The largest concentration of overseas Filipino workers is in domestic work. After a momentary decline in 2007 and 2008, following the implementation of the Household Service Workers Reform Package, Filipina MDWs have increased and more than doubled between 2009 and 2012 (Scalabrini Migration Center and International Organization for Migration, 2013). Women MDWs provide the Philippines with one of its largest sources of foreign currency; the remittances generated from overseas employment have become the hallmark of Philippine economic development (Zhou, 2017). The Philippine government’s extraordinary reliance upon remittances has increased since the 1990s. Remittances from overseas Filipino workers reached a new record high of $3.2 billion in 2018, higher by 3.6% compared to the level recorded in the previous year, accounting for 9.7% of GDP in 2018 (Lucas, 2019).
Bans on the migration of women domestic workers have long been a key feature of overseas employment in the Philippines. It was the first country in the Indo-Pacific region to establish a practice of ‘labour diplomacy’ through withholding labour force resources to increase its bargaining power with countries of destination for better labour rights protections (Napier-Moore, 2017). The Philippine government first imposed a worldwide ban on the migration of Filipina domestic workers in 1988 amid complaints of abuse. This had mixed results in terms of pressuring destination countries to improve migrants’ working conditions. Sixteen states, including Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore, responded soon after and signed agreements with the Philippines detailing labour protections (Napier-Moore, 2017). However, many other governments retaliated by slowing down visa processing for all Filipino nationals, affecting so many workers that the Philippine government reconsidered the ban. In particular, Kuwait reacted by specifically enforcing a ban against hiring overseas Filipino workers that lasted 10 years (Sayres, 2007). Interestingly, countries in West Asia where domestic workers experienced most violations did not agree to any bilateral negotiations (Oishi, 2005).
Despite the mixed success of the 1988 ban, the Philippine government banned the migration of domestic workers to Singapore in March 1995 following the highly-publicised execution of Filipina domestic worker Flor Contemplacion for the murder of a child in her care and another domestic worker (Yeoh et al., 1999). The Filipino public depicted Contemplacion as a martyr and national symbol of their economic plight and participation in overseas employment as a pathway out of poverty (Guevarra, 2006). Various human rights, feminist and migration groups ‘condemned the Philippine state’s failure to safeguard the rights of workers deemed crucial to the nation’s economic development, and questioned the humanity of its state-sponsored policy of exporting labour’ (Alipio, 2019, 140).
Since then, the Philippine government has repeatedly enforced country-specific bans on the migration of women domestic workers in response to increasing complaints of exploitation. It imposed a ban on the migration of domestic workers to Lebanon in 2006, to Jordan in 2008 and to Saudi Arabia in 2011. The most recent ‘total ban’ to Kuwait occurred in February 2018, following the death of seven domestic workers and high-profile murder of Filipina domestic worker Joanna Demafelis (Standing, 1999). The Philippine government lifted the ban on domestic workers to Kuwait in May 2018 having signed an MOU with the Kuwaiti government, in an attempt to provide overseas Filipino workers, particularly women MDWs, with additional rights protection in the Gulf State. However, abuse against domestic workers overseas has persisted, highlighting the ineffectiveness of the MOU. In December 2019, Filipina domestic worker Jeanelyn Villavende was raped and murdered by her Kuwaiti employers. In response, the Philippine government announced in January 2020 that it would once again stop sending domestic workers to Kuwait despite the failure of previous bans to address the mistreatment of workers (Gulf News, 2020).
Overseas migration continues to be seen in Indonesia as a mechanism to alleviate the negative impact of high levels of unemployment especially among women in rural areas (Elias, 2013). The financial crisis in 1997 hit Indonesia particularly hard and, intersecting with increased demand for women migrants in wealthier states to work in care-related employment, saw huge numbers of rural women leave the country on temporary employment contracts (Elias & Louth, 2016). By 2007, women made up 79% of Indonesian migrant workers with most taking up employment as domestic workers in Southeast and West Asia (Bank of Indonesia, 2009). Wages remitted by women migrants not only play an increasingly important role in Indonesia’s attempts to ensure economic stability and development, but to household survival strategies among Indonesia’s poor.
Although women now make a significant contribution to Indonesia’s economy, ingrained gendered ideals continue to inform state and public discourses regarding women’s role in everyday life including their labour mobility (Platt, 2018). This is evident by the stipulation that women must have the express permission of a male guardian (typically a husband or father) in order to migrate overseas (Lindquist, 2010). As more women enter the paid workforce, they are expected to fulfil a dual role: to meet their family and marital obligations on the domestic front, while at the same time contribute to Indonesia’s economic development (Austin, 2017).
The Indonesian state has responded to widespread coverage of exploitation and mistreatment of women domestic workers overseas in paternalistic ways, such as implementing laws that further restrict their mobility. In late June 2009, the government placed a ban on its citizens taking up employment in Malaysia as domestic workers following an increase in high profile abuse cases. The government emphasised how this action reflected not only the problem of violent abuse against domestic workers, but also the need for better protections and rates of pay for these workers more generally (Elias, 2013). The ban was lifted in 2011 after the respective labour ministries signed a new MOU, which allowed women domestic workers to retain their passports, entitled them to a rest day and safeguarded their right to communicate with families and the embassy.
However, the execution of Indonesian domestic worker, Ruyati Binti Satubi, in Saudi Arabia in June 2011 prompted the government to once again adopt more drastic restrictions on women’s migration. Indonesia imposed a ban on domestic workers from migrating to the country to pressure Saudi Arabia into agreeing to a new bilateral agreement offering workers more protection. The government later announced in 2012 that it would stop sending domestic workers abroad altogether by 2017. In May 2015, the government extended its ban on women domestic workers to 21 countries across West Asia and North and East Africa following a series of abuse cases and subsequent public outcry. President Joko Widodo expressed political humiliation, declaring the deployment of women domestic workers ‘a dent in Indonesia’s pride and dignity’ (Platt, 2018, 89). Such national shame might be thought of as ‘reflecting gendered assumptions about the inability of the state to protect ‘its’ women’ (Elias, 2013, 403).
Temporary labour migration from Nepal is a comparatively recent phenomenon, growing in volume since the 1990s after Nepal liberalised its migrant labour system. A defining characteristic since the 2000s is that the destinations for Nepalese migrants are heavily concentrated in the Gulf States and Malaysia. With increasing numbers of labour migrants working abroad, Nepal’s dependence on remittances has also steadily grown over the years, with remittances accounting for 27.3% of its GDP in 2019, aggregating at US$8.1 billion. (World Bank, 2020).
The government has issued over 4 million labour permits to migrant workers since 2008/09, excluding those going to India, Korea and irregular migrants. The Department of Foreign Employment only began to segregate data for employment permits by sex from 2005 (Sijapati & Limbu, 2012). The official data shows that 211,893 labour approvals were issued for women in the last decade, which only accounts for a little above 5% of the total share (Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, 2020). However, this official figure is believed to be inaccurate owing to the recurring partial or total bans preventing women from pursuing foreign employment, which pushes them into using irregular channels. The discrepancy in data can be observed by the fact that Nepali embassies continue to receive requests for assistance from women migrant workers in larger numbers than the official data suggests. For example, the former Nepali Ambassador to Saudi Arabia estimated that 60,000–70,000 Nepali women were working as domestic workers in the country despite the ban (Pandey, 2013).
Gendered and paternalistic ideals have long influenced policies governing Nepali women migrant workers. Until 1998 women were unable to migrate without the written approval of a male guardian, such as a father or husband (International Labour Organization, 2015). A total ban on the migration of women to the Gulf was initially adopted in 1998 following the death of Nepali domestic worker Kani Sherpa in Kuwait. It was claimed that she committed suicide after continuous physical and sexual violence from her employer (International Labour Organization, 2015). Since then, the policy has gone through several changes, including the introduction of country-specific bans and migration bans for women under a certain age or working in certain sectors (Shivakoti, 2020). In it latest iteration, the total ban was lifted in 2015 with a new age restriction of 24 years for 8 destination countries. However, in 2017 the Nepal Parliament’s International Relations and Labour Committee instructed the government to re-implement the ban on women migrating for domestic work to Gulf States after its field investigation uncovered widespread abuse and exploitation in the industry (MyRepublica, 2017; Rai, 2020). These bans, which have been lifted periodically and later imposed again as policy directives, lack clear information and consistency, making it difficult for women migrant workers to comprehend and abide by.
By closing legal channels for women to work abroad, without providing alternative local income opportunities, Nepal’s policy stance has major implications for women migrant workers. The ban has resulted in women migrants not being able to obtain the official labour permit approval to travel from the Department of Foreign Employment, which also excludes them from the benefits of financial compensation through the welfare fund in case of injury or death abroad (International Labour Organization, 2015). Pande (2014) claims that since women are excluded from government protection, they provide a pool of disposable labour for undesirable jobs in host states while sending remittances back home without imposing any concomitant obligations on their home country. The policy ban, in its different forms, has not prevented women from migrating abroad. Rather, they have found ways to circumvent these bans and continue to migrate in search of work through more risky and circuitous routes, usually through the open border with India.
Sri Lanka was another relatively late entrant among South Asian countries participating in domestic worker migration to West Asia, with the first departures commencing in 1977 after restrictions on foreign employment were lifted amid broader reforms to the economy. Sri Lanka had abruptly transitioned from a ‘closed economy’ predicated on import-substitution industrialisation to an ‘open economy’ seeking closer integration with global markets (Kelegama, 2006). Gendered labour market segmentation was a key part of this shift. Garment factories established in export processing zones were reliant on women’s low-waged employment, while domestic worker migration to the Gulf – where heightened demand had arisen from contemporaneous migration bans implemented in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan (Eelens et al., 1992) – was promoted as a means of securing additional foreign exchange earnings via remittances. Sri Lanka has since had one of the highest concentrations of migrant domestic worker departures in the region, with ‘housemaids’ accounting for as much as 75% of all foreign employment contracts by 1993 (Ministry of Foreign Employment, 2017). Feminised domestic worker migration has underscored a deepening reliance on remittances, now 8% of GDP and equivalent to 63% of goods exports (Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), 2018), and has become a vital component of the country’s external sector.
However, increasing domestic worker migration has also fomented social tension by disrupting the gendered division of work and care activities. The prevalence of domestic worker migration alongside the waning of traditional masculine livelihoods has undermined the male breadwinner model (Gamburd, 2000) without a commensurate shift in gender norms relating to the performance of unpaid care work and particularly childcare (Gunatilaka, 2013). The 2013 execution of Rizana Nafeek, a young domestic worker charged with murder after a child died in her care in Saudi Arabia, served as a flashpoint for these concerns (International Labour Organization, 2018b). Though initially provoking outrage about the abuse of MDWs, public debate quickly segued into discussion of the social cost of women’s migration and the families they ‘leave behind’ (Withers, 2019). These twin pressures catalysed the implementation of a conditional ban on migrant domestic work, known as the Family Background Report [FBR], later that year. The FBR imposed minimum age restrictions on MDWs bound for various destinations – 21 for Singapore, 23 for most Gulf States and 25 for Saudi Arabia – and placed outright bans on the migration of women with children under the age of five (International Labour Organization, 2018b). Women with children older than five are required to complete a FBR, which involves identifying a ‘proper’ female guardian and attaining spousal consent, which is then subject to government inspections and approval (International Labour Organization, 2018b).
The FBR is the first instance in which Sri Lanka has sought to restrict women’s migration, reflecting a hesitancy to disrupt the country’s economic reliance on domestic worker migration. Indeed, the introduction of the FBR has overseen a sharp decline in official domestic worker departures – from 138,000 per year in 2013 to 72,000 in 2017 (Ministry of Foreign Employment, 2017) – and a corresponding dip in remittance inflows, which have effectively flatlined since 2014 (Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), 2018). This slowdown has prompted questions about the economic viability of the migration ban at a time when Sri Lanka’s external debt has reached record heights and additional foreign exchange receipts are sorely needed to offset trade deficits and stabilise a depreciating currency. At the same time, the FBR has done little to protect the welfare of MDWs: there is evidence of an increasing number of women circumventing the ban by migrating to the Gulf through irregular channels that are both riskier and more costly (International Labour Organization, 2018b; Weeraratne, 2016). Given these shortcomings, the FBR appears to have succeeded only in mollifying patriarchal unease about ‘female breadwinners’ and bringing domestic worker migration into alignment with gender norms embedded in Sri Lankan political discourse (Abeyasekera & Jayasundere, 2015).