How can 66% of Indonesian migrant domestic workers saying that they were able to educate their children and 88% of Indian migrant construction workers’ children being in school be bad news? This is exactly what is emerging from research conducted by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium in South and Southeast Asia. It shows how migrants’ own accounts of the motivations, costs and benefits of migration are often at variance with mainstream narratives of slavery and trafficking. Interviews with migrants and their families tell a much more complex story of hardship and deprivation but also of achievements and tangible improvements in living standards that may not have been possible without migration.
By all accounts such migration into the lowest jobs has continued unabated or even grown, with urbanisation, a growing middle class and the spread of recruitment agents. Construction work for example, provides employment for poor and low-skilled migrants all over the world according to Building and Woodworkers International, the global federation of trade unions in the construction industry . Similarly domestic workers are predominantly but not always female and poor and many are migrants from rural areas according to various studies commissioned by the ILO.
Both of these occupations have been in the news recently; construction workers because of the slave-like conditions in which they have been employed in the Middle East and domestic work with cases of abuse and exploitation emerging from several countries. Human rights organisations and anti-slavery movements have done well to attract attention to these issues but there is a danger that the debate is becoming too polarised; more like a moral discourse with migrants being viewed as “victims” who need to be “rescued” from their employers. Market intermediaries such as recruitment agents are also suspect because they have a great deal of power over poor and vulnerable workers and can control and exploit them in a number of ways – for example, by confiscating their passports or underpaying them. The worst cases of exploitation and abuse have become so visible that recruitment agents are now no more than traffickers in the public eye, and migrants, especially if they are poor, young or female, helpless victims.
The research in South Asia examined the impacts of rural-urban migration for construction work in Nepal, India and Bangladesh through interviews with 150 migrants in the capital cities, and a small number of rural families in source areas. In India, 98% had saved and remitted part of their incomes even though they lived and worked in extremely inadequate and hazardous conditions. These remittances were critical for the receiving families in improving consumption, upgrading housing, investing in education and assets. While most migrants felt their living conditions had deteriorated, they felt that migration had opened up more opportunities for employment and higher remuneration which they hoped would support them out of poverty. Interviews with source families in Bihar and West Bengal indicated that 88% of the children from migrant households were in school compared to 77% among non-migrants, more durable assets, better housing and higher levels of expenditure on consumption compared to non-migrants from a similar socio-economic background.
The research in Singapore, based on interviews with 201 Indonesian migrant women working as domestic workers, also highlights the need to understand the process from a broader perspective. There, despite the precarious and unregulated nature of recruitment and employment processes, with employers and agents exercising a great deal of power over workers, 66 per cent of the migrants in the sample said that remittances had contributed to the education of their children and other uses that have the potential to reduce poverty and improve well-being in the longer term. However the impacts of such migration on poverty would be significantly faster and greater if the industry could be better regulated.
The results so far indicate that migration presents a number of possibilities for the poor to exit poverty in the longer term through human development and asset building, especially when compared to options available locally. Where setbacks and losses are experienced, this is more to do with the hostile policy environment that leaves migrants with few sources of insurance against risk or the inability to access services that should rightfully be theirs. There is a need to move beyond the incomplete and biased analysis that views the migration of the poor only through an exploitation lens to one that examines the counterfactual i.e. what they would have done in the absence of such employment.
Dr Priya Deshingkar is Research Director of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.