Gender, class and migration governance: A labour sending country perspective

Hiranthi Jayaweera

In February this year, the Ministry of Foreign Employment in Sri Lanka issued a circular titled ‘obtaining a Family Background Report of the women who aspire to go overseas for employment’ to administrators responsible for implementing the migration regulatory framework at a local – district, village – level. This family background report is specifically for women who ‘aspire’ to migrate as domestic workers or for any ‘non-professional employment’. The circular stipulates that on the basis of the report women with children under age 5 will not be ‘recommended’ for migration and those with older children will only be recommended if the officials are satisfied with the arrangements for the care of their children while the women are abroad. The circular simply formalises requirements and arrangements that have been in operation since 2013, the rationale for which is given as a concern ‘to prevent various difficulties and social problems that may be caused … when women migrate for employment without confirming the protection of their children.’ In the case of each woman, the official now needs to send a text message to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment with her passport details and a code ‘R’ if recommended and ‘NR’ if not. A similar reporting requirement does not exist for male labour migrants, or presumably for women leaving for ‘professional’ jobs abroad. The restrictions on migrant domestic workers with children have been criticised by women’s rights organisations in Sri Lanka as interfering with the freedom of movement of women enshrined in international human rights conventions. It is of concern that despite all these criticisms over the past two years, the new circular simply reinforces the content of previous versions.

This discriminatory policy – in terms of both gender and class – extends a series of restrictions on (some) women’s right to migrate abroad for work, that has included age restrictions and periodic bans on migrating at all to some labour-receiving countries particularly in the Gulf region, and has been a common policy and practice across many Asian labour sending countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines in recent years. These restrictions have arisen out of stark examples of capital punishment to some migrant domestic workers in Gulf States and by the continuing failure of some of these countries to ensure decent working and employment conditions and welfare protection to migrants in low-skilled jobs. But despite the evidence on the appalling conditions faced by male migrants working on construction sites for instance in Qatar at present, there is no move by sending countries to restrict their freedom to migrate for work. Nor is there a requirement for the relatively large number Sri Lankan men migrating for manual work in South Korea, to be selected according to whether there exist proper childcare arrangements for their children while they are away. The main non-medical sending country requirement for these men to apply for jobs is that they pass a Korean language proficiency test.

It is important to document how migration policies – in this case emigration policies – affect women differently from men, but it is of greater interest to reflect on is what this difference means in terms of gender relations and gender inequalities and the way these are created, reinforced, reconstituted, or changed. A closer look at the Family Background report reveals a question on the ‘civil status’ of the women applicants, whether they are married or not married, and an instruction to the administrative officer that this information needs to be certified. If married, the name and signature of the husband is required to confirm that he has ‘no objection’ to the migration of his wife for employment. While this statement is followed by a confirmation of agreement regarding ‘arrangements for looking after children’ by himself or ‘a guardian’ (who also needs to sign the form), it clearly transpires that in the present configuration of the form, the consent of the husband for the migration of the wife is required independently of whether they have any children or not. Only in the case of ‘women whose husbands have left them’ is husbands’ consent not required.

out-of-focus-woman-hanging-washing.jpgCurrent research with Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers is showing how this requirement for a family background report and the need for the consent of husbands as a fundamental part of the country of origin migration governance process, has impact on the agency of women in making a decision to migrate. This impact is observed in two ways, both with negative consequences for the women. One, where family relationships are already strained, in some cases with women experiencing domestic abuse and therefore escaping from such situations becoming part of the drive to migrate, husbands’ power to endorse or veto wives’ mobility places women further in the grip of controlling partners. Where they still do find a way to migrate it is at tremendous cost to their wellbeing and that of their children. Secondly, husbands also acquire the power to influence and at times force wives to migrate even where wives are not physically and mentally fit, worn out through multiple cycles of migration for domestic work under very difficult conditions in destination countries.

The family background report is one example of the patriarchal and class-based framework of assumptions and expectations, inherent in many policy documents and statements of officials involved in migration governance, about the lack of responsibility and agency of migrant domestic workers who are seen to possess limited educational and occupational skills. These include beliefs that notwithstanding corrupt practices of agents and sub-agents, the women themselves will ‘fool the system if they can’ by falsifying personal details, hiding evidence of illness, and ‘getting into trouble’ when they are abroad. The language used in documents, media reports and by state officials are highly revealing in terms of labelling domestic workers as essentially child-like; for instance words and phrases like ‘runaways’ or the need to be ‘handed over’ from one institutional support system to another or back to their families. Such beliefs and expectations then affect the way that many domestic workers are treated if they seek redress from exploitation and abuse they experience while working in destination country households. For instance, the domestic workers in the research study spoke of poor conditions in safe houses run by Sri Lankan embassies in some destination countries and the procrastination of officials in Sri Lanka in processing welfare insurance claims. Such negative experiences also lead to many women putting up with difficult employment situations they find themselves in rather than seeking justice.

The proliferation recently of studies with evidence of ‘left behind’ children of migrant domestic workers experiencing issues such as educational failure, anti-social behaviour and welfare problems lies behind migration restrictions for mothers with children and the requirement for a guardian while parents are working abroad. But the assumption that these rules must only apply to women because they are the ‘natural’ carers of children must continue to be strongly questioned and addressed, in the light of this new circular.  As the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights of migrants pointed out in his report on his country visit to Sri Lanka in 2014, there needs to be more emphasis on diversifying child support mechanisms and men’s participation in their children’s welfare to ensure gender equality. The existence of the family background report in its current form only serves to continue reinforcing the control of men over women in the migration process such that patriarchal ideologies and practices are not challenged in the migration of women.

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June.

The report from the project Sri Lankan migrant women domestic workers: health insurance provision, access to healthcare and health status, funded by Open Society Foundations, will be published in Summer 2015.