Migrant's Memo: It's not OK to rip us off

female worker
By Annie Cosalan

Some floors of the Peninsula Plaza shopping centre in central Singapore are known as “Little Myanmar”. Inside, a warren of tiny shops ply a service for the large community of Myanmar migrant workers who stream in to transfer money home, the Financial Times’ Gwen Robinson tells us.

What’s shocking is that the costs to a migrant of sending money home represent a substantial amount of their hard earned money. The World Bank recently revealed that in 2012 commercial banks on a global average, retained 13.24%  of the amount sent as transfer fees. In comparison, private money transfer operators charge 7.70 percent. .

It turns out that migrant women are penalized more by those fees than men, because they send money home more often and in smaller amounts. IOM research shows that men and women send about the same amounts of money globally, but women tend to send money to a greater number of people, including spouse, children, parents and siblings and sometimes to female relative tasked to look after their children. Multiple and frequent transfers explain that they proportionately pay a much higher prices for transferring money to their loved ones.

Many poor migrant workers do not meet banks’ criteria for opening accounts. So they resort to informal – and sometime hazardous- money transfer systems such as the so-called “hundi or hawallah” system, especially across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, where the banking system can have strict rules on international transactions.

Remittances are the second largest source of external funding for developing countries. But the assumption, spoken or otherwise, that the way money is sent does not have anything to do with gender, is a canard.

Being able to send money home is one of the decisive migration factors for men and women. In many instances, the migration of young women for work in highly feminized professions represents a livelihood strategy for the household as a whole. But traditional gender roles and societal inequalities mean that women tend to face greater pressure to send the bulk of their earnings home to support their families.,

Faced with this pressure to financially support their families, it is little surprise that migrant women are often compelled to accept jobs with dangerous, unhealthy and difficult working conditions. Let’s face it: female migrants too often end up as low-skilled domestic workers,  in hotel and catering services, the entertainment and sex industry, on soul-destroying assembly lines or in back-breaking farm work. These jobs are all characterized by poor working conditions, low pay, withheld wages, considerable insecurity and a high risk of sexual and physical harassment, exploitation and abuse. Moreover, these risks of violence and abuse are further compounded by the fact that migrant women, on average, earn less than migrant men, and are thus more dependent on their earnings in order to make ends meet. In many situations, migrant women also depend on their employer for their legal status and if they lose their job, they may be asked to leave the country, another reason to put up with sometimes unspeakable exploitation and violence.

We also know that women’s role as the main senders and recipients of remittances can be a catalyst for change in gender relations, as their earning capacity may provide both a better economic status and a definite bargaining power within the household, improving their decision-making power.

Since 2009, the World Bank is monitoring a G8 and G20 global objective to reduce the cost of remittances by five percent points in five years. Reaching this objective could mean an additional 16 billion dollars saved by migrants or received by their families. What we now need is fairness in the form of a break from the banks and the Hundi and the Hawallah merchants towards those migrant women who do so much to keep their families intact, their children in school and their economies from sinking below the water line. We can but hope.  

Please read more here

Annie Cosalan is the Communications Specialist for IOM