Why migrant women need equality and empowerment
Becoming a migrant is an increasingly common way of life and professional choice for women in Asia. According to the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, women now account for 42 percent of the total number of migrants in the region.
Popular destinations for female temporary labor migrants from Asia include the oil-rich Gulf countries and the fast-growing economies in Southeast Asia. More women are also migrating to developed nations in East Asia, Europe and North America to meet growing demand for their labor, particularly in the healthcare sector.
Others, many of them overqualified, have found jobs as domestic workers, carers for children and the elderly, or factory workers, notably in the textile and fish processing sectors.
Most of these women are the primary breadwinners for their families back home and have made the agonizing choice to leave their children and families behind to earn a living abroad. Their remittances generate significant cash revenues for many of the labor-sending countries of Asia.
But, as a key theme of International Women’s Day on March 8 observes, globalization and technology are changing “the world of work” and many migrant women are being left behind. The theme “Empowering Women in the Changing World of Work” is timely given the benefits in terms of convenience, efficiency and comfort that most of us enjoy from innovation at home and at work.
But for many migrant women in low-skilled jobs abroad with little or no social protection, technological advances are currently more of a threat than an opportunity. At any point they may find themselves competing with automation for their livelihood.
Factories and businesses worldwide invariably weigh the cost of technology against the cost of a cheap labor from developing countries. When they decide to install new technologies, female migrants—the most vulnerable and the cheapest to fire—are usually the first to be laid off.
We cannot roll back innovation and technological advance. So the solution must begin in the country of origin and involve greater access to relevant education and training. We must provide career development opportunities to women who currently cannot access them.
Better education and training alone are, of course, no panacea. Women with higher skills often work in less skilled professions when they migrate. For instance, many nurses can work as caregivers, but not nurses, in destination countries. Women with teaching qualification often work as housekeepers when they migrate.
Female migrants are now trapped in a supply chain dead end where they have to assume manual tasks. They are not given opportunities to familiarize themselves with technologies and therefore cannot advance themselves. These women are stuck and, as automation increases, their livelihood opportunities will shrink.
We therefore need to maximize the migration experience of women long before they get on a bus, train, boat, or airplane. To empower women migrants, they must be given the same opportunities as men to access relevant training, skills and career development.
The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals contain important gender dimensions which must be reflected in policy and practice in migrant-sending countries, and respected in migrant-receiving ones.
We need gender-specific interventions to promote women’s access to technology and “the changing world of work.” These must offer women not just more dignified migration opportunities in destination countries, but also better access to education, health and justice in their countries of origin.
Dr. Nenette Motus is regional director for Asia and the Pacific at the International Organization for Migration.
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