Around the world, women leave behind ageing relatives, young children, and their partners to traverse huge distances in the hope of a better life—not for them, but for the people they bid goodbye. They work in apartments and hotels, family homes and offices. They care for the sick and elderly, they take children to school, they wash dirty linen, they prepare family meals. But for these female migrant workers, the labor they do is often invisible—hidden behind residential walls or in anonymous hotels and offices. And, as a result of their lack of visibility, these women are often vulnerable to financial and physical abuse.
Female migrant workers (who overwhelmingly find employment in the domestic service or hospitality industries, which are reliant on their labor) support entire economies in their native countries and help educate whole generations of youth. Countries like the Philippines are the world's largest exporter of women—over 70 percent of Filipino migrant workers are female. But despite this, female migrant workers are often at the bottom of the socio-economic pile.
In Gulf states like the UAE, an exploitative Kafala system (where visas are tied to the migrant's employment status—effectively trapping them in their jobs) means that many domestic workers are unable to leave abusive employers. Passports are often confiscated, wages withheld, and women forced to contend with the sexual advances or physical abuses of their employers with barely any legal protections. Meanwhile, thousands of Haitian and Central American women are vulnerable to sexual exploitation at the hands of people smugglers or locked up indefinitely in detention facilities.
For International Women's Day 2017, we asked Rothna Begum, women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, to help us envisage a world without female migrant workers.
BROADLY: Do you know exactly how many female migrant workers are in the world and what regions they're concentrated in?
Rothna Begum: I don't have the full global number, but some estimate that there could be up to 66.6 million women migrant workers. In the Gulf states alone, there are an estimated 2.4 million domestic workers. The largest proportion of these workers are women. Additionally, there are other female workers who aren't domestic workers. Often it's the case with female migrant workers that the work they do is considered to be quite invisible. We view migrants as young men doing construction work, for example. But some of the most precarious positions are the unskilled or low-skilled workers, particularly in areas where the labor laws exclude them from protection, and women often fall into this category.
How are women put in danger?
In the Middle East and North Africa, women are shut out from labor law protections. What this does is create a sector of workers that are incredibly vulnerable to further abuse. Often they're living in their employers' homes, which makes them invisible. And they can be made to wok incredibly long hours. I know women who've told me they have to work 21 hours a day.
What's the psychological impact of this on workers?
Women talk about becoming incredibly depressed, isolated, finding themselves numb to the work they're doing. It has physical consequences as well. They develop stomach disorders or progressively lose weight. Not sleeping much takes a huge toll. They're not allowed to sit down, they can't be seen to rest, they're expected to be working non-stop for their employers.
What would a world without female migrant workers look like?
Entire societies depend on women doing domestic or care work in the homes. If they stopped working that would impact the economy. People wouldn't get to their jobs because they needed to get home to do certain things, they would need to take their children to school or look after loved ones who are ill or have disabilities. There's a huge amount of work female migrant workers do that allows the economy to run, and without women doing this work, we'd see profits drop, we'd see things stalling.
What would the impact be on the countries the migrant workers come from if international migration stopped?
These women can be supporting an entire network of individuals. If that work stopped, wages wouldn't be going back to support whole families. Women support their children through school, they buy land and build houses, they start businesses when they finally do decide to return home. It's incredibly important female migrant works have their rights protected and are given support so they're not facing abuse. They need to work in safe conditions, get the salaries that are promised to them, and be able to safely transmit their salaries home so their families can benefit going forward.