Women migrant workers
8 March 2023
Women all across the world migrate for a multitude of different reasons; from leaving behind poverty, gender based violence, abuse, conflict and natural disasters to escaping gender inequalities that remain very much prevalent in today’s society globally.
In a survey carried out on migrant women from Libya, West Africa and East Africa, the main motivating factor behind their migration to another country for work opportunities cited was insufficient earnings in their home country and to attempt to create a better life for themselves and their families.
Recent decades have seen an increase in the feminisation of labour migration. In today’s global work force, women comprise roughly half of the world’s 272 million migrant workers. Of this percentage, 63.5% of all migrant women fall within the labour force in comparison to approximately 48% of non-migrant women.
Migration continues to be a gendered process that impacts men and women differently. It is a common occurrence for women migrant workers to be employed in sectors that are informal, low-paying, and require low levels of skill. These factors, combined, lead to a triple jeopardy for these workers, ultimately devaluing and undermining their labour. Women migrant workers are typically paid less than male migrant workers, irrespective of their sector or occupation. The undervaluation of their work is further compounded by the fact that many of them are employed in roles such as domestic and care work, which are often perceived as traditionally female occupations. Due to the competitive nature of the labour market, migrant workers are often hired for their affordability and flexibility, which can further disadvantage women migrant workers.
As a result, the wages paid to women remain typically lower than those paid to men. Yet, despite this, women migrants are more likely to frequently send money back home to their relatives. In sending a higher proportion of their wages home, it has been reported that migrant women are responsible for half of the World Bank’s estimated $601 billion in global remittances sent through formal channels. In doing so, migrant women have allowed economies to thrive and have helped to reshape norms, ideas and behaviours through both the social and cultural capital which they carry.
However, despite migrants making valuable contributions, they encounter widespread discrimination that affects their safety and well-being throughout their journey. The process of migration is gendered, with distinct impacts on women and men. This is due to a globalised division of labour that creates a demand for women migrant workers in certain service industries, particularly domestic and care work. Gender stereotypes constrain women’s autonomy and decision-making abilities, placing them at a higher risk for systematic violations of their human rights.
Sadly, many migrant women who have gone to a new country in the hopes of better prospects are put at high risk of labour rights abuse, trafficking, racism and gender-based violence due to the limited or non-existent enforcement of labour protections.
The ‘Permits Foundation’, an independent not for profit organisation, which campaigns globally to improve work permit regulations so that partners of those who are highly skilled international employees can directly access employment whilst in the host country, is a great example of highlighting the continued change needed to protect the rights of all migrants and helping to promote best practices and monitor legislative improvements. In its latest partner survey, statistics showed that 75% of accompanying partners were female and that 53% were not in employment in the host country, despite 84% of these women wanting to be, demonstrating that change is needed. The foundation has been progressively successful in influencing change in several countries with over 30 now allowing accompanying spouses and partners to work, but more change is still desperately needed.
So what can be done to better protect migrant women’s rights?
Labour laws across the world need reform to better protect the rights of all migrants, especially women. Despite the massive economic growth thanks to migrant women, women remain severely let down in respect of protecting their rights and offering them the equality they deserve in the workplace.
The United Kingdom is one of the countries that places a high emphasis on the rights of both men and women in the workplace, with several labour laws in place to protect their rights. As an example, both women and men are able to claim maternity and paternity leave where eligible, as well as pay. In particular, migrant women who travel to the UK for work purposes on a work visa and later go on to have a child are allowed to take sufficient permitted time off for maternity purposes as this is considered to be an acceptable absence from work. The first two weeks after a child is born requires a mother to take compulsory maternity leave, with it being unlawful for her to work during this period. Additionally, before the child is born, an expectant mother in the UK also has further rights and protections within the workplace, including the right to take time off work for antenatal appointments and to return to the same job and to be protected from potential dismissal or discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or pregnancy related absence after the child is born. Unfortunately, this is not always the same case globally.
There needs to be wider inclusion of women migrant workers when formulating policies, strategies and programmes. Women should have better access to information and services outlining their rights and available support networks.
Until there is wider acknowledgement of the lack of protection afforded to migrant workers globally and further attempts to remedy the shortfalls and address the societal attitudes towards women, migrant women continue to remain high at risk.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at March 2023.