies that violate these regulations have to be imposed.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the sending countries, in coordination with other relevant ministries, should establish expanded and higher-quality victim services at consulates and embassies in different receiving countries. Training for police and government officials and airport officials are needed to sensitise them.

Finally all parties agreed that there is still need to create a positive image about the female migrant workers. “Only negative issues such as trafficking, cheating by agencies are being highlighted in the media. Positive stories of the migrant workers, their contribution towards the families, society and the country in general should be highlighted as well”, said Shrestha

“We need to change the attitude and sensitise the society about the fact that women are going abroad for work not for themselves but largely for their family's survival”, she said.


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