Thu, 18 Dec 2003

Seeking a new paradigm, cooperation for female migrants

More than half of some 20 million Asian migrant workers are women. The Jakarta Post's Kanis Dursin interviewed Jean D' Cunha, Regional Program Manager/Technical Advisor of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), during a regional conference on women's migrant worker protection in Jakarta recently. The following are the highlights of that interview:

Question: What are the common problems faced by Asia's women migrant workers?

Answer: At the recruitment stage, women always have less assets to migrate. So, they have to borrow, resulting in debt bondage. They also have less access to information on migration realities and procedures. In training centers, women are confined, locked up, and abused sexually and physically. At the country of employment, there is a kind of racist, prejudicial attitude against women migrant workers. Women are seen as sexually available and morally depraved. On return, in some countries they stigmatize women returnees because they feel as if they have "gone out", that means they have been morally tainted in some way or another. Some of the problems arise because of the absence of bilateral agreements between countries of origin and employment. What should be done?

One important strategy could be to draw on those receiving countries that have a range of good practices such as Jordan, Hong Kong and the like to share these good practices ... so that these can be replicated in other receiving countries. Then sustained dialog and pressure has to be put by the international community and sending countries on destination countries to improve their rights record. Would banning migration of female workers be an option?

Restrictions or bans by certain countries have been placed to protect migrant workers from trafficking and other rights violations. But what the evidence is showing is that it is increasing the vulnerability to trafficking because women who need to migrate for survival will use dangerous options and avenues to move anyway.

Secondly, it is definitely a discriminatory measure. It indicates disproportionate discrimination against women. Thirdly, it construes women as dependent, as weak and it violates the rights to mobility. And fourthly, it doesn't build women's capacity to deal with potential exploitation to pre-departure trainings and seminars and the like. In all senses, it is disempowering for women. What is then the best solution?

We need to provide them with protective provisions such as access to information on migration realities, the costs and benefits of migration. We need to provide them with information and access to economic resources so that they need not migrate.

If they are migrating anyway, we need to have pre-departure orientation training for them with the whole focus on protection and how they can best protect themselves and how they can avail of and invoke entitlements and rights as well as knowledge of the culture of the countries. We need to link them up with NGOs and diplomatic missions in the host countries so they can have access to assistance.

Migrant worker issues are no longer a bilateral problem but a regional issue that requires multilateral responses. What sort of multilateral responses would be appropriate?

Countries of origin would have greater power if they bonded together and came out with some common minimum standards of treatment for migrant workers, contracts, welfare provisions for migrant workers rather than negotiating individually and independently; because they will be beaten down and they should have some kind of cooperation and not beat down one another for the market share. We need to promote and sustain dialog between countries of origin and countries of destination to protect migrant workers. How do you assess the responses of governments to the rights of women migrant workers?

It's a very mixed and varied picture. Very slowly, migration is emerging as a concern on the development agenda and you have governments of countries of origin which have come out with extremely supportive policies and programs.

There is always a gap between the policy and the implementation of the policy. But at least there is political willingness to introduce these policies.

In countries of destination also, we do have examples of countries which are slowly introducing protections for migrant workers ... We have a very long way to go in terms of protective policies both in sending and in destination countries. How can the problem of undocumented migrant workers be solved?

We need to really lift restrictions and bans on migration and immigration policies need to be liberalized because if they are not liberalized that creates a lucrative ground for traffickers and irregular migration. Also we need to have regulations for recruiting agencies. We need to place bans on government officials as well as people implementing the law from running, recruiting businesses. We need to have regulations for recruiting agencies which are marked by both incentives and disincentives because they need to be drawn within the purview of law and they need incentives to provide good rights provisions, welfare provisions for workers. And lastly, we need to mandatorily register outgoing workers and provide them with incentives so that they will register as it has been done in Sri Lanka. What are the new trends of migration?

The new trend is the feminization of migration which means that there is an increasing number of women migrating for work. The number of women migrating for work is really outstripping men in certain countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Philippines.

Secondly, women are migrating independently. Thirdly, they are concentrated in the formal and informal sector, in women's specific skilled and unskilled jobs. The highest concentration is in domestic work and prostitution wherein they are really abused.

Fourth, they are really using facilitative channels of migration either informal or formal channel because they lack access to information and to migration know-how and procedures. Fifth, they really contribute substantively to development both in countries of employment and countries of origin.

Sixth, trade and capital flows are liberalized but labor migration flows are restricted through restrictive immigration policies which ban women from migrating and this is resulting in vulnerability to trafficking. Finally, we are seeing an increase in irregular migration and trafficking. How do you evaluate Indonesia's response to problems faced by migrant workers?

I believe that no country has a perfect rights record on migrant workers ... We are very happy that the Indonesian government is showing a political willingness to address the concerns of migrant workers; this is being reflected in the bill.