It is an acknowledged fact that a significant proportion of workers migrate in response to adverse economic situations in their countries of origin. As neo-liberal forces gain momentum, such trends are expected to intensify. The migration landscape is also becoming heterogeneous, a phenomenon augmented by factors operating at multiple levels—the emergence of new labour sending and receiving regions in response to demographic changes and economic transitions, the increase in student and refuge movements, etc. The journey of migrant women, who constitute around half of the international migrant stock (105 million in 2010)—a significant share migrating in search of jobs—needs to be located within this broad canvas.

Narratives on labour migration from India have largely ignored vulnerabilities encountered by women as migrants or as family members left behind. Of late, there is an increasing realisation of the need for a gender-sensitive approach to the migration cycle as it creates distinct experiences and outcomes for males and females. Here, we bring together the intricacies involved in the migration of Indian women to the Gulf, often without family, in search of work. Their tales show how conditions at both ends of the migration chain affect female migrants’ efforts to reproduce or reshape their traditional role and how they respond to and (re)negotiate opportunities/vulnerabilities in the process.

India has sent an estimated five million workers all over the world, with Gulf countries being the major destination. From a movement of low skilled and semi-skilled workers to meet the growing demands of the construction sector following the oil boom of the 1970s, the migration pattern diversified, with an increase in the share of skilled workers. Despite an increasing share of women moving to Gulf countries in search of jobs, the dominant sexual division of labour continues.

The majority of Indian women in the Gulf work in the informal sector as low skilled workers (housemaids, babysitters, caregivers, etc.). A relatively lower percentage comprises semi-skilled or skilled workers (para-medicals, accountants, teachers, etc.).

Apart from economic and social situations in the countries of origin, the harsh realities of family life—marital failure, drinking, gambling or extravagant behaviour of their spouses, other oppressive social systems—seem to play a crucial role in influencing women’s decision to migrate.

Of course, a relatively lower number, particularly in medium and high skilled categories, do migrate to have the experience of seeing the world and living like ‘young modern women’.

A number of prospective women migrants from Kerala and Andhra Pradesh (two regions that send large numbers of women workers to the Gulf) with whom we interacted pointed to several factors, apart from the attraction of a higher salary, behind their decision to migrate. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of them are first-time job seekers, and a few have not even travelled alone from their place of residence.

Institutional mechanisms to provide information to intending migrants are still rudimentary in India. Informal networks like relatives, friends and those who had migrated earlier play a critical role in providing information.

To Molly, a widow from Kerala, a Private Recruiting Agent (PRA) recommended working in the Gulf as a one-time solution to her financial problems. For a young widow from a lower middle class family without marketable skills, a decent job in Kerala is a distant dream, and anonymity at the destination makes working as a housemaid acceptable. 

Omana, from Kaddapa, is financially better off but she still wants to migrate, as she is influenced by the success of her sister who could marry off two of her daughters, and to get away from an alcoholic husband.

In the case of Manju, a nursing professional from Kerala, the choice of profession was driven by the migration factor. For some of her friends in the health care sector, the purpose of migration was to save money for marriage. Some said working abroad would increase their chances of a better alliance, as men settled abroad or wanting to settle abroad prefer nurses as they have better job prospects.

However, the migration of nurses from India is not as easy as one imagines. Not only is there increasing competition from countries like Sri Lanka and Philippines, there are also issues involved with the recognition of our nursing degrees and diplomas.

Given this scenario health care workers sometimes take unbelievable risks to make it to foreign countries. Last month we met a group of 30 nurses (from Kerala and Andhra Pradesh) working in a reputed Delhi hospital, who have completed most of the formalities for migrating to Iraq.

These young women and their families are not unaware of the risks involved in such migration and have paid huge amounts as commission to the agent, but for many in their late twenties, this is perhaps the last chance to fulfill all their dreams.

It is this desperation that makes migrants vulnerable to unscrupulous PRAs and their network of brokers and intermediaries. Institutional mechanisms to provide information to intending migrants are still rudimentary in India. Informal networks like relatives, friends and those who had migrated earlier play a critical role in providing information.

A nationwide survey by the Centre for Development Studies, Thriuvananthapuram, showed that 74.2 per cent of males and 88.52 per cent of females depended on the friends-relatives network for migrating to a foreign destination; the dependence on the foreign employer was 7.3 per cent, on PRAs 13.5 per cent, and on government agencies 0.5 per cent. Informal networks have the advantage of fostering relationships that render aid in times of difficulties, often before the consular services. But the pitfall is the high probability that information received through an informal network is incomplete or incorrect.

Intending migrants unable to establish a link with such networks have to rely on PRAs not only for information on migration but also for formalities in the migration process including flight tickets or processing requirements in the home and destination countries. This is true even for many intending migrants with strong social networks, making PRAs indispensable actors in the migration process.

PRAs are guilty of fraudulent practices such as visa trading, excessive placement fees, forging of documents, contract violations. As narrated by Manju, it is not uncommon for PRAs to sexually abuse intending migrants when they are forced to travel with them to urban centres to complete migration formalities. Manju’s experience made her abandon her plan to work in the Gulf.

The resort to PRAs leads to increased cost of migration. Most migrants depend on personal savings or the savings of parents, borrow money from friends and relatives, pawn/sell land or valuables, or take loans from moneylenders. In many cases they are forced to accept exploitative living and working conditions due to the huge investment they have made to reach the destination.

Women migrate to the Gulf ordinarily with contracts for a period ranging from two to five years. In most cases, employers confiscate their passports and other documents and they live in constant fear of deportation at any time of their contract period. Many women enter Gulf countries without legal documents, sometimes because they are unaware of the papers required, and end up as irregular migrants, working on exploitative terms and conditions. 

The majority of domestic maids work and live in the employers’ household. This also means that there is no stipulated rest time; they are given little privacy and forced to work any time of the day and night.

Of course, there were a lucky few who had an understanding employer, but for the majority, the experience was of non-payment, delay in payment or payment of wages less than what was offered.

Most migrant workers also reported that physical, sexual and verbal abuse by employers is common in the daily life of a domestic worker in the Gulf. Even in cases of death under suspicious circumstances or reports of rape, the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. Among women, the category of domestic workers is the least organised due to the specific laws and regulations in Gulf countries. Ironically they are also the category facing the worst forms of discrimination due to their personalized work environment.

Migration does not overhaul the gender hierarchy, though the remittances of female migrants play a pivotal role in shaping the economic well-being of the family.

It is well known that women migrants save and remit more money to their households than their male counterparts. However, the position of women in society and households in the post-migration phase depends not only on how much they were able to save, but the extent to which they are able to control their savings.

It is not uncommon for women migrants to realise after returning that the money they sent through informal networks never reached their households or were spent in unproductive activities.

Very often, men who earned an income earlier withdraw from the income-earning activities once their spouses migrate abroad, leading a lazy, leisurely life; upon return the women migrants find very little of their earnings remaining as savings or investment and are forced to renew their contract for migration.

No wonder Amina, who worked as a housemaid in the Gulf for 10 years, wants to try her luck once again. But no employer wants to employ a housemaid in her mid-60s. For Amina the only option is to migrate to countries like Syria, for which there are fewer takers, and make her candidature attractive by undercutting wages.

During their journey to and from the Gulf, women fight innumerable individual battles at different levels. However, upon return, they passively reassume the traditional roles of housewives. Society has failed to come up with an institutional structure to manage the savings of the migrants and to devise mechanisms to reintegrate them with it.

A survey by the Centre for Development Studies, Thriuvananthapuram, showed that 74.2 per cent of males and 88.52 per cent of females depended on the friends-relatives network for migrating. Informal networks have the advantage of fostering relationships that render aid in times of difficulties. 

Stakeholders at the global, regional and national levels have sought to improve the migration outcomes of migrant workers by ensuring their rights. For instance, international instruments, particularly those evolved by ILO and UN, emphasise the freedom, dignity and protection of migrants in a foreign country, by ensuring the right to migrate, right to information on safe migration, right to unionise and collective bargaining, access to social security, and right against trafficking and smuggling.

A major problem with these international legal instruments is their low ratification status. For instance, in the South Asia–Gulf migration corridor, except for Bangladesh, no country has ratified any ILO or UN Convention with respect to migrant workers.

Initiatives at the regional level, such as bilateral agreements between labour sending and receiving countries, attempt to overcome the impasse. India has entered into bilateral agreements with several Gulf countries.

But what is more crucial is the state response to migrant workers, particularly to women. A critical concern about India’s emigration policy is that it does not treat men and women uniformly. Despite the increasing presence of women migrants, the policy places women at the margins, reproducing existing gender stereotypes.

The state intervenes to protect and control women at every stage of migration cycle, making the process extremely bureaucratic and leaving women with no option apart from depending on PRAs. An example of the conditions imposed is the mandatory emigration clearance for work in 18 countries (including all Gulf countries) for a woman aged below 30 years who has not completed 10 years of school.

A casual visit to any of the offices of the Protector General of Emigrants brings one across young women with forged certificates of age or education, arranged by PRAs, queuing up to obtain the clearance.

Ideally, the state should address specific vulnerabilities of women workers at each stage of the migration cycle. It is a well-documented fact that low skilled women migrants become vulnerable at the pre-departure preparation stage itself. Pre-departure orientation programmes for emigrants have been recognised as one of the most effective means to address the problems encountered by migrant workers.

Such orientation is especially important for migrants to Gulf countries as they enforce cultural restrictions on worship, mobility and social interaction. Although limited efforts have been made by government agencies like Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs (NORKA) in Kerala and Overseas Manpower Company Andhra Pradesh Limited (OMCAP) in Andhra Pradesh, even now pre-departure orientation is not mandatory in India, unlike in the other major labour sending South Asian country, Sri Lanka.

The enormous increase in the migration of women workers has evoked positive responses that have attenuated their vulnerabilities to a certain extent. In many South Asian countries Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), which provide services such as raising awareness on migration, providing pre-departure orientation, and organising migrant workers, are emerging as an important link for the safe migration of women workers. Though such efforts are at a nascent stage in India, we can hope that return migrants’ associations in states like Kerala will take up the issue, following good practices followed in some neighbouring countries.

For instance, Migrant Services Center (MSC) and Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM) in Sri Lanka and Bangladeshi Ovibasi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) and Welfare Association of Repatriated Bangladeshi Employees (WARBE) in Bangladesh are active in the field of migration. Returnee women migrants are involved in the work of both BOMSA and WARBE. In Nepal, Pourakhi, an NGO formed by returnee women migrant workers, organises sensitisation programmes and awareness campaigns on migration at regular intervals.

The migration of women workers offers immense scope for social and economic mobility and the reshaping of gender relations. However, there is a need to incorporate gender sensitivity in stakeholders’ responses; recognising the ‘right to migrate’ and ‘rights of migrants at work’ would be a starting point to strengthen positive outcomes of especially migration of women.

Deconstructing the image of women as mere spectators of the process, the state should place the migrant at the focal point of the migration policy. Instead of restricting women’s migration by making the process cumbersome, which promotes irregular migration, the state should ensure the creation of a structure, both at the sending and receiving countries, which facilitates their safe migration. As return migration is an indispensible part of migration to Gulf countries, there is also a need to devise reintegration programmes tailor-made for women migrants.