We live in a world in constant motion. This is defined by the mobility of capital, goods and services but above all the mobility of people. Millions of people are moving, within and across borders, in search of something better.
One of the fastest growing groups is women and girls migrating for employment, caught up in the ever-changing, globalized world of work. Current estimates by the International Labour Organization put the official number of international female migrant workers at 66 million, which does not include the large numbers of migrant women working or migrating irregularly. Numbers of internal female migrant workers are estimated to be much greater.
On International Women’s Day 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) embraces the official United Nations theme, Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030, by honouring migrant women and girls. We take a moment to salute their achievements and acknowledge the challenges they face. And as we work with Member States to draft a ground-breaking Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, we call on governments and the international community to expand their access to decent work and ensure that their migration experience is as positive as possible.
The world of work has never been more globalized and interconnected than it is today. A labour shortage in one part of the world is often filled by workers from the other side of the world. Women are very much part of this phenomenon and can be found in all labour market sectors.
For example, global care chains create demand for care and domestic work that draws women from countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America, to perform such work in Europe, North America and the Middle East. In countries of origin too, other women and girls are stepping into the service gaps left by the family members who have sought employment abroad. Many other women and girls are migrating to work in other sectors, such as agriculture, manufacturing and hospitality.
For many women and girls, migrating for work is an attractive proposition. It can allow them to advance economically, socially and professionally; it can contribute to an increase in self-confidence, autonomy and control over their lives; and it can enable them to better support their families. It might also expose them to new, more equitable gender norms.
For the host societies, the contributions of female migrant workers are of enormous benefit. In addition to filling important labour gaps, these women also contribute to the economies of their host societies. And those who perform care and domestic work also enable other people, often women, to pursue employment and other activities outside of the home by relieving them of duties that might otherwise fall on them.
For the countries of origin, female migrant workers are not only an important source of remittances; when they eventually return home, whether temporarily or permanently, they also take back newly acquired skills and knowledge.
Unfortunately there is another, less pleasant side to this picture. Migration can also present many challenges for women workers, starting even before migration takes place. Unscrupulous recruiters may mislead or cheat women seeking to migrate for work, leading to abuse and exploitation. In extreme cases, women can be tricked and fall into the hands of human traffickers.
Those women who succeed in reaching their destination often end up working in more informal and less regulated labour market sectors (including domestic work and care giving) where wages are low and worker protection insufficient.
At the other end of the skills ladder, higher-skilled migrant women often work in sectors where they have difficulty in getting official recognition for their professional skills and qualifications. As a result, they often suffer disproportionately from underemployment and deskilling.
For all migrant women – and irregular migrants in particular – these challenges can be made worse by sexism, racism and xenophobia.
There is, however, reason to hope for a better deal.
On 19 September 2016, world leaders agreed to work towards the development of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This is a unique opportunity to ensure that the particular needs of female migrant workers, and of all women and girls affected by migration, are sufficiently addressed by governments and the international community alike. As we work to draft this ambitious and much-needed document, we must ensure that they are not left behind.