Addressing the plight of women migrant workers
In recent time numerous stories have been reported in the media about the unspeakable sufferings and exploitations of Bangladeshi women migrant workers (WMWs) in some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Many of the victims returned home dead which posed serious questions about the protection of women migrant workers in those countries. The gruesome stories of some of these workers also alerted the policy makers, including civil society organisations (CSOs) and NGOs—who have been working for the welfare of migrant workers—to take appropriate measures. Expert opinion on this issue is also divided: some suggesting imposing restriction on sending WMWs to GCC states, others asking for more protective measures to reduce their vulnerabilities.
Placing restrictions on migration of women workers can be relatively easy but it has far-reaching implications. International norms and practices do not favour imposing restrictions on women migrant workers, rather they encourage creation of more employment opportunities for them both at home and abroad. For example, article 9.4 of the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (known as Trafficking in Persons Protocol) says, "States Parties shall take or strengthen measures, including through bilateral or multilateral cooperation, to alleviate the factors that make persons, especially women and children, vulnerable to trafficking, such as poverty, underdevelopment and lack of equal opportunity".
The terms mentioned in the said article require all governments, who are party to this protocol through ratification, to take positive steps to address the underlying root causes of trafficking. Some of the causative factors that need to be address include: violence against women in all of its forms; lack of job opportunities; and restrictive migration policies and poorly planned economic development strategies. It means that policy measures should not be planned in such a way which would prevent anyone, particularly women, from leaving the country for employment. Furthermore, article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also indicates that policy measures should not infringe upon the rights of individuals to enter and leave their country lawfully.
But unfortunately, in many cases we have witnessed that some initiatives—often in the name of protecting female migrant workers from exploitation and trafficking—limited their overseas employment opportunities, curtailed mobility rights and made them more vulnerable to exploitations. There is a possibility that restriction on WMWs at the countries of origin may limit legal routes of migration for them and make it more difficult for women to migrate through official channels. If the policy apparatus does not address persistent migration push factors such as lack of employment opportunities, inadequate livelihood options, and gender inequality, it may rather result in unsafe and irregular migration of women workers with the assistance of exploiters and traffickers.
Almost all the women who are trafficked start out as migrants seeking work to sustain themselves. They are pulled into the migration stream by the demand for labour in destination countries. The demand of labour exists because citizens and residents of destination countries refuse to take low wage jobs. The important point is that the demand for migrant workers in destination countries are met one way or another. The question is whether the demand will be met by regular and documented migrant workers or by trafficked persons recruited and employed illegally.
Research shows that restriction on migration of women workers directly curtail their employment and livelihood opportunities. For example, incidents of exploitation of Nepali women migrant workers have prompted the Nepali government to impose bans on overseas employment of women workers. Similarly, the Indonesian government banned migrant domestic workers from travelling to work in different Middle Eastern countries. The Philippines has also experimented with placing restrictions on domestic migrant workers to countries that are considered unsafe for their workers. There are arguments against his approach that says such bans further worsen the limited migration options for women migrant workers, and they are forced to seek alternative routes to migrate which very often make them more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and trafficking.
Many consider that effective bilateral agreements (BLAs) or memoranda of understanding (MOUs) between origin and destination countries with a specific focus on WMWs can help to protect them from vulnerabilities. For example, the 2013 BLA between Philippines and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for domestic workers, signed in the wake of massive human rights scandal which received wider media attention, is believed to have achieved tangible gains towards protecting the rights of WMWs of Philippines. The BLA covered vital rights issues such as employers shall not withhold the migrant workers' passports, provide suitable accommodation, ensure minimum wage, allow paid leaves, etc. Others argue that such BLA and MoU (which have no legal binding on the involved parties) signed between sending and receiving countries very often fail to comply with international human rights frameworks including Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and ILO Domestic Workers Convention No 189.
There are also conspicuous shortcomings within the international legal instruments in protecting the rights of women migrant workers, especially in the destination countries. For example, ILO convention 189 on domestic workers was not designed to explicitly deal with women migrants. Although the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) promotes equal treatment of migrant workers, including women and men as well as undocumented migrants, it does not deal with specific issues of vulnerabilities of WMWs and thus ICRMW is less effective in ensuring their protection. Similarly, the Palermo Trafficking in Persons Protocol does not adequately protect the human rights of women outside of providing aid to victims of trafficking. Likewise, the CEDAW General Recommendations (GR26) do not provide binding articles on the treatment of WMWs. Therefore, there is an increasing demand for creating a new enforceable protocol under CEDAW and ICRMW which specifically addresses rights of women migrant workers in all stages of migration, across all sectors.
To reduce vulnerabilities of WMWs, close cooperation from the destination countries are also essential. For example, the visa conditions of women migrant workers, particularly domestic workers, should not be conditional upon the sponsorship of a specific employer. Strict sponsorship arrangement may excessively restrict the freedom of movement of WMWs at the destination countries, which increases their vulnerabilities. Furthermore, standardised job contracts consistent with ILO guidelines and other international legal instruments can help in providing better protection to WMWs.
There are numerous evidences that restrictive policies for WMWs do not protect them; rather they limit the employment and mobility rights of the female migrant workers. Without addressing the main causes of their vulnerabilities in destination countries, arbitrary bans may create conditions for further exploitations. Any policies that restrict or ban migration because of concerns over exploitation of WMWs also fail to address the problem of unscrupulous recruiters and recruitment practices, unenforced BLAs and MOUs. Unless enhanced access to regular migration is ensured and decent work for women migrant workers are provided, it will not be possible to overcome the systemic patterns of exploitation and discrimination against female migrant workers at the destination countries.
K M Ali Reza has been serving as Programme Coordinator at the Regional Support Office of the Bali Process in Bangkok, Thailand.