A Critical Analysis of the Migration Ban Lifecycle for Women Domestic Workers in the Indo-Pacific Region

By Dr Sophie Henderson, Dr Richa Shivakoti, & Dr Matt Withers

In January 2020, the Philippine government issued a total ban on the migration of domestic workers to Kuwait following the death of Filipina domestic worker Jeanelyn Villavende the previous month. Villavende was allegedly physically and sexually abused by her Kuwaiti employers and died from ‘multiple, severe, traumatic injuries’. This follows a previous ban in February 2018 on the migration of domestic workers to Kuwait after the body of Filipina domestic worker Joanna Demafelis was found in the freezer of her employers’ house. These measures by the Philippine government are the most recent resurgence of migration bans as a longstanding policy response to high-profile cases of abuse faced by women domestic workers in the Middle East, which is one of the main destination regions for domestic workers migrating from countries of origin across the Indo-Pacific region.

Bans on the outflow of migrant women stretch back to the early years of domestic worker migration, with the government of Bangladesh repeatedly banning or restricting the overseas migration of certain categories of ‘low-skilled’ women workers from early 1981 to 1998. Since then, there have been periodic attempts by numerous labour-sending states to restrict the migration of domestic workers identified as being particularly vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment due to the circumstances of their employment, including fairly recent bans by the governments of Sri Lanka (2013), Nepal (2014) and Indonesia (2015).

Although migration bans often appear to be enforced in a piecemeal and reactive fashion, they have been embraced by an increasing number of countries and used more frequently over time, drawing nascent academic and civil society attention to their efficacy as a potential mechanism for negotiating better wages and conditions for migrant domestic workers (MDWs). Beyond these discussions, though, there has been little comparative analysis of the varying political logics behind migration bans, the extent to which they might reflect extant gender norms or economic constraints, and the emergent patterns of policy convergence or divergence within and between sub-regional contexts.

To address this gap in the academic literature, we examine migration bans in four prominent countries of origin in the Indo-Pacific region – Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka – to assess the causes, outcomes and extent of regional convergence of these policies. In doing so, we develop a ‘migration ban model’ that provides a theoretical framework for understanding the circumstances under which these migration bans arise and play out. 

Domestic Worker Migration and Gender Norms

International domestic worker migration has been a major avenue of women’s employment across the poorer regions of Asia since the 1970s and, by way of remitted income, a vital source of foreign exchange earnings for the countries those workers originate from. Yet, domestic work is framed as an extension of innately ‘feminine’ work: essentially the commodification of various forms of unpaid care work that women overwhelmingly perform within their own homes. As such, it is work that is typically construed as ‘unskilled’ and chronically devalued.

Despite the emergence of ‘female breadwinners’ and women’s rising participation as independent labour migrants in the global market, the socio-cultural attitudes and perceptions concerning their role and status in the family, society and workplace have not adjusted accordingly. Traditional gendered ideals still depict men to be breadwinners and legitimate labour migrants, while women are portrayed as obedient, domesticated citizens located primarily in the private sphere of the home as nurturing mothers and wives (Chan, 2014) 1.

In many Asian countries, prevailing gender norms and biases have often resulted in commonplace stigmatisation of working women and stubborn expectations that women should, irrespective of their paid work commitments or their spouses’ lack thereof, perform the bulk of unpaid care work and childcare. This patriarchal familial ideology is now explicitly incorporated into state policy in many instances, which demonstrates the underlying unease towards women’s migration despite enabling conditions presented by gendered migration systems, such as the regulation and coordination of recruitment agencies and provision of documentation (Khoo et al, 2017) 2. For example, the migration of unaccompanied women from Nepal has traditionally been stigmatised and associated with sexual exploitation or, at the very least, a loss of innocence for young women. Meanwhile, women in Sri Lanka and Indonesia are required to obtain permission from their spouse or male guardian in order to migrate overseas as domestic workers. Such policies reinforce the traditional ideology of mother as primary caregiver and moral guardian of the family and father as head-of-household.

Modelling the Migration Ban Policy Cycle

The extent to which entrenched gender norms inform migration policies varies greatly among countries of origin. Nevertheless, we postulate that migration bans are likely to follow a predictable life cycle progressing through four generalisable stages that may contain important differences arising from the ways in which women’s work is socially and economically situated within different labour-sending states.

Inset 1: Policy Cycle of the Migration Ban

Migration Ban Lifecycle

Bans preventing women domestic workers from travelling to certain countries or regions are typically implemented after a ‘crisis event’ involving the abuse or death of a female migrant worker during foreign employment. Such events readily capture media attention, leading to public outrage in the sending state. Some examples of key ‘crisis events’ that have led to the introduction of a migration ban are listed in the table below for each of the four countries of origin.

COUNTRYDATECRISIS EVENT
Philippines1995Execution of Filipina domestic worker Flor Contemplacion in Singapore for the alleged murder of a child in her care and a fellow domestic worker.
Philippines2018The discovery of murdered Filipina domestic worker Joanna Demafelis in Kuwait.
Nepal1998Suicide of Kani Sherpa due to physical violence and rape from her employer in Saudi Arabia.
Indonesia2011Execution of Ruyati Binti Satubi, a migrant domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.
Sri Lanka2013Execution of Rizana Nafeek, a young domestic worker charged with murder after a child died in her care in Saudi Arabia.

During a crisis event, governments must choose quickly from a limited set of policy options. Shivakoti (2020) 3 identifies three policy options frequently employed in such cases. The first is the ‘do nothing’ approach, which has frequently worked for governments as they attempt to wait until the crisis blows over and is no longer the focus of public attention. The second option involves total or partial bans on the migration of women domestic workers with the rationale of ‘protecting’ them from abuse. While this seems to be an extreme option in the governments’ policy toolkit, it is also the most convenient. By implementing a migration ban, the government appears decisive during a time of crisis, which mollifies public anger. The third more challenging option is to work with the destination country to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Stage 2: Policy Confusion and Resistance

Once a migration ban is in place it may lead to some policy confusion, since the changing nature of its requirements, such as age and country-specific restrictions, can be difficult for migrant workers to adhere to. In practice, the consequences of the bans are counter to those intended by labour-sending states. By closing legal avenues for migration, while at the same time failing to provide viable employment opportunities within the home country, the bans push women who hope to migrate as domestic workers, for reasons such as poverty and debt, to seek work illegally through unregulated labour brokers. The International Labour Organization (2018)4 reports that the migration ban in Sri Lanka has prompted irregular migration flows where would-be migration domestic workers (MDWs) now travel on visit visas instead of work visas; the report also indicated that when the ban on MDWs was briefly lifted in Nepal in 2010, the proportion of women who travelled through legal channels tripled (2015).5

It is well documented that when women migrants bypass regular migration processes they are more vulnerable to rights violations and abuse during recruitment and while overseas. During migration bans, they do not have access to pre-departure information and training, standard employment contracts, and grievance mechanisms. This provides recruiters and employers with more power to profit from the worker’s undocumented position given the lack of government oversight (Napier-Moore, 2017) 6.

Stage 3: Labour Diplomacy

One possibility, after the migration ban is implemented, is for the country of origin to work with the destination country to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Labour-sending countries with higher bargaining power, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, have occasionally managed to negotiate better working conditions and rights protections for their migrant workers through a bilateral labour agreement or memorandum of understanding (MOU) before agreeing to lift the migration ban. For example, the Philippines used the threat of a migration ban to negotiate a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2012 regarding the working conditions of domestic workers and a minimum monthly wage of USD 400, despite strong reluctance from the Saudi government. However, it is important to note that when a new agreement is achieved, effective monitoring and implementation is often lacking, as most are non-binding and informal MOUs or ‘protocols’.

Stage 4: Policy Change or Reversion

In most other instances, negotiation proves too difficult owing to a power asymmetry between labour-sending and receiving countries. Sending states are at a structural labour market disadvantage and weak bargaining position to demand more rights for their migrant workers. One could argue that host states have no incentive to change their labour laws and engage in bilateral negotiations because of their immense bargaining power, justified through their near infinite supply of low-cost labour from neighbouring countries of origin (Malit and Naufal, 2016) 7. Sending states fear that demanding more protection will lead to the receiving country closing their doors to their migrant workers and opening up to competing states for their labour ‘supply’. Such fear is not necessarily misplaced. For instance, Saudi Arabia has on several occasions targeted African countries, including Kenya and Ethiopia, for its labour needs following bans on domestic workers by the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

As negotiations often fail and rates of irregular migration increase, criticism and political activism from civil society as well as migrant workers themselves can result in a policy change, such as weakening the specific restrictions of the ban, or a policy reversion by lifting it entirely.

Comparative Policy Analysis

Policy convergence and divergence within this broad life cycle of migration bans can be seen across the four countries of origin, which reveal two narratives of patriarchal states as ‘protector’ and bans as a form of diplomatic negotiation.

The Philippines presents the clearest example of the latter narrative. In recent years, the state has used bans as a form of labour diplomacy and a signal to Filipino citizens that it is committed to taking strong action. It has negotiated and signed the most bilateral agreements and MOUs after exerting diplomatic pressure on host countries. The Philippines’ strong bargaining power largely stems from the global labour market’s demand for well-educated and English-speaking Filipina domestic workers, noted for their ‘modern’ appearance and professionalism (Ireland, 2018).8 The superior market position of Filipina MDWs has helped to increase the state’s influence and emboldened the Philippines to mount a more forceful defence of their interests.

However, while negotiations are successful on some occasions, such pressure does not always result in the implementation of systematic changes to prevent future exploitation and deaths. The country-specific bans have often been lifted after the receiving country responds by threatening to look for domestic workers of other nationalities from competing countries of origin. Accordingly, the Philippine government’s structural dependence upon an exported labour force and short-term benefits of remittances constrains the extent to which it is able to take meaningful action and strengthen the rights of workers abroad.

The former narrative of ‘patriarchal state’ can be seen in the case of Nepal and Sri Lanka. In contrast to the Philippines, both countries have a fragile market position and consequently less bargaining power with receiving states. Ireland (2018)8 points to the labour market’s more modest valuation of Sri Lankan domestic workers due to their lower educational qualifications, limited proficiency in foreign languages like English, skin colour and religious makeup, rendering them less desirable to foreign employers. Nepal and Sri Lanka’s restrictions, therefore, reflect a more protectionist style of policymaking, grounded in patriarchal norms that construct migrant women as individuals who need protection and surveillance.

In Nepal, women’s migration has long been associated with sex work and is highly stigmatised, fuelled by media reports on migrant women facing sexual violence in destination countries that equates their migration with trafficking and prostitution. While traditional family structures have modernised in recent years, particularly in urban areas, gender stereotypes and patriarchal practices discouraging female mobility and education persist in rural settings. For instance, a woman’s role in more traditional Hindu communities in the Terai tends to be confined to the domestic sphere, in contrast to the Newari and Tibeto-Burman communities where women are more economically active (Gioli et al, 2017).9 Nepal’s migration policies and bans are rooted in concern for women’s ijaat (social honour), a concept that is closely tied to a woman’s perceived sexual purity within the context of historically dominant high-caste Hinduism. Grossman-Thompson (2016)10 explains how a woman’s honour can be assured in the domestic sphere through social surveillance by her parents and relatives, while being outside of the home is grounds for social censure and an indication that a woman lacks ijaat. Consequently, Nepal’s restrictions on women’s labour migration uphold embedded gender norms and cultural narratives of social honour.

Sri Lanka’s restrictions are also couched in terms of protecting the welfare of domestic workers abroad, but this appears secondary to the preservation of traditional family structures and gender norms that bind them. Through the Family Background Report, the government placed an outright ban on the migration of women with children under the age of five. Women with children older than five are required to complete a Report, which involves identifying a suitable female guardian and attaining spousal consent, subject to government inspections and approval. Therefore, Sri Lanka’s ban promotes a gender narrative that positions women as “mothers of the nation”, while postulating a scenario in which women working less and caring more comprises an ideal solution to their mistreatment abroad and the care needs of their children (Withers, 2019). 11

Indonesia appears to adopt an approach that intersects both narratives of paternalism and diplomatic negotiation. The state’s bargaining power is gradually increasing with its dominant share of the Malaysian labour market for domestic work and growing preference for ‘low cost’ and ‘obedient’ Indonesian MDWs in the Middle East, amid complaints that Filipina MDWs are ‘too assertive’ (Moors et al, 2009).12 For instance, Indonesia successfully negotiated revised MOUs with Malaysia and Saudi Arabia after imposing bans on the migration of domestic workers, allowing them to keep their passports, communicate freely with their families, and obtain a weekly rest day. However, Indonesia was unable to secure a minimum wage for domestic workers or challenge the recruitment fee structure that leaves workers indebted. These shortcomings reflect the fact that the government’s bargaining position is still relatively weak.

The Indonesian government’s promotion of domestic worker migration and reliance on their remittances sits uncomfortably with its depiction of women as dependent upon their husbands and belonging in the domestic sphere, despite women’s increasing economic contributions to the household (Platt, 2018).13 This is evident by the stipulation that women must have the express permission of their husband or father in order to migrate overseas, and women with children less than six months old are forbidden from migrating until their child passes the age limit. Therefore, akin to the restrictions in Sri Lanka, women’s mobility in Indonesia is seen as incompatible with their maternal role. It could be argued that while the stated intent of Indonesia’s migration restrictions is to ‘protect’ women MDWs following a ‘crisis event’, the ideological intent seems to be aligned with reinforcing traditional gender norms.

From Competition to Collaboration

Ultimately, the migration bans in each of the four labour-sending states exemplify their contradictory stance on women’s role in national development as remittance generators, and the moral discourses that underscore women’s labour overseas as incompatible with their roles of wife, mother and nurturer. While origin states can and do intervene in the form of migration bans as a mechanism to ‘protect’ women domestic workers, their interest in sustaining remittances limits how forcefully they push for better rights protection in destination states. Labour-sending states are well aware that migration bans are grossly ineffectual at preventing women domestic workers from migrating overseas, but instead drive the process underground and push more workers to pursue unauthorised, and riskier, migration routes. Yet, such reactionary policies are much easier than making the necessary structural changes within the home country and reforming current migration policy and practice.

When states implement migration bans as a form of ‘labour diplomacy’, the receiving country often responds by simply increasing its recruitment of domestic workers from other labour-sending countries prepared to accept lower wages and inferior working conditions, rather than agreeing to improve protection. Countries of origin have so far worked in conflict and engaged in ‘under-selling’ migrant workers to receiving countries in order to ensure their share of an increasingly crowded labour market. Negotiating collectively, instead of competing for market share, would increase the bargaining power of sending states and allow them to implement the same labour protections, including reference wages and superior working conditions, to prevent host states from undercutting such standards.

Such collaboration can be seen between participating states of the Colombo Process and Abu Dhabi Dialogue, through which countries of origin in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as key destination countries, are working together to uphold the rights of migrant workers and prevent illegal recruitment. Adopting harmonised positions through regional consultative processes is more beneficial for all labour-sending countries in the long-term, as it challenges the ever-shifting hierarchy of remuneration rates and conditions of employment across different states.

End Notes:

[1] Chan, C. (2014). Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia. Sustainability, 6 (10), 6949-6972.

[2] Khoo, C.Y. (2017). Who Migrates? Tracking Gendered Access to Migration Within Households “In Flux” Across Time. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies. 15 (3), 326-343.

[3] Shivakoti, R. (2020). Protection or Discrimination? The Case of Nepal’s Policy Banning Female Migrant Workers. In D. Joshi & C. Brassard (eds.) Urban Spaces and Gender in Asia (pp. 17–34). Springer, Cham.

[4] International Labour Organization (ILO). (2018). Sri Lankan Female Migrant Workers and the Family Background Report. ILO: Colombo.

[5] International Labour Organization (ILO). (2015). No Easy Exit: Migration Bans Affecting Women from Nepal. ILO: Geneva.

[6] Napier-Moore, R. (2017). Protected or Put in Harm’s Way? Bans and Restrictions on Women’s Labour Migration in ASEAN Countries. International Labour Organization and United Nations Women: Bangkok.

[7] Malit, F.T. and Naufal, G.S. (2016). Asymmetric Information under the Kafala Sponsorship System: Impacts on Foreign Domestic Workers’ Income and Employment Status in the GCC Countries. International Migration. 54 (5), 76-90.

[8] Ireland, P.R. (2018). The Limits of Sending-State Power: The Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Female Migrant Domestic Workers. International Political Science Review. 39 (3), 322-337.

[9] Gioli, G. (2017). Neither Heroines nor Victims: Women Migrant Workers and Changing Family and Community Relations in Nepal. UN Women Discussion Paper No. 18.

[10] Grossman-Thompson, B. (2016). Protection and Paternalism: Narratives of Nepali Women Migrants and the Gender Politics of Discriminatory Labour Migration Policy. Refuge. 32 (3), 40-48.

[11] Withers, M. (2019). Decent Care for Migrant Households: Policy Alternatives to Sri Lanka’s Family Background Report. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society. 26 (3), 325-347.

[12] Moors, A. (2009). Migrant Domestic Workers. In S. Shami (ed.) Publics, Politics and Participation (pp. 151-175). New York: Social Science Research Council.

[13] Platt, M. (2018). Migration, Moralities and Moratoriums: Female Labour Migrants and the Tensions of Protectionism in Indonesia. Asian Studies Review. 42 (1), 89-106.

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