Friday, 7 March 2014

Women migrants working in construction: shaking the foundations of the way they are socially constructed

By Benjamin Zeitlyn
The Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium (RPC) is conducting research on internal and regional migration in Africa and Asia. As part of our qualitative research we focus upon three areas of employment that attract a lot of migrant workers in several different countries. These are domestic work, construction work and manufacturing. The assumption many of us made when we began to think about these categories is that men work in construction and women in domestic work.
A conspicuous aspect of many cities in rapidly urbanising and developing countries is a vibrant construction sector and the rapid emergence of new buildings. Millions of workers work on construction projects large and small in cities across the developing world. Often a very high proportion of these workers are internal and regional migrants.

Along with my colleagues Priya Deshingkar and Bridget Holtom, I reviewed the literature on internal and regional migration for construction work to survey the current state of the evidence and identify themes and gaps in the literature. The review will soon be published by the RPC, here I report some of the results of this review of the literature for International Women’s Day.
One of the first things that struck me was that among the studies we found about internal and regional migration for construction work in developing countries, very few explicitly look at gender relations and/or the role of women. Those that do exist tend to be based in India and Bangladesh. We speculate that this is because it is common to have women working in construction in South Asia, but not in other parts of the world, our research in African countries aims to see if this is true.
Research in India and Bangladesh on women working on construction sites reveals interesting gendered divisions of labour and inequalities in wages on construction sites as well as gendered patterns of remittance sending. Many migrant women working in construction in Bangladesh had migrated with their husbands or families, but a significant proportion migrated alone or headed their household. They were mostly young (25-35), poor and from rural areas. Women workers earned less than their male counterparts and if they were alone had to pay more for their accommodation (Ahsan, 1997). Higher status and skilled jobs (which offer the most potential for genuinely transformational earning) are dominated by men (Pattenden 2012).
Poor health for women migrants and their families working on construction sites are a major concern in the literature. Conditions on many construction sites in developing countries are incredibly dangerous and social protection is often minimal. Poor health can lead to increased indebtedness and so reduce the positive outcomes of migration. Interestingly, Jatrana and Sangwan, (2004) find that women construction workers in North India perceive their own health to be better after migration, although poor health was a constant aspect of their lives. For these women construction workers, being relieved of water and firewood collection duties and having a constant supply of food made them feel healthier. The costs of accessing high quality medical attention were still prohibitive for them; so improved access to healthcare was not the deciding factor. Jatrana and Sangwan attribute the improved perception of health to urban lifestyles and social network support that the migrants come into contact with in cities. 
Emerging findings from our research in Ethiopia support this interesting observation. While conditions for women migrant workers in the cities of Ethiopia are hard at best and border on modern day slavery at worst, the conditions, which many women and girls have migrated to leave behind, are even worse. As Naila Kabeer (2000) described in her book on the garments industry in Bangladesh, the options available for many poor women and girls other than the exploitative conditions of work in the garments industry are very grim indeed.
Research on female migrants tends to portray them as victims, to highlight their health problems and the exploitation they suffer, without paying much attention to the exploitative or abusive conditions that they have left behind and the contributions they make to their families’ and nations’ development. Migrant women working in the construction industries of developing countries shake the foundations of the way women migrants are socially constructed.
Benjamin Zeitlyn is the Theme Leader for Qualitative Research within the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.

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