Migrant Women Workers: Asserting Rights in an Exploitative Economic System
The concept of Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) is one very much talked about these days, both as the main theme for the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women 61 and as a concept used by private corporations, UN Agencies, governments, and civil society as the way forward.
However this concept can mean different things to different people. For some it means the involvement of women in economic activity. This definition is certainly simplistic and does not cover the full range of what WEE should encompass.
For the purposes of this blog, I am going to use the definition suggested by the Gender and Development Network (GADN):
Any description of WEE should include women’s capacity to benefit from economic activities on terms that recognise the value of their contribution, respect their dignity and enable them to negotiate a fair distribution of returns. Other definitions suggest that women’s economic empowerment is achieved when women of all ages have equal access to and control over resources and equal participation and influence in economic decision-making.
This frames WEE within a much broader context and certainly one that is more realistic. WEE it’s not the panacea to solve women’s issues if not accompanied by a holistic set of measures to ensure that women, particularly migrant women workers, are fully able to assert their human rights and that the economic system addresses their needs further than by seeing them as “cash machines” or useful actors to uphold the remittances economy.
Women’s labour particularly, the labour of migrant women workers which is the group that we work with at LAWRS, is too often precarious, exploitative, informal, and not properly rewarded. Migrant women workers are perceived as part and parcel of an economic model that depends on their paid (and unpaid) labour without facilitating their access to rights and entitlements, decent work, services, regularization pathways, and family reunification. As Women in Migration Network points out: “global international labor migration policy is creating a class of low-paid workers. …A flawed development model relies on the exploited labor of migrant women while building barriers to their movement across borders and criminalizing their presence in destination countries. Nations benefit from their labor and their remittances, yet fail to protect their human rights.”
WEE will be an empty concept unless the human rights of migrant women workers and those left behind are upheld and unless they can access decent work and regularisation pathways. Women in migration, including migrant women workers, are agents of change in their countries of origin and destination. They contribute substantially, not only to the economy but also to the society, culture, and politics of the countries where they work. In fact, many destination countries would face serious gaps without migrant women workers participating in their economies.
At the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), we work to promote women’s empowerment, not only economic but social, political, and personal. We work with migrant women – most of them highly skilled – who end up trapped in low-skilled, low-paid jobs in cleaning, catering, and hospitality according to No Longer Invisible and Towards Visibility reports.
Latin American migrant women in the UK experience a sharp decline in their occupational status with 11% earning below the National Minimum Wage and more than half not being paid for work done. Exploitation in these industries is endemic with women working unsocial hours, some of them being subjected to trafficking for sexual or labour exploitation, or to sexual harassment at work.
LAWRS’ programmes partly funded by progressive supporters such as Oak Foundation, which aims to ensure that migrant women can assert their rights, access tools to achieve personal empowerment, and enact social change. As part of this partnership, we have an employability programme to ensure that women who are highly-skilled yet working in low paid jobs are able to access support to secure better employment at the level of their skills. We provide training on employability, individual advice, vocational training, and form partnerships with employers. We also facilitate mentoring programmes for migrant women workers with women from indigenous community that could help them to open pathways. We encourage volunteering placements to acquire local experience in the UK. We wouldn’t be able to do our work without the support from our 47 volunteers.
However, our work on WEE goes much further than these initiatives. LAWRS also work to promote access to decent work and fundamental human rights. We provide targeted training and information in Spanish and Portuguese on labour rights and one-to-one advice through surgeries on employment issues. This is coupled with workshops on women’s rights, unionisation, understanding of the system, self-esteem and group work to encourage access to rights. We have a young women leadership programme and encourage women to develop their own actions, enterprises, and pathways while facilitating this, with the provision of English Classes. Our programme is holistic because we think that WEE needs to be multi-faceted to make a difference to women’s lives.
In regards to policy and advocacy work on migrant women worker’s rights, LAWRS engages with key decision makers to change policies on the ground and participates in key networks at the local and European levels (see PICUM and global networks to request accountability on access to rights and advocate against the criminalisation and demonization of migrant women workers).
Migrant women workers need to engage in the decisions that affect them. They need to participate, they need to speak up, and they need to have full access to rights. LAWRS will continue advocating for a vision of women’s economic empowerment that specifically includes the rights and needs of women in migration.