Addressing The Situation Of Migrant Women Workers
FRIDAY FILE: The work of migrants working in Europe, the Middle East and North America contributes greatly to the economies both the origin and destination countries. These workers often have to endure harsh working conditions in their receiving countries in order to cater for their families’ basic needs.
By Kathambi Kinoti
Recently, in New York, an important piece of legislation was passed that will enhance the rights of domestic workers – many of whom are migrants. Generally, though, neither legislation nor policies adequately cater for migrant workers or address the gendered dimension of their exploitation. Amnesty International recently highlighted the case of a Sri Lankan minor who was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for allegedly murdering a baby in her care. The international rights watchdog has pointed out serious procedural flaws which it says should warrant a reversal of her conviction and sentence.
AWID spoke with Charito Basa of the Italy-based Filipino Women’s Council about the situation of female migrant workers – most of whom are domestic workers - in Italy.
AWID: Please tell us about how you started working for the rights of migrant workers.
CHARITO BASA: Twenty five years ago I came to Italy as a domestic worker – and was for some time undocumented- so I have first-hand experience of many of the issues around which I advocate. I was mentored in my advocacy work by human rights activist friends in the Philippines. Soon after I came to Italy I joined a Filipino migrant worker association and at that time,most migrant women were undocumented. After being exposed to the violence and exploitation that female migrant workers undergo I, along with a number of Filipino migrant women formed the Filipino Women’s Council. I have also worked for other women’s rights organisations that address migrant women worker issues.
AWID: What are the major problems experienced by the migrant workers whom you serve?
CHARITO BASA: Most female migrant workers in Italy are domestic workers. Very many of them are undocumented: they do not have the legal papers that allow them to work or stay for extended periods of time in the country. This means that they are constantly insecure about their situation, and also that some employers take advantage of the migrant workers’ insecure immigration status to exploit them by paying them too little, overworking them or subjecting them to other unjust work conditions.
Violence against and trafficking of female migrant workers is common. Their knowledge about contraception and other sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) issues is generally limited. Given the conservative religious context within which many of them grew up and continue to live, and their disadvantaged, undocumented legal status, SRHR continues to be an area of great unfulfilled needs for migrant women workers.
Domestic workers are regarded and treated as inferior. Language can be a major constraint: workers who can speak Italian are often better able to express their opinions and negotiate better working conditions.
Undocumented migrant workers have scant recourse to formal justice mechanisms. Fearing the repercussions of being found to be illegally resident in Italy, they tend not to report cases of violence or exploitation. These then become “private” issues that are resolved – or not- to the disadvantage of the worker. Fortunately, in the recent past a law has been enacted to protect documented and undocumented migrants.
Organisations like the Filipino Women’s Council intervene in some cases, but their reach is limited by funding constraints and by the sheer volume of needs.
AWID: What is the effect, back home in the Philippines,of migration for work?
CHARITO BASA: The economy of the Philippines relies heavily on remittances by workers abroad, and Filipinos at home are some of the greatest beneficiaries worldwide of migrant worker remittances. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that remittances keep the country’s economy going.
A significant percentage of Filipino women are domestic workers abroad. The majority of them are mothers, and their migration to Europe, the Middle East and North America has a great social impact at home.Many children are growing up without their mothers and a large number of families are splitting up.
Migration for work has also contributed to over-dependency in the Philippines. I acknowledge the difficulties that the prevailing economic situation in the country presents to its citizens. However, often family members back home come to rely heavily or even solely on relatives abroad for their sustenance and do not or cannot make enough effort to be self-reliant.
The agricultural economy has suffered as a result of migration for work. A significant number of farmers have given up farming to go and work abroad. This is devastating for rural development. The Philippines is now importing rice, one of its staple foods.
AWID: Does the government of the Philippines have significant clout to address the rights of its citizens who are migrant workers abroad?
CHARITO BASA: The government has policies that protect migrant workers, and according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it is one of the most organised governments in this sense. However these policies are not always effective and moreover,the Philippines does not have the political or economic muscle to ensure that migrant Filipinos are fully accorded their rights.
AWID: What challenges do you face in your work?
CHARITO BASA: At present there is a right-wing government in power in Italy. Its standpoint on migration does not favour foreign workers, and it is cutting back funding for essential services for migrant workers.
Funding to our organisations is very limited and affects our outreach to female migrant workers all over the country.
AWID: How is your organisation addressing the problems faced by migrant Filipino female workers in Italy?
CHARITO BASA: We train migrant workers in financial literacy: how to prepare a budget; how to save and invest money and so on. We also help them understand why they should not send all their money back to the Philippines because doing so creates over-dependency.In conjunction with local NGOs in the Philippines we ensure that migrants receive a pre-departure orientation to enable themselves adjust to life and work abroad. We have also produced a guide for Filipinos on how to acquire and maintain their legal status in their host country.
AWID: What are the immediate priorities for the protection and promotion of migrant women workers’ rights?
CHARITO BASA: Our work , which I have mentioned above addresses a number of immediate priorities. We acknowledge that migration is necessary for so many people. We must insist then on the recognition and documentation of female migrants in their country of origin and their country of destination. We need to create opportunities at home so that people do not feel forced to leave in search of better financial conditions. Receiving states need to ease their restrictive policies and allow family visits. Migrants should be given the chance to access job opportunities that are directly related to their profession or training.