By Priya Deshingkar, Anita Ghimre, and Jagannath Adhikari
Last week we held a well-attended workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal to discuss our research work on migrant labour in the construction industry. The current literature on women and migration in Nepal is limited and polarised towards accounts that construct them as victims in need of protection against sexual harassment and risks at the workplace and rarely as agents of change for their own lives and futures.
Our work explored the varied reasons for men and women’s entry into construction work as well as its outcomes for their welfare. It also addresses the issue of how gender norms and caste relations are performed, contested and (re)produced within different spaces of work and living.
The interviews we held with women showed a more complex reality than is typically portrayed in mainstream debates. It shows how women’s subjectivities in construction work are developed relationally and in the context of patriarchal and caste power systems relegating them to low-paid work and limited from upward mobility in their careers.
At the same time construction work provides an easily accessible avenue for paid work outside the home for women and this can provide a range of opportunities including earning money for fulfilling personal goals including funding one’s own education or training, establishing financial independence away from spouses, establishing one’s self in urban areas away from dysfunctional marital and kinship relations, escaping shame if they are still single beyond the age of marriage and boosting household income by pooling earnings with other family members’ earnings. Women in the indigenous communities have more freedom to migrate but in the Terai region, gender norms are more restrictive for women so they rarely migrate.
But access to paid work is not straightforward and women are in a constant process of negotiating and pushing boundaries in their quest for a better life where construction work, despite its disadvantages can provide a route out of rural drudgery. Even those women that have relatively more freedom to migrate are subject to constant scrutiny of their behaviour by female and male contractors who are watching to see if they behave like “good” women.
Physical harassment is rare but malicious gossip can force unmarried girls to return home because parents put pressure on them to come back to maintain their family honour.
Contractors (thekedar) especially those from the Terai, hold strong views about the capabilities of women and perceive them as being weak, needing constant supervision and incapable of performing skilled jobs. They are therefore reluctant to employ them. They also believe that employing women leads to unrest at work sites as men are attracted to them, through no fault of their own as women should not be outside the home anyway and explain sexual harassment in this way.
However, changes in labour market dynamics and shifts in attitudes towards female workers are being seen as more men are migrating to the Gulf, opening up opportunities in skilled work for women. There has been a gradual shift in attitudes towards female workers and now there are more women in skilled jobs even though they continue to earn less than men for equivalent work. On the plus side, they have their own income, which gives them more bargaining power and independence.
Policy is not geared to supporting migrant workers, let alone female workers. Both men and women are exposed to risks because of a lack of protective clothing, poor implementation of labour laws and lack of protection through insurance schemes. But women suffer additional hardship at worksites in accessing toilets, managing their reproductive health, and taking care of children.
We are in the process of writing up this study and papers and a policy brief will be published over the coming months. Keep an eye on the Migrating out of Poverty website and Twitter feed for further information.