Friday, 7 March 2014

Female migrant domestic workers and the families they leave behind

By Julie Litchfieldphoto of Julie Litchfield

Female domestic workers are an important part of the story of the feminisation of migration, particularly in Asia. It is well documented that large numbers of women working outside their own countries are employed in domestic work and that Asian countries contribute large numbers of  female domestic workers (FDWs) both within the region, to the Middle East and to Europe and North America.
In the Migrating Out Of Poverty research programme consortium we are looking at gendered patterns of internal and regional migration and how these manifest themselves in poverty outcomes.  So far we have conducted three surveys of over 1000 households each in Asia and Africa, and we will add to this in 2014. Preliminary analysis of the data collected in 2013 by our partners in Singapore reveals that female migrants in Indonesia are overwhelmingly FDWs: 75% of all female migrants are domestic workers. We don’t see any such concentration of occupation amongst male workers:  the largest single category is construction with around a quarter of male migrants, the rest being spread across other activities including farming and manufacturing. We also see very different destinations for FDWs: almost 70% of FDWs are regional migrants, migrating to countries such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Among other female migrants, the vast majority remain in Indonesia as internal migrants and among male migrants, over half stay in Indonesia.
This pattern of regional migration is reflected in how people actually migrate. An issue that is commonly raised in the context of international migration is the cost associated with finding work at the destination, not just the travel costs but the so-called “placement fees” which are often charged to find employment for the migrant, usually deducted directly from pay, and that can be several multiples of the average annual income a person might expect to earn if they stayed at home. Indeed, the UN Women 2013 report on international migrant domestic workers highlights this as a particularly exploitative feature of FDW migration: data from Taiwan suggests that FDWs from Indonesia are charged on average US$3500 as a placement fee. Among our sample of Indonesian female migrants, over half used a recruitment agent to help secure employment at their destination, whereas less than a third of men did so.  FDWs were however much more likely than other female migrants to report that this involved a cost, with almost half of them stating that they had borrowed from the agent to finance their migration. Only 10% of other female migrants had to do so, most likely using family and friends to help find employment. Male migrants appear to rely much more heavily on formal loans from banks when they migrate regionally.
What are the consequences for families left behind? Parreñas (2000), in her study of Filipina FDWs working in Los Angeles and Rome, writes extensively about the international division of reproductive labour and transmission of care-taking of children and elderly. Her study reveals a pattern of predominantly married women working in richer countries as domestic workers or care-givers, with their own children living in the Philippines, employing women back home to look after their own children. The Filipina FDWs tend to be relatively better educated than the women they employ back home, thus suggesting a three-tiered division of reproductive labour. The UN Women report goes further, arguing that that the increase in FDWs has led to a “care crisis at home” with concerns about the health, educational and social development of children left behind.
However, little is known about the experience of poverty of FDWs, or their households, relative to other families with migrants in other occupations, or for that matter, other households with women who work. Our preliminary analysis has not revealed such a care crisis in Indonesia, at least no more or less so for households with FDWs compared to other households.  Two-thirds of households with female migrants say that daily life is easier for them now compared to before their member left. Furthermore we observe little difference in the perceptions of poverty, as reported by the households themselves, either between households with FDWs and other female migrants, or between households with female and male migrants. One explanation for the difference in our preliminary findings and those of Parreñas is that female migrants from Indonesia may be different from those who migrate from the Philippines. Our data from Indonesia suggests FDWs are younger than other migrant women and non-migrant women, and are less likely to be married or to have children than women who don’t migrate. This is very different from the portrait of FDWs provided by Parreñas.  We also see little migration of Indonesian FDWs to very rich countries in the West.
That doesn’t mean to say that the experience of poverty among Indonesian households with migrants or with FDWs is not different and that there aren’t more nuanced differences still to be uncovered. Whether or not women migrants leave children behind, the age of the children, who they are left behind with, and to what extent they are able to send money home, might also be important differentiating features.   In the next phase of our work, we will be exploiting the rich data in our surveys on how life has changed for the households left behind in our attempts to unravel how migration shapes poverty experiences.
Julie Litchfield is the Theme Leader for Quantitative Research for the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.

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