Migrant domestic workers: Voices you need to hear

Date: Friday, June 21, 2019

Author: Leo Bernardo Villar

Escaping poverty and earning higher income can often mean taking risks, and for women migrating into domestic work these risks are often worth taking. But many domestic workers find themselves receiving poor wages, working excessive hours, and exposed to labour and human rights violations.

Hear from Bangladeshi women who, despite challenges, chose to migrate in the hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families, and learn how we can work together to protect their human rights and dignity.

(Stock photo) A Bangladeshi return migrant domestic worker. Photo: UN Women/Andit Roy-Chowdhury
(Stock photo) A Bangladeshi return migrant domestic worker. Photo: UN Women/Andit Roy-Chowdhury

Migration as an exercise of women’s agency

“My husband became paralysed from a stroke five years ago. I had to borrow money for my husband’s treatment. The debt is increasing day-by-day. I need to find work, but I cannot find a job other than to work as a domestic worker abroad,” says Akhi, a 28-year-old woman living in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Akhi is only one of millions of women migrating from Asia to find work overseas. From 2000 to 2017, the number of women migrants in Asia rose from 23 million to 34 million – a 48 per cent increase.[1] Among countries of origin in Asia, Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of outward migration for work. In 2017, the Government of Bangladesh estimated that between 750,000 to 830,000 Bangladeshis were going abroad for work each year.[2] In 2018, 13.2 per cent of the total migrant workforce from Bangladesh were women.[3]

When migration is safe, regular and free of gender-based discrimination, it can be an exercise of women’s agency. Women choose to migrate to better provide financial support for their families and free themselves from restrictive gender norms.

Nahima, a 25-year old widow with a 7-year-old son, explains how she now has the power to shape her life with her son. “Sometimes, my mother pities me and tells me to get married again. But I do not want to remarry. I can take care of my son on my own and give him all the happiness he deserves. So I decided to work as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. I want to work there as long as I can.”

(Stock photo) Women migrants often choose to migrate to give their children a better life. Photo: UN Women/Shaista Chishty
(Stock photo) Women migrants often choose to migrate to give their children a better life. Photo: UN Women/Shaista Chishty

Protecting migrant domestic workers through employment contracts

Women are among the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation during migration. But one of the ways to protect them from these risks is through strengthening employment contracts.

“Though I decided to go abroad, I was afraid to go, as I heard many women’s miserable stories,” Minara, a domestic worker returned from Saudi Arabia, recounts. “My cousin, who helped me migrate, told me that most people face problems since they don’t check their contracts properly. So he advised me to check the contract and said I should not go if working details are not written on the paper.”

Ensuring that women know their rights as migrant workers, including what should be in their employment contracts, is crucial for protecting women migrants from abuse and exploitation – especially since some may not be aware that their rights are being violated.

Abeda, a returned migrant worker, says that she enjoyed working in Saudi Arabia. “My employer and his wife never misbehaved with me; they told me to tell them if I faced any kind of problem or if any family member misbehaved with me. I was so attached to my employer’s family that I felt very bad going back to Bangladesh after completing the two-year work permit.”

But a closer look into her experiences sheds a different light. “My employer took my passport once I arrived at his home. I was not permitted to contact other Bangladeshis working there. They didn’t give me permission to keep the phone I brought from Bangladesh with me because they thought if I had my own phone, I would not concentrate on my work. Since I did not have a phone, I called my family members once a week using my employer’s phone. I had to work 20 hours a day, but I did not feel tired. I did not have holidays, but they brought me with them during outings.”

Despite feeling positive about her overall experience, Abeda’s working conditions indicate that her right to keep her identity documents, freedom of communication and association, privacy, and adequate rest and holiday leave were not upheld by her employer. Abeda could have known what rights she was entitled to if she was adequately informed about important clauses in her employment contract.

As more and more women decide to migrate for work, it is critical that governments, employers, recruitment agencies and civil society work together to ensure that women migrant workers are protected and informed of their rights. In response, UN Women has launched Empowering Women Migrant Workers from South Asia: Toolkit for Gender-responsive Employment and Recruitment. The Toolkit provides practical steps to: ensure that labour migration governance responds to the lived realities of women; guide clearer consensus on employment contracts for women migrant workers; and ensure more effective services and protections during the recruitment process.

[1] United Nations (2017). UN International Migration Report.
[2] UN Women (2018). Country Overview: Women and Migration in Bangladesh.
[3] Government of Bangladesh, Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training