In 2011, The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that the number of international migrants in 2008 rested at 214 million, having increased from 150 million people in the year 2000, amounting to 3.1% of the world’s population. The immense economic consequence of these labour flows are made evident in the fact that in 2009, approximately $414 billion were sent as remittances, $307 billion of which were sent to developing countries, double the official aid and nearly two-thirds of foreign direct investment. As made evident from the sheer volume of not only migrants but significant remittances, particularly to the developing world, through the employment relationship of migrant labourers, the incentives for migration are visibly economic.
Despite the growth of permissive economies where human capital flows have become a significant feature, issues of citizenship and national sovereignty directly affront the optimism of international treatises, particularly within the informal sector. International organisations have become the stern-faced puppets of geopolitical powerhouses, owing to rising differences in wealth, power and security hand in hand with economic liberalisation.
Within an inclined geopolitical playing field, both wealthy and lowly nations were able to benefit from the need for labour, however, what must be interrogated is, at what cost to the labourers themselves and whose responsibility is their safety?
Global Care Economies: An Empowerment Paradox?
Care as a socially-reproductive form of labour, has been identified to sustains human beings as distinct from commodities and products, involving biological reproduction and/or socialisation processes such as childcare or housework. Care, much like other service sectors, has become assimilated into the globalisation project, as a low-cost service sector as what has been dubbed as the ‘hidden labour market’. Women’s labour, particularly in those sectors that are regarded as inherent to their biology, are rendered invisible and thus valueless. These also manifest as unregulated, economic spaces particularly in the realm of the domestic, where national laws or international promises for equality cannot be honoured.
Within a globalised world, where wealthier women needed the support of carers to look after matters of house and children while they engaged in their own employment, or simply out of unwillingness and the ability to afford domestic labour, a new trend of feminised migration was instigated. This need for care-giving as both a formal and informal service within the developed world, saw a rapid incline in the number of unskilled female migrants, who were incorporated as domestic labour into the most intimate microcosm of the global production chain; the household. The category of unskilled was thus inherently tied to womanhood, which engenders domestic labour, by which women continue to be compelled to commoditise their patriarchally-reinforced social role as mothers or wives.
The inequalities of wealth play a crucial role in this flow of labour, for unskilled women who are unable to gain employment within national labour markets, through the thinning boundaries of globalisation and an attractive wage differential, are able to leave their home countries for employment opportunities overseas. Although economic independence is an attractive incentive for women, they are compelled into an employment relationship that preys on their gender as a skills-qualification. Through globalisation and the care economy of domestic labour, women are confined into roles that underline their subordination and highlight patriarchal social biases bolstering a gendered separation of the labour market which disallows mobility or the gaining of other productive skills. Moreover, the informal nature of the domestic sphere marked by grave racialised prejudices also creates a uniquely liminal space where national or international labour conventions and laws cannot be monitored or enforced, making female migrant labourers exceptionally vulnerable to abuse and discrimination that victimise their most intimate forms of self-identification such as gender, ethnicity and nationality.
Cheap Labour in the Middle-East
Working conditions of labourers in the Middle-East have been consistently marked by a lack of protection, clearly defined rights, ineffective local legal systems, a complete dependence on the good will of their employers and the ever-present possibility of deportation. Furthermore, an ethnic and national stratification was in place informally, whereby European expatriates were paid the most, other Arabs and Asians occupying a middle-rung and Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans getting paid the least. What began as a tide of male migration, soon led to a demand for domestic labour in the prosperous Arab households, owing to the very low participation of Arab women in the labour market as a consequence of social and ad religious customs that restricted females working outside the home.
Thereby, cheap domestic labour from South Asia and beyond was funneled into the Arab states, where the even more vulnerable category the female servant was laid over the plethora of existing biases and constraints that marginalised the male workers. These women often remained isolated in private households where they had no access to any form of external protection or any legal recourse in the event of employer abuse. Moreover, existing national labour laws specifically excluded domestic work from its sphere of influence that made reporting harassment or maltreatment virtually impossible.
Although Sri Lanka has been marked as a developing nation that has fared well in matters of human development, economically it has consistently faltered. In the 1984, with a per capita income of $360, it was among the 30 poorest countries in the world having succumbed to very high inflation and unemployment rates in the 1970s. The demand for labour in the Middle-East proved to be a beneficial solution to the Sri Lankan government, which was able to solve some of its worst economic problems and also enable an income and alleviate unemployment. Sri Lanka, having advertised itself internationally has having the cheapest labour in Asia, proved to be an attractive source for Arab employers owing to higher wage differentials, regional proximity, liberalised economic policies that encouraged labour flow out of the country and its comparative regional advantage for not having imposed restrictions on female labour over issues of culture or religion. Many of the women were unskilled outside the domestic sphere which made them pertinent candidates for housekeeping and child-rearing. Given that there was no possibility of them being paid this amount with similar jobs at home, the wage differential was the single most influential ‘pull factor’ in the feminisation of Sri Lankan migration to the Middle-East.
Since the 1980s, Sri Lanka maintained itself as a rich labour resource for the Middle-East, which has sustained its economy throughout as second largest earner of foreign exchange in the Sri Lankan economy. According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (2009), there are approximately 1.7 million Sri Lankans working overseas (amounting to nearly 10% of the country’s population) remitting Rs. 382,801 Million (47.03% of total foreign exchange earnings of the country) back to Sri Lanka. During the past decade 70% of labour had been exported in the category of unskilled sector of which nearly 66 % had been female domestic workers who formed 89% of the total female migrant workers. Given the low levels of female employment in Sri Lanka alongside its economic and political instability in the civil war years, migration as domestic labour was motivated almost solely by dire financial necessity among respondent women. Poverty is also tied to the pursuit of social and economic status including ambitions such as building a house, purchasing land, paying off family debts or educating children.
Abuses and Violations
The economic promise of domestic labour in the Middle-East is virtually unequivocally bound to the high probability of abuse.
HRW (2007) reports that not only are women victim to wage exploitation, unpaid or underpaid salaries, heavy workloads, excessive hours of work, food deprivation, inadequate living conditions, confiscation of passports, forced confinement, restricted communication, forced labour, prohibitions on returning home and a series of exploitative practices by recruitment agencies in both Sri Lanka and the Arab States, but also violent physical, psychological and sexual abuses. In Lebanon, the abuses are often centred on racial and ethnic prejudices and ensuing stereotyping that creates a hierarchy of nationality and interlinked wages appropriate for domestic labour, but also categories for recruitment basing nationality as an indication of trust or degradation. Racial slurs and offensive stereotyping are a manifestation of symbolic violence that negate and debase the identities and personhoods of these women. Not only are the human and civil rights of unskilled migrant labourers constantly challenged, and their existence marginalised through these practices, their citizenship becomes a burdening category of identification.
Universal standards of living are prescribed and marginalised social groups are given legal protection through documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that recognises ‘the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. However the existence of such idealised and optimistic provisions does not account for the lack of support by human rights or humanitarian organisations in the realms of ‘hidden labour markets’ not simply in the Middle-East, but beyond.
Inter-governmental understandings and solidarity in policy formulation could possess a positive impact on these relations in the long-run although relevant legislation has been slow in implementation.
HRW (2007) states, ‘International human rights law places positive obligations on states to protect the rights of individuals against acts, including ill-treatment and discrimination, committed by private persons or entities. States must take appropriate measures (in some places referred to as “due diligence”) to prevent punish, investigate, or redress the harm caused to individuals’ rights by private persons or entities. States must also provide effective remedies to those so harmed.’ Given that much of the abuses taking place in the domestic sphere, face very legitimate problems of reporting and monitoring, efforts have been made to account for the process of migration itself.The Sri Lankan government has been increasingly wary of abuses in the system through recruitment agencies and has introduced a stringent system of licensing for regulation (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, 2009; HRW, 2007). Similarly, the establishment of embassies and consuls in the recipient countries has played a considerable role in providing registration services for labourers and sanctuary for women who manage to escape oppressive domestic relations.
However, the process of creating bi-lateral understandings with the Arab States which have very little to gain besides the cost of implementing mechanisms for monitoring labour within the private homes, has been very slow. The core nations’ dependence on the Arab Gulf for oil and its remarkable financial capital, helps maintain its interests within potential threats from international laws. Although a space for civil society activism has opened up in the form of NGOs within these countries where women are given advice and shelter if needed, the problem of abuse and forced labour within the households remains a persistent problem as news reports of violence against female domestics gather momentum, and the expectation of violence becomes grotesquely normalised.
As stated by HRW (2007) the Arab governments remain notably inactive in this sphere, and the critical importance of remittances to Sri Lanka’s economic strategy for poverty alleviation implies that, it too is reluctant to enforce any major restrictions on labour migration. Thereby, what must be questioned is even though globalisation in its neoliberal economic manifestation has become a successful flow for securing employment overseas and interlinked financial independence and gains in socio-economic status owing to high wage differentials, at what disjunctive cost to human dignity and life must these financial incentives be pursued?
Rights and Sovereignty in the Household
Saskia Sassen posits, highlighting the declining sovereignty of states over their economies, posits that global markets created a space for legal regimes that mediated between national autonomy and the transnational practices of economic players.For example, Human rights are not dependent on nationality, overriding political, social and civil rights which elude those categorised as aliens. However the existence of such idealised and optimistic provisions does not account for the lack of support by human rights or humanitarian organisations in the realms of domestic labour not simply in the Middle-East. These debates on legality and citizenship in relation to migration must be re-examined in relation to enforcement in the liminal, hidden space of the domestic sphere where the employment of domestic labour, the international and national have begun to intersect with the private.
In these spaces and beyond, human rights violations, exist in reality much like the thought experiment of a falling tree in a forest, crimes that did not take place unless it is reported and acted upon.
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