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International Women’s Day and Migrant Women’s Rights

International Women’s Day  and Migrant Women’s  Rights

by Filomenita Mongaya Høgsholm

History Entwined
If it were not for immigrant women, we might not be celebrating the 8th of March as International Women’s Day (IWD) today, where we honour and recognize women’s contributions, and also protect their rights. Although IWD has been observed since the early 1900’s when the world then,  cataclysmic owing to industrial expansion and booming population growth, witnessed impassioned women campaigning for change.  It made headlines when15 000 women, probably immigrant women among them,  marched  in 1908 through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.

The Past….
At the 1910 International Conference of Working Women  in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin, working for the Social Democratic Party in her native Germany, tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day before more than 100 women from 17 countries, among them members of political parties and working women’s clubs,  including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. Zetkin’s suggestion was unanimously approved at the meeting.Thus was IWD celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March 1911 with more than one million women and men attending.
But less than a week later on 25 March, the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City occurred, taking the lives of 146 garment workers, mostly Italian and Eastern European -Jewish- women immigrants. The tragedy  underscored  the dangerous working conditions of immigrant women workers  in New York’s  sweatshops. It was a turning point for women workers and  hence became instrumental in changing American labour laws.
From then on, the meaning of the tragic event would later be incorporated into the empowerment  thrust  commemmorated on March 8th, now known as  International Women’s Day, IWD, with special stress on women workers. That was exactly a century ago on March 8 this year in 2011..
The present…
A whole  century of struggle for rights has certainly brought significant changes to women workers lives but in  many parts of the world, women’s work continues to be undervalued, underpaid, or unremunerated and every single day in the calendar, women and girls in the Global  South,  following their dreams of a better life, leave  home to find jobs to secure their future by moving to the developed world of the North/West. They migrate to continents and cultures so far from their own.

Feminisation of Migration
According to I.O.M (International Office for Migration)’s bi-annual World Migration Report in  2010, 3% of the world’s population or 214 million people were on the move, and  49% of  these international migrants were women or girls, the portion of females reaching 51% in more developed regions. Constituting 50% or  more of the migrant workers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are now women heads of households among these, who see it as their duty to go abroad and earn so as to support  their families’ well being, eg. the education of their children. Yet there is no indication that  guarantees exist so more women can migrate in  safety and protection. On the contrary, the area of protection has been marginalised, women migrants are still subjected to multiple discrimination, and the incidence of irregularity and of trafficking is rising..
But even without this criminal twist to female migration, women workers still pay the social costs of migration since they suffer psychologically and emotionally from the separation from their  children which take a toll on their health and quality of life.

Gendered Trends
According to the same report,  the trend of female migration will continue owing to the demographic factor of  an ageing population in the developed world requiring the extra hands of female immigrants to provide care. Yet  employers, governments and society  in receiving countries fail to value women’s work  which is considered of  low status. Care, esp, when it is expended within the domestic sphere is invisible. And not valued.
Additionally,  women workers  are denied their right to fair wages and humane working conditions. When they come into contact with the law, they are deprived of their right to due process, the right to be protected against inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to be heard and air grievances, including the right to complain without the threat of verbal abuse or withholding of salary. These are everyday happenings for migrant women in certain parts of the world.. aside, from these, they often have noaccess to counselling, legal and social services. More so than other workers, domestic workers including  the new arrivlas, the au pairs found in iincreasing numbers in norther Europe, are vulnerable to deprivation oe abuse of their rights, and maybe be exposed to physical violence, including sexual harassment and rape.

Trafficking and smuggling for labour and the sex industry mainly involving women and children is a more lucrative business than the drug trade. With the financial crisis still unresolved, unscrupulous elements in this nexus of migration and criminality will ply their trade more vigorously to bring in their ill-gotten incomes.
MDGs and Migrant Women:“Empowering Women to End Poverty by 2015”
In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals  or MDGs were set by the world’s leaders who agreed on a global cooperation to fight poverty by formulating 8 specific goals. Not one of the 8 however was on international migration,  inspite of the role of remittances and diaspora communities as agents of change in home countries. Indeed, it is  a crosscutting phenomenon,  rather like  gender equality which is one of the MDGs, ie./Goal 3.

Inspite there being one specific goal on gender equality, without progress towards the empowerment of women, including migrant women, none of the other goals will be achieved. Women disproportionately experience the burden of poverty  as victims of discrimination, and yet they put their lives at risk every time they become pregnant because more often than not, they have no access to basic health services  nor reproductive rights orientation, showing an interplay of several unfulfilled MDGs.
Last year’s UN MDG Summit in New York in September  2010 concluded with the adoption of a global action plan to achieve the eight anti-poverty goals by their 2015 target date and the announcement of major new commitments for women’s and children’s health and other initiatives against poverty, hunger and disease.

The UN Migrant Workers Convention and International Migrants Day
20 years has passed since the UN attempted in 1990 to enshrine migrant workers rights in a Convention adequately entitled the UN Convention for Migrant Workers and Members of their Families,  UNMWC for short. It first entered into force in 2003 but already in 1997, Filipino migrants began to celebrate the 18th of December to commemorate international migrants solidarity day. And finally on Dec.4th 2000, it was decided by the UN that there ought to be  an International Migrants Day to remind member states, intergovernmental actors as well as NGOs  of their obligations to ratify the Convention as well as to disseminate information on the human rights of migrants, recognizing their contributions to the well being of host societies.

The UNMWC is the only Human Rights instrument that specifically addressesthe rights of migrants but unfortunately it is also the least ratified…Not one European or North American state has come forward to lead the way.  There is a long way to go, in fact, it has almost not started .As of last count there were only 44 nations who have ratified  the Convention, and all of them from the Global South. There are  further some 15 signatories to the Convention, again none from the so-called developed nations.

The ILO Domestic Workers Convention

The ILO has a number of Conventions thru the 1980s and ’90s, all of them having to do with questions relevant to migrant workers but none seem to cater directly to women migrants. In 2011, a new Convention will likely be passed and this will be about domestic workers rights. Considering that   domestic workers are predominantly women, and the demographic deficit will require more and more  care from the Global South,  and with a fast ageing population in the developed nations,  such a Convention will secure aspects to this grey and unprotected  labour area but will not  necessarily address  ALL  migrant women’s rights.

The new convention was passed at the ILO’s June 2-18 2010 meeting in Geneva, attended by more than 2,500 delegates from member countries, trade unions and employer’s confederations. This new DWC provides for freedom of association, fair terms of employment and decent working and living conditions, easy access to dispute settlement procedures, regulation of employment agencies and protection of migrant domestic workers. This part will require hard bargaining since it is about  substantive provisions to  include protection from abuse, wage regulation, fair and decent conditions of work and social security for domestic workers — migrant, live-in and other categories of this extremely vast, unregulated and unprotected workforce. The ILO also called for state parties to hold consultations with stakeholders and provide comments on the proposed convention to set fair labour standards in domestic work.

This year 2011, it is expected,that we will see both international and domestic law on this important subject in place. The fact that the work site for domestic work is often the home of the employer, not a public place, is considered problematic because the right to privacy of employers is put forward as contradictory to the rights of the domestic worker supposedly in  regulated employment. Also, the aforementioned  rapid rise in crossborder trafficking calls for special protection for migrant domestic workers, many of whom cross international  borders without proper documentation. The Convention must also address  the important issue of reintegration and/or return after end of contract, a time when the women workers  are particularly at risk. It is also established that domestic workers are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual assault, and often find it impossible to access the criminal justice system. Protection must be offered to domestic workers against sexual harassment, especially more relevant to certain areas in the world than others.
ILO in the Middle East
The ILO is also encouraging the  drafting of labour legislation to provide foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in the Middle East with legal protection.Arab trade unions agreed on a statement of principles, including the right to decent wages and union representation for FDWs, after a workshop in Beirut, Lebanon, earlier in November 2010. The phenomenon [FDW] has taken off in recent years as family networks are taking on workers to help with social care, such as caring for elderly parents, people with disabilities and children.Only Jordan has comprehensive labour legislation covering FDWs in a region that employs 22 million domestics, a third of whom are women, mainly from Asian and African countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

Domestic labour is used worldwide but is especially widespread in the Middle East and where according to Human Rights Watch (April 2010), FDWs face a wide range of abuses and poor working conditions, such as needing permission to leave the house, a lack of leave days, having their passports taken away and, in some cases, physical and emotional abuse. The report also noted that access to justice was limited. Experts say the recruitment system –  kafala – in which an employing family sponsors the domestic worker, is the first issue to tackle. Also advocacy for the rights of domestic workers is weak and language is a barrier.

The ILO is also working with governments on other initiatives, including awareness literature, hotlines for FDWs, communal housing that would offer domestic workers an alternative to living in the employer’s home, and government bodies rather than private agencies to manage recruitment.
Governments, trade unions, and other civil society organizations in both the countries of origin and destination need to be more engaged. Private employment agencies are making a profit out of workers who are coming to the region to take care of the social care needs of households here. These needs should be a part of social policies and programmes of the countries’ governments, rather than being left to private households.

Conventions aimed specifically at Women
We work with women before they depart to train them in their rights as workers, employment responsibilities and basic information about contracts.  We work with women once they arrive in the country to ensure they have safe housing, legitimate contracts and workplace rights.  We also   work with women who are returning to their families after periods away and supporting them to     re-enter their family life. (UNIFEM)

CEDAW, Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
CEDAW is an international treaty that can also be invoked to address women migrants’ issues. With 178 ratifications by countries of origin, transit and destination, CEDAW is one of the most widely ratified of conventions, ranking second only to the Convention on the rights of the Child
This  Convention  was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1979, and is one of the most comprehensive international human rights treaties for the promotion of women’s rights. It looks at women’s civil rights, their legal status, reproductive rights, but also cultural factors influencing women’s position in society and the enjoyment of their rights.

At some point, the UN Cedaw Committee, affirming that migrant women, like all women, should not be discriminated against in any sphere of their life, decided to issue a General  Recommendation on some categories of women migrant workers in these words:

Recognizing that migrant women may be classified into various categories and that these categories remain fluid and overlapping, the scope of the general recommendation is limited to addressing the situations of migrant women who, as workers, are in low-paid jobs, may be at high risk of abuse and discrimination and who may never acquire eligibility for permanent stay or citizenship, unlike professional migrant workers in the country of employment. These categories of migrant women are: (a) women migrant workers who migrate independently; (b) women migrant workers who join their spouses or other members of their families who are also workers; and undocumented women migrant workers who may fall into any of the above categories.

The General Recommendation 27, also known as GR 27, issued at its 32nd Session in January 2005  aims to elaborate the circumstances that contribute to the specific vulnerability of many women migrant workers and their experiences of sex- and gender-based discrimination as a cause and consequence of the violations of their human rights.
The full text  is available at

CEDAW: the view from Europe
Together with a couple of other related organizations,UNIFEM organised a Roundtable on the CEDAW and Migrant Women during its 30th anniversary in Geneva in November 2009,  two migrant women were invited from Europe (one from WIDE/KULU/Babaylan and another from the European Netowrk of Migrant Women) to share their experience from the ground regarding human rights challenges for women migrant workers in Europe and the forms of multiple discrimination they are facing.
Bilateral agreements between countries to protect migrant workers are generally lacking, and that many migrant women do not have papers or contracts, as a result of trafficking or their illegal status, and therefore have no place to go for protection, nor for services such as health care.

Migrant women in Europe also often lack access to social benefits (e.g. pensions), and might therefore face poverty at old age. A further complication is that many migrant women that do domestic work are not protected, for example regarding domestic violence, as the ‘home’ by law is not seen as an official workplace, but as a private area.

One of the difficulties to protect migrant workers arises from the fact that the women leave on their own initiative and do not go through official organizations or networks, nor do they seek advice with State institutions. This makes it very difficult for States to provide these migrant workers with support.
Other issues raised during the discussion ranged from good practice examples in training and education of migrant workers, which nowadays is primarily a task taken up by civil society and which many said should also become the responsibility of States, so is  protection of families, domestic migration and national streamlining of migration policy among various ministries.

Concluding words
IWD is a global  celebration to focus on the  economic, political and social achievements of all women without regard for differences among them. Maybe with the newly established United  Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — or UN Women —  now fully functioning,  the UN can help member states to “accelerate progress towards their goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women.” And put power and meaning into the celebration of International Women’s Day hopefully for generations to come.

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