Press Release

Migration of Women Domestic Workers from Kerala to the Gulf: Challenges and Policy Options

Published on 24-06-2022

A recent study by the Centre for Socio-economic and Environmental Studies (CSES), Kochi, highlights the importance of providing pre-departure and skill training programmes to prospective women migrants who want to migrate to foreign countries as domestic workers. Such training programmes are significant for low skilled workers like domestic workers to ensure better working conditions and wages at foreign destinations. We should learn from the experience of the Philippines and Sri Lanka, which provides comprehensive training to equip women domestic workers to meet challenges in foreign countries and seek better wages. NORKA could play a crucial role in delivering training for Kerala women who want to work as domestic workers in foreign destinations. Such pre departure and skill development programmes for domestic workers should be conducted regularly, rather than sporadic events. The study titled ‘Migration of Women Domestic Workers from Kerala to the Gulf: Challenges and Policy Options’ was led by Dr Rakkee Thimothy, Fellow, CSES. The study is based on secondary data, literature, and interviews with domestic workers who migrated from Kerala to the Gulf. The major results from the study are as follows:

(a) Rigid Legal Structures Govern Migration of Women from India

The legal framework of migration from India is governed by the Emigration Act 1983, amended several times, last in 2009. A long-standing criticism against the Act has been a paternalistic stand governing the migration of women. For instance, as per the Act, women and domestic workers must get an Emigration Clearance before migrating to the Gulf countries. The provision introduced to protect women has been often used as a source of exploitation against potential women migrants by private recruitment agencies. Further, India tries to control the recruitment of domestic workers to countries by imposing a total ban on recruitment to certain countries or imposing additional conditions. For instance, in 2011, the government of India stipulated that sponsors of women domestic workers should make a refundable security deposit of US$ 2,500 to be used if the worker needs to be repatriated. In 2016, the Indian government mandated that women domestic workers from India could be recruited only through six stipulated public sector agencies or directly by an overseas employer by placing a request through the Emigrate website. Evidence from existing studies and interviews with women domestic workers indicates that such measures curtail women’s right to make their own decisions and earn a decent living. Further, such measures have a limited role in ensuring protection as women tend to depend on unofficial channels to reach their destination for work.

The Emigration Bill 2021, the draft currently available for review, being prepared to repeal the Emigration Act 1983, was expected to address at least some of these criticisms against State policing of women migrant workers.

(b) Legal Rights at the Destination

A major factor limiting the rights of women domestic workers is their status in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. All GCC countries exclude migrant domestic workers from the scope of their labour laws, increasing their vulnerability. Often domestic workers are excluded from the labour laws citing that domestic work cannot be regulated in the same manner as other work without violating the privacy of the employer’s household and the honour of their family. Further, all GCC countries have a weak inspection and dispute resolution mechanisms that render the basic entitlements of migrant domestic workers poor. Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult for migrant domestic workers who work and reside in the employer’s household to assert their rights. However, there have been some recent efforts in most GCC countries to introduce legislation regulating domestic work, though the scope and extent to which such legislation is effective varies. For instance, the UAE revised its standard domestic workers’ contract in 2014 to include one day off a week. In 2015, the Parliament of Kuwait approved the ‘Law No.68 of 2015’ regarding domestic workers, which stipulates a daily work limit of 12 hours for domestic workers. Bilateral agreements or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) exist between origin and destination countries. For example, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs had proposed a model contract to be adopted in all ECR countries, although there is no evidence of such adoption. A significant issue with the MoU continues to be a lack of clarity on how the monitoring and enforcement mechanisms suggested for providing better working conditions for migrant domestic workers will be implemented and monitored.

(c) Need to Focus on Migrant Friendly Services

While several services are offered to migrants at different stages of the migration cycle, their effectiveness tends to be problematic: as they are not accessible to a large section of potential migrants who are vulnerable. Further, the content of the migration awareness advertisements is marred by a warning tone on the dangers of migration rather than facilitating individuals to make an informed decision. Several women we interviewed as part of our study noted that they did not know about their destination country when they first migrated to work as domestic workers. Interviews with migrant women domestic workers also indicated that conditions prescribed by the government of India to protect workers are not always followed. For instance, the Government of India has introduced Minimum Referral Wages for workers in different occupations migrating to ECR countries. Introducing referral wages aims to protect Indian workers abroad by avoiding fixing wages unilaterally by employers or agents. However, this has merely led to contract substitution – the practice of duplicate contracts issued at the destination, which reflect lower wages than the referral wage agreed during emigration clearance.

In India, the operations of private recruitment agencies are regulated and monitored by the State to ensure the safety of migrant workers. During the field visit, women respondents recalled stories of exploitation, like not honouring terms of employment at the time of recruitment, concerning the place of work, nature of work and remuneration. However, even in such cases, legal respite available to women domestic workers tend to be poor.

Services to migrants to support them during their return and reintegration phase are limited in India. Most existing programmes are suitable for migrants who can make huge investments. More focus needs to be made on the low skilled migrants, who may not have marketable skills or huge capital, like the case of women domestic workers. Reintegration services in India are handicapped due to insufficient data on migrants, lack of funds and a clear vision. The government of India could look for good practices in major labour sending countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka, where migrants and their families are briefed on the return phase even during pre-departure. Such preparation for the return phase becomes extremely important for women domestic workers.

Some policy suggestions to improve the plight of low skilled migrant women workers are as follows:

(a) Pre-departure orientation programmes to prepare migrants tend to be patchy in India. For low skilled workers, like domestic workers, such orientation is critical to prepare them for employment at the destination. In the context of Kerala, NORKA could provide an essential role in equipping migrant workers with the necessary skill sets to perform their job at the destination. While pre departure programmes for migrants are currently undertaken in a piecemeal approach, there should be a comprehensive approach to equip workers, at least those in low-skilled occupations like domestic workers.

(b) The State tries to control the movement of women domestic workers, either banning their migration or imposing restrictions on their movements. However, it is proven that such a paternalistic and protective attitude does not help women but increases their vulnerabilities at different stages of the migration cycle. Therefore, there needs to be greater emphasis on making migration governance more gender friendly.

(c) As significant labour sending region, the government of India should explore possibilities to build an enabling environment by liaising with different stakeholders at the destination like governments of labour receiving countries, recruiting agencies, employers, and civil society organisations. Signing a memorandum of understanding between India and significant labour receiving countries to ensure employment rights and protection for migrant workers should be encouraged. Furthermore, efforts should be made to utilise migrant networks and associations to create awareness among women migrants on their rights and complaint redressal mechanism at the destination.

(d) One major lacune of the migration governance in India is the lack of emphasis placed on the return and reintegration of migrant workers. For migrants with minimum savings and women, income-generating options in Kerala tend to be limited. Therefore, the Kerala government should consider skill development programmes suitable for low skilled migrants to facilitate their re-entry into the labour market.

(e) In states like Kerala, which has well-functioning local self-government, it would be helpful to chart a definite role for the local self-government to improve migration outcomes. For example, the local self-government can organise awareness programmes for potential migrants and facilitate return migrants to reintegrate into society by providing support in setting up income-generating activities. In addition, the Kudumbashree network could play an essential role in information dissemination on international migration.

(f) There is an urgent need to improve labour migration data, including inflows and outflows. Currently, international migration policymaking is flawed partly because we do not have enough gender-disaggregated data on labour migration. Gender-disaggregated data are needed to protect rights and prevent exploitation, estimate the contributions of migrant women to the economies of countries of origin and destination, and facilitate their return and reintegration.

For More Details: Dr. Rakkee Thimothy (9873101227), Fellow, CSES, Kochi