Thursday, 27 April 2017

Gendered migration and construction work in Nepal: Agency, vulnerability and welfare outcomes

By Priya Deshingkar, Anita Ghimre, and Jagannath Adhikari

Last week we held a well-attended workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal to discuss our research work on migrant labour in the construction industry. The current literature on women and migration in Nepal is limited and polarised towards accounts that construct them as victims in need of protection against sexual harassment and risks at the workplace and rarely as agents of change for their own lives and futures.

Our work explored the varied reasons for men and women’s entry into construction work as well as its outcomes for their welfare. It also addresses the issue of how gender norms and caste relations are performed, contested and (re)produced within different spaces of work and living.

The interviews we held with women showed a more complex reality than is typically portrayed in mainstream debates. It shows how women’s subjectivities in construction work are developed relationally and in the context of patriarchal and caste power systems relegating them to low-paid work and limited from upward mobility in their careers.

At the same time construction work provides an easily accessible avenue for paid work outside the home for women and this can provide a range of opportunities including earning money for fulfilling personal goals including funding one’s own education or training, establishing financial independence away from spouses, establishing one’s self in urban areas away from dysfunctional marital and kinship relations, escaping shame if they are still single beyond the age of marriage and boosting household income by pooling earnings with other family members’ earnings. Women in the indigenous communities have more freedom to migrate but in the Terai region, gender norms are more restrictive for women so they rarely migrate.

But access to paid work is not straightforward and women are in a constant process of negotiating and pushing boundaries in their quest for a better life where construction work, despite its disadvantages can provide a route out of rural drudgery. Even those women that have relatively more freedom to migrate are subject to constant scrutiny of their behaviour by female and male contractors who are watching to see if they behave like “good” women.

Physical harassment is rare but malicious gossip can force unmarried girls to return home because parents put pressure on them to come back to maintain their family honour.
Contractors (thekedar) especially those from the Terai, hold strong views about the capabilities of women and perceive them as being weak, needing constant supervision and incapable of performing skilled jobs. They are therefore reluctant to employ them. They also believe that employing women leads to unrest at work sites as men are attracted to them, through no fault of their own as women should not be outside the home anyway and explain sexual harassment in this way.

However, changes in labour market dynamics and shifts in attitudes towards female workers are being seen as more men are migrating to the Gulf, opening up opportunities in skilled work for women. There has been a gradual shift in attitudes towards female workers and now there are more women in skilled jobs even though they continue to earn less than men for equivalent work. On the plus side, they have their own income, which gives them more bargaining power and independence.
Policy is not geared to supporting migrant workers, let alone female workers. Both men and women are exposed to risks because of a lack of protective clothing, poor implementation of labour laws and lack of protection through insurance schemes. But women suffer additional hardship at worksites in accessing toilets, managing their reproductive health, and taking care of children.

We are in the process of writing up this study and papers and a policy brief will be published over the coming months. Keep an eye on the Migrating out of Poverty website and Twitter feed for further information. 

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Low-skilled migration and precarious work. Where do the borders of forced migration begin and end?

We are delighted to announce that our Research Director, Priya Deshingkar, will be speaking in New Delhi next week.You can catch her on Monday 17 April at 10.30 in the Conference Hall of the Centre for Policy Research. Alternatively she is speaking later that day (15.00 - 17.30) at the Conference Room, UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office.

Click on either link for more details of how to RSVP.

In this talk, Priya Deshingkar will draw on research conducted in different locations in Africa and Asia, including India, to draw out the conditions in which low-skilled migrants are recruited and employed and the contrasting discourses on their experience. In doing so, she will highlight the often complex and contradictory outcomes of migration and the difficulties this creates for dichotomies of forced and free labour. She will also discuss the policy implications of these findings.

Priya Deshingkar is Research Director of the six-year DFID-funded Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium; Principal Investigator for the Capitalising Human Mobility for Poverty Alleviation and Inclusive Development in Myanmar (CHIME) project, and Senior Research Fellow at the School of Global Studies. Her research focuses on migration and poverty with a focus on precarious occupations, debt-migration, labour rights and agency.

As Research Director of MOOP, Priya Deshingkar has played a key role in designing and overseeing mixed methods research in five global regions: South and Southeast Asia as well as East, West and Southern Africa where she has worked closely with the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, The Centre for Migration Studies in Ghana and The African Centre for Migration and Society in South Africa. She has also developed a strand of work within the consortium on the migration industry which has resulted in path breaking research on brokerage in the migration of domestic workers in Ghana and brokerage in the migration of low-skilled construction workers from Bangladesh to Qatar.

As the Principal Investigator of the CHIME project, Priya Deshingkar has designed and led mixed methods research in four regions of Myanmar which will yield unique evidence on migration drivers and process in the country.

Priya Deshingkar holds a PhD from the Institute of Development Studies and is an internationally recognised authority on internal migration. She has played a key role in influencing the global policy discourse on internal migration and development. Her most recent book is Circular Migration and Multilocational Livelihood Strategies in India (co-edited with John Farrington, 2009).

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Risky migration: Choices of Cambodians looking for opportunities in Thailand

By Robert Nurick,

Before I migrated, I worked in the rice field and did housework, our family rice production was insufficient to feed the family in some years. We experienced rice shortages for a couple months each year. I raised pigs but had to borrow money from the private moneylender to buy pig food. The pigs died so I was unable to repay the loan and the interest. I was sinking into deeper and deeper debt so my husband and I migrated to earn money to repay the loan.

I decided to let my daughter go to work in Thailand because of our debts...Once I saw how others migrated and returned with cash I decided to let her go too. However, when she returned from Thailand the money was not enough to pay back the loan. I borrowed from the private moneylender to pay back the micro-finance loan, and then used the micro-finance loan to pay back private moneylender. I had to lie to the micro-finance agency saying that I would use the loan for doing business and buying pigs

These quotes highlight the debt-driven and precarious nature of migration from Cambodia to Thailand. The scale of migration between the counties is significant. In 2013 estimates put the number of Cambodian migrants at close to 1 million from an economically active population of 8.4 million.   

Research conducted under the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme in April/May 2015 and December 2016/January 2017 revealed the experiences of Cambodian migrants – and the challenges and opportunities that influence the choices that migrants and their families make. Sharing these findings with migrants and their families, as well as NGOs and government officials in both Cambodia and Thailand resulted in an agenda for action.

The undocumented phenomenon
Cambodians migrating to Thailand face considerable challenges in acquiring passports that would allow them to travel to Thailand unhindered and in safety. Although the ‘official’ price of a Cambodian passport is US$104 with a processing time of one month, for many Cambodians the reality is that they are expected to pay up to US$600 – the extra made up of fees for the migration agents and bribes to passport office officials – and, for the lucky ones, having to wait three months to receive their passport. The unlucky ones, of which there are many, are cheated out of the fee, never receiving the passport.

The challenges facing Cambodian migrants in securing passports are reflected in the large numbers of undocumented migrants; of the one million migrants to Thailand in 2013, those with papers numbered only 13,500.

What this means for many Cambodians is that if they want to seek work in Thailand they must do so without documents, calling on the services of informal brokers who smuggle them across the border in unpleasant and dangerous conditions. Once in Thailand they must work for employers without legal protection and with uncertainty over whether they will be paid or not.

Why take the risk?
Why do so many Cambodians take such risks to find work in Thailand? The answers lie both in Cambodia and Thailand. In Cambodia years of government neglect of rural areas and land grabs by ruling elites have led to a class of landless or near-landless families unable to make ends meet from their own farms, with little option but to look for paid work. Some work as farm labourers on commercial farms within Cambodia, others migrate to Phnom Penh and work in factories or as domestic workers. Many, however, are attracted to Thailand where the working conditions and pay are better than they experience within Cambodia, even for undocumented migrants.

In Thailand, the demand for construction workers, labour for fishing boats and commercial agriculture, that cannot be met by Thai workers who are reluctant to take such dangerous, dirty and degrading work, leads to a huge pull of workers from Cambodia. Unable to secure passports at home, these migrants are smuggled across the border by organized but informal brokers and linked up with employers. With little protection and wages less than that paid to Thai or documented migrants, employers benefit from this underpaid and overworked migrant workforce.

The Thai authorities both tolerate and clamp down on undocumented migrants. For the police undocumented migrants represent a lucrative source of income – fees are paid to police by employers to avoid migrants’ arrest and deportation; migrants are at risk of being picked up on the streets and thrown in jail.

At times of political and economic upheaval in Thailand undocumented migrants are easy targets for deflecting attention away from internal turmoil. Most recently in 2014, in the wake of the military coup in Thailand, when some 220,000 Cambodians fled Thailand over a two-week period in June that year, resulting in loss of earnings, trauma and further impoverishment for their families. Undocumented migrants continue to face risk of expulsion with 50,000 Cambodians expelled in 2016.

Agenda for action
For migrants and their families the desire to migrate in a safe and secure manner is of paramount importance. This means addressing the barriers that migrants face in securing affordable and timely passports from the Cambodian State: providing accessible information to migrants on the procedures for applying for passports; effective regulation of migration agents; and cessation of rent-seeking behaviour of government officials responsible for issuing passports.

In Thailand, much more needs to be done in providing protection to undocumented migrants: access to health care; access to schools for migrants’ accompanied children; and labour protection in the workplace.

The current priority of the Thai government is to ensure all migrant workers have documents by 2022. This will require a much greater degree of cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia with a focus on migrant protection.