On 3 and 4 May SAARC governments are holding discussions in Kathmandu on developing the new Plan of Action on migration, prior to the 19th SAARC Summit in Pakistan later this year. This is an opportunity for SAARC governments to show genuine concern about the situation of migrant domestic workers and to listen to them.
Since the early 2000s many South Asian countries have sought to prevent trafficking and exploitation of women through partial or total bans on their migration, especially for ‘low-skilled’ work. These bans have done little to protect women and have, at times, made migrant women’s situation worse.
While in July 2015 Nepal announced a ‘free visa, free ticket policy’ to encourage workers to migrate to Gulf countries, it retained its ban on recruitment of female domestic workers by Gulf countries, despite making several announcements to repeal sex-specific bans. India, too, is currently contemplating imposing restrictions on migration of domestic workers.
In 2015 GAATW and the ILO published a joint study, exploring the effects of different bans on women’s migration for domestic work in place in Nepal. The study found that bans limit women’s economic opportunities in their most productive years and thereby prevent them from supporting themselves and their families. Moreover, these bans place women at greater risk of abuse during their journey, and give them less control over their migration experience.
They do not consider the motives that prompt women to migrate, such as lack of income-generating opportunities at home, the social pressure to migrate or the desire to explore the world. They also push women to seek irregular migration channels through the help of smugglers and agents, making them more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and debt bondage. Lastly, a ban on migration means that women who travel through irregular channels are unable to access the same skills training, and pre-departure training on their rights, as the migrants who travel through the state-approved recruitment agencies.
GAATW and its partners have spoken with many women migrant domestic workers who have faced exploitation and abuse in the Gulf States. These women discussed with us measures that could have helped them avoid abusive situations. They have emphasized the need for pre-departure trainings that contain pertinent information, including language and culture training, information about their legal rights and protection mechanisms in case of abuse, and accurate information regarding their work and workplaces.
Women have also complained about the unhelpfulness of embassy staff and have reiterated the need for trained staff to be appointed at embassies in Gulf States. They have also expressed the need for legal and accessible migration channels to countries other than Gulf States.
But while SAARC governments maintain that they are concerned about the abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers, they seem unwilling to listen to the women they claim to protect. The discussions in Kathmandu this week present an opportunity to incorporate the suggestions made by the women migrant workers. Removing all gender discriminatory restrictions on women’s migration, ensuring access to quality pre-departure trainings, and designating qualified embassy personnel will go a long way in helping prevent abuse and ensuring that women have more economic opportunities.
Maitreyi Gupta is Programme Officer – South Asia, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women
The GAATW is a network of over 80 organizations across the world that works to promote the rights of migrant women and assist those who have experienced abuse and exploitation.