Women migrants - a growing number

All over the world, migrant workers are increasingly women. The ILO reports that 800,000 women every year leave their home countries in Asia to find work and that women migrate at a higher rate than men from countries such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Women workers are traditionally considered less valuable than their male counterparts due to their responsibilities taking care of households and children. Which often means that they receive less training and are therefore less skilled.  This forces women to accept any type of work possible, including work abroad, to support their families.

For manufacturing companies under pressure from their Northern customers and looking to cut labour costs, migrant women workers are an attractive option. As women, “flexible” work patterns are expected of them. As migrant workers, they are forced to accept lower wages and worse conditions. Women work day after day for substandard wages and send every bit of money home to their family. They are mostly unable to save enough to change their situation.

For migrant workers cultural barriers, competition with local workers, racism, legal status and the immobility that might accompany their lack of documentation are all key problems they must contend with.   For women migrants sexual harrassment and gender-related discrimination is an added risk many face.


Gender discrimination is apparent in both the recruitment process and employment conditions of women migrant workers.

In some cases the women themselves may not have chosen to migrate but have been compelled to do so by their families. In these cases the young women may not have been involved in negotiations over contracts, county of destination, length of service etc all of which may have been decided between the (male) agent and her father or other male relatives.

Even where the decision to migrate has been made by the women herself, once they have left home and begun the process of migration, women migrant workers may feel more dependent on the agent for protection and safety and it therefore more open to abuse by these individuals.

A new community

As outsiders in new communities, migrant women find themselves facing specific challenges, all of which are compounded by separation from family and lack of a support network.

As migrants without legal residency status often the only jobs open to them are in illegal or unregistered workplaces as part of the 'informal' economy. Often unrecognised as “workers”, they lack legal protection and face difficulties if they demand fair and decent working conditions.

Women migrant workers may earn less than their male counterparts. For example in Thailand women often earn lower wages than their male counterparts and experience lower living standards.

The also face other discrimination such as deductions for menstrual leave, forced medical checks, pregnancy and HIV testing. In both Malaysia and Thailand marriage can be prohibited for women workers. Either marriage or pregnancy can be grounds for revocation of employment visas/passes forcing the worker to leave the country of work.

Sexual harrassment

In many factories the direct supervisor of workers will be somebody from within whichever language or national group are employed on a particular line or section, and it is often these supervisors who are the perpetrators of sexual harassment experienced by migrant women.

The difficulties of all women workers to address and confront sexual harassment by employers and supervisors is well known. Such difficulties increase however when the abuse is happening with the migrant community, where loyalty to or affinity with supervisors from within that group maybe stronger and where women maybe under pressure not to report their fellow migrants. 

Women also report sexual harassment from owners and agents, both in the factories and in the worker dormitories and there are some reports of women being asked for sexual favours in exchange for work or promotion.

Women may also be concerned that reports of sexual harassment and abuse, particularly against those from within their community, could easily reach back to their own community in the country of origin, particularly where migrant workers are recruited from the same village or region. Such reports could cause problems for women on their return, particularly if they resulted in the dismissal of other workers from the same community. Women may not want reports of problems or difficulties at work to get back to their families especially if those families have helped them to get the work in the first place.

Returning home

Women who do attempt to go home face other challenges. In many cases, leaving to work in a factory, going to a large city and living outside of the family homes means breaking out of the women’s cultural traditions.

When they return home, they are treated differently. Their experiences outside the community may make them appear suspect or threatening to the traditional gender norms. They can also have difficulty reintegrating into their communities due to their increased independence and may question the traditional roles they left behind.