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Asian Women’s Labor Migration

My parents had no more work, they have no land.  I went to Manila to find a job in electronics.  In the year 2000, the electronics industry was affected.  I couldn’t afford to give money to my family when I was working in the Philippines.  I came to Singapore only to sacrifice for them.
—Cristina Lopez (not her real name), Filipina domestic worker, age thirty-two, Singapore, February 20, 2005

Increasingly mobile in the era of globalization and unable to find adequate employment at home, millions of Asian women migrate for work. Currently, the International Labor Organization estimates that twenty-two million Asians work outside of their home country.1 Women comprised approximately half of all migrants worldwide for several decades in the mid-1900s, but were generally a small proportion of migrant workers.  This pattern began shifting in the late 1970s, most dramatically in Asia.2 While thousands of Asian women migrated annually in 1970, by 1995, this estimate had risen to 800,000.3 The feminization of labor migration is particularly pronounced in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. In these countries, national-level estimates indicate that women comprise 60-75 percent of legal migrants, a significant proportion of whom are employed as domestic workers in the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.4 

For labor-sending countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Thailand, the “export” of labor has become an increasingly important strategy for addressing unemployment, generating foreign exchange, and fostering economic growth. Remittances to developing countries have grown steadily over the past three decades, and migrant workers currently send about U.S.$100 billion a year to their home countries. Economically developing countries in Asia and the Western hemisphere receive the majority of these inflows.5 According to the International Monetary Fund, “For many developing economies, remittances constitute the single largest source of foreign exchange, exceeding export revenues, foreign direct investment (FDI), and other private capital inflows.”6

Remittances are now a top source of foreign exchange and a key strategy for poverty reduction:  Filipino migrants sent U.S.$8 billion dollars home in 2004 and Indonesian migrants U.S.$2 billion.  Indonesia, along with many other countries, includes targets for the numbers of workers it hopes to send abroad in its five-year economic development plans.  Indonesia’s targets have risen rapidly over time:  in the economic development plan for 1979-84, the target was 100,000 workers; in the plan for 1999-2003, the target was 2.8 million workers.7 

The most popular destination for Asian migrants has shifted from the Middle East to other Asian countries whose economies have boomed in recent decades.  In 1990, for every migrant worker from Indonesia, the Philippines, or Thailand employed in other parts of Asia, there were three working in the Middle East.  By 1997, destinations such as Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea had surpassed the countries of the Middle East.8  These Asian destinations rely upon migrant workers to fill labor shortages that arise when the domestic labor force cannot meet the labor demands created by their fast-growing economies, or when their citizens are unwilling to take low-paying, labor-intensive jobs with poor working conditions. 

Although Asian migrants include highly skilled professionals in management and technology sectors, the vast majority are employed in poorly regulated and hazardous sectors.  Unable to find adequate employment in their home countries and lured by promises of higher wages abroad, migrants typically obtain jobs as laborers on plantations and construction sites, workers in factories, and maids in private homes.  Many of these jobs are temporary and insecure—approximately two million Asian migrant workers each year have short-term employment contracts.9 

Although both sending and receiving countries have prospered due to the labor and remittances supplied by migrant workers, they extend few protections to migrants, who routinely confront a wide range of abuses.

Many Asian women migrants are domestic workers and are particularly at risk of workplace abuse and exploitation because of the isolated nature of their work and the lack of sufficient legal protection.  Labor laws around the world usually exclude domestic work from regulation or provide lesser protection, reflecting social biases that allow discrimination and violence in the “private” sphere to escape public regulation.10 Human rights violations against migrant domestic workers remain largely invisible.

Abuses include long working hours, no days off, restrictions on freedom of movement and association, lack of pay, and physical and sexual abuse.  Migrants have little access to the justice system due to restrictions on their movement, lack of information about their rights, and language barriers.  Undocumented workers who have been abused fear approaching governments as they face possible detention and deportation, and the likelihood of little or no action on their complaints. Lack of protection for women migrants’ human rights also cultivates environments that can foster trafficking of women and girls into forced labor and forced prostitution.11

Status of Women in Sending Countries

The status of women in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India varies widely both within and across countries. Despite the progress made for women’s rights in recent decades by legal reforms, improvements in girls’ education, and greater awareness of the imperative of state action to fight violence against women, many forms of gender-based discrimination and violence continue to be serious problems in each country.12 Governments have a mixed record in implementing women’s rights protections, and women seeking redress have often encountered chauvinistic attitudes and little political will. Vibrant women’s rights movements raise consciousness, provide services, and lobby for reforms in all four nations.

Girls’ education rates have dramatically increased, but gender inequality still manifests itself in higher education, labor force participation, and earning power. In Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, girls’ rate of primary and secondary school enrollment is approximately equal to boys. In India, significant gender gaps remain with only sixty-five literate women for every one hundred literate men.13  In all four countries, approximately 40-55 percent of women are economically active, and they fall far behind men in average earnings. The table on the next page lists the estimated average annual earned income of men and women in each country, as well as the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings.

The striking differences between men and women’s income is attributable to several factors, including the concentration of women in low-paying, less regulated industries, and the fact that women confront social and cultural barriers to entering male-dominated industries. Government and private sector commitment to affordable child care, maternity benefits, sexual harassment policies, and protections against gender discrimination in hiring also affect women’s labor force participation and earning power.

Table 1: Estimated Earned Income for Men and Women in 200314


Earned income, Female (U.S.$)

Earned income, Male (U.S.$)

Ratio of women’s earnings to men’s earnings (%)





Sri Lanka
















Women in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and other sending countries seek employment overseas due to lack of employment opportunities at home, the greater earning potential they may have abroad, and the financial stress their households may be facing.  Many Indonesian women sought work abroad after the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997.15 Human Rights Watch interviewed a Sri Lankan woman who came to Singapore to earn money after her son lost his house in the December 2004 tsunami.16

Many domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch explicitly stated they had migrated to finance the education of their siblings or children.  For example, Ani Khadijah, a thirty-four year-old Indonesian woman said, “My children wanted to continue their studies.  We didn’t have money.  I didn’t know I would have problems working in Singapore.”17 Others needed to repay loans for health care or business losses. Neerangini, an Indian domestic worker said, “My son was in an accident.  I needed money and borrowed Rp. 50,000 [U.S.$1,106]….  To pay them back, I came here.”18

Some of the women that Human Rights Watch interviewed had also experienced abuses including domestic violence.  One domestic worker said, “My experiences have been bitter….  Everyday my husband beat me.  Once he tried to kill me and my mother….  A lot of people in my village insulted me, because I’m poor they called me a prostitute, that I go out and sell my body.  So I became bold to come here to Singapore.”19

Status of Women in Singapore

Singapore’s dramatic economic growth in the past few decades has led to improved standards for women in many areas. Women’s literacy increased by 46 percent from 1965 to 2000.20 In 2000, school enrollment rates were equal for male and female students ages seven to sixteen21 and women constituted half of all university graduates.22  In 2002, the government took further steps to increase women’s access to higher education by eliminating a quota on the number of female medical students who can be admitted to the National University.

Women in Singapore enjoy good access to healthcare. Singapore’s maternal mortality rate is among the lowest in the world with an average of 6 deaths per 100,000 births in the years spanning from 1985 to 2003.23  Women have had the right to abortion since 1970. By law, women are able to terminate a pregnancy up to twenty-four weeks of gestation.24 However, in 1987, the government introduced compulsory pre-abortion counseling for women with at least a secondary school education and fewer than three children.25

Women’s representation in the workforce is relatively high, with women making up 45 percent of professional and technical workers and 26 percent of administrators and managers.26 However, women hold few leadership positions in the private sector. While wages for women range between 62 and 100 percent of men’s depending on the occupation, the gap has narrowed in recent years, with women earning more than their male counterparts in some fields.27

Singapore has made significant progress in improving women’s status in society, but women still confront inequality. Women’s political participation remains low with women holding 16 percent of the seats in parliament.28

Stark differences exist in the status of foreign women living in Singapore compared to women nationals. Many foreign women are domestic workers, whose status before the law and whose working conditions is discussed below. Singapore is also a destination for some women sex workers from China, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries. An unknown number may have been trafficked into forced prostitution and other forms of forced labor.29

Migrants in Singapore

Approximately 25 percent of Singapore’s 2.3 million strong workforce is comprised of migrant workers.30 One hundred and fifty thousand of these migrants are women domestic workers originating primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Smaller numbers of women also migrate from India, Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia to Singapore to become domestic workers.31 Approximately one in every seven households employs a migrant domestic worker, including middle-class families. The Singapore government does not release figures about the national breakdown of these domestic workers, but verifies that the bulk migrate from the Philippines and Indonesia.32 The Philippines embassy estimates that approximately 63,000 of its nationals are domestic workers in Singapore and the Indonesian embassy, 60,000.33   An official from the Sri Lankan High Commission said, “Unofficially there are 13,000 Sri Lankan domestic workers.  Officially, MOM [Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower] doesn’t reveal the number.”34

Ever since Singapore began rapidly industrializing in the late 1960s, migrant workers have been a critical part of its economic development strategy. Attracting both highly skilled and “unskilled” workers from the region, Singapore has relied on foreign workers to meet labor demand. Singapore has successfully re-engineered its economy to become a regional powerhouse for high-end financial services and technology; its phenomenal economic growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s was initially fueled by labor-intensive manufacturing and electronics processing.

The combination of Singaporean women’s increasing labor force participation, a private sector that has failed to innovate “family-friendly” working conditions, and few feasible child care options have led to a strong demand for foreign domestic workers’ labor.  Domestic duties and child care remain predominantly women’s work. Domestic service has taken several forms since colonial days.35 With industrialization, greater female labor force participation, and increasing numbers of middle-class households seeking to contract out domestic work, Singapore introduced the Foreign Maid Scheme in 1978. This program opened the door for women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh to enter Singapore as “live-in” domestic workers.36 The migrant domestic worker population grew from five thousand in 1978 to the current level of 150,000.37

The treatment of women domestic workers has occasionally sparked political and economic strife between Singapore and its neighbors. A major political dispute erupted between the Philippines and Singapore when a Filipina domestic worker, Flor Contemplación, was sentenced to death and executed for murdering another Filipina domestic worker and a child in 1995. The uproar led to the Philippines temporarily suspending its workers from employment in Singapore and ignited debates about migrant domestic workers’ rights and working conditions. Economic ties suffered as well—“Singaporean investments in the Philippines dropped from a record U.S.$65 million in 1994 to U.S.$3.7 million by late 1995. Many Singaporean executives based in the Philippines left home after experiencing harassment from locals.”38

In recent years, Indonesian migrant workers’ groups have protested vehemently against the deaths of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore and against application of the death penalty to Indonesian domestic workers convicted of crimes. They have called for greater investigation into abuses and working conditions that have contributed to or been responsible for these deaths and crimes.39 In September 2005, two Indonesian domestic workers, Juminem and Siti Aminah, facing possible death sentences for killing a Singapore employer, received a life sentence and ten-year prison term, respectively. They were convicted of “culpable homicide” (a lesser crime than murder) in recognition of employment abuses and depression they suffered prior to the killing.40

Singapore’s strict enforcement of its immigration laws, in combination with its small size, result in lower levels of irregular migration compared to other countries in the region, for example, Malaysia. In early 2005, Singapore decreed that new migrant domestic workers must be twenty-three or older, an attempt to make it more difficult for teenage girls (and in some cases even younger children) to enter the country as workers with altered travel documents. Though the number of domestic workers under age eighteen is difficult to document, organizations that provide services to abused migrant workers report relatively few cases involving child domestic workers. One of the principal nongovernmental organizations working with migrants said, “We have only had three cases of underage domestic workers.”41

[1] International Labor Organization, Towards a Fair Deal for Migrant Workers in the Global Economy (Geneva:  International Labor Organization, 2004), p. 7.  These numbers refer to the total number of migrant workers in receiving countries at a given point in time, including all who had migrated prior to the date and are still inside the country. The flow of migrant workers refers to the numbers going out of a sending country or entering a receiving country during a particular period of time, usually a year.  Several limitations constrain migration estimates, including high levels of undocumented migration, lack of record keeping, restricted access to existing data, competing definitions of migration, and difficulties aggregating across diverse sources of information.

[2] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, International Migration Report 2002 (New York:  United Nations Publications, 2002), ST/ESA/SER.A/220, p. 2.  See also Hania Zlotnik, “The Global Dimensions of Female Migration,” Migration Information Source, March 1, 2003 [online], (retrieved May 18, 2004). 

[3] Lin Lean Lim and Nana Oishi, “International Labor Migration of Asian Women:  Distinctive Characteristics and Policy Concerns,” in Asian Women in Migration, eds. Graziano Battistella and Anthony Paganoni (Quezon City:  Scalabrini Migration Center, 1996), pp. 24-25. This figure was based on estimates provided by governments of labor-sending countries.

[4] Asian Migrant Centre and Migrant Forum in Asia, Asian Migrant Yearbook 2001 Migration Facts, Analysis and Issues in 2000 (Hong Kong, Asian Migrant Centre, 2000). Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Perempuan/CARAM Indonesia, Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers:  Their Vulnerabilities and New Initiatives for the Protection of Their Rights (Jakarta:  Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Perempuan/CARAM Indonesia, 2003), p. 9.  This figure was 69 percent for Sri Lankan overseas workers in 2000 and almost 70 percent for Filipina overseas workers in 1998.  Malsiri Dias and Ramani Jayasundere, Sri Lanka:  Good practices to prevent women migrant workers from going into exploitative forms of labour (Sri Lanka:  International Labor Organization, 2001), p. 7; Piyasiri Wickramasekera, Asian Labour Migration:  Issues and Challenges in an Era of Globalization, International Migration Papers 57 (Geneva:  International Labour Office, 2002), p. 18.

[5] International Monetary Fund, “Workers’ Remittances and Economic Development,” World Economic Outlook: Globalization and External Imbalances (Washington D.C.: IMF, 2005), p. 69.

[6] Ibid., pp. 69-84.

[7] Graeme Hugo, Indonesian Overseas Contract Workers’ HIV Knowledge:  A gap in information (Bangkok:  United Nations Development Programme, 2000), p. 3. 

[8] Piyasiri Wickramasekera, Asian Labour Migration:  Issues and Challenges in an Era of Globalization, International Migration Papers 57 (Geneva:  International Labour Office, 2002), pp. 14-16, 42.

[9] Manolo Abella, “Driving forces of labour migration in Asia”, in World Migration 2003 (Geneva:  International Organization for Migration, 2003).

[10] J.M. Ramirez-Machado, Domestic work, conditions of work and employment: A legal perspective, Conditions of Work and Employment Series No. 7 (Geneva, ILO, 2003).

[11] Human Rights Watch, Help Wanted: Abuses against Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia, July 2004 [online],

[12] For a country-by-country analysis of human rights violations against women and government reforms targeting gender-based discrimination, see This site contains government submissions to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) and the Committee’s concluding observations. The implementation of the main human rights treaties under the United Nations human rights system is supervised by committees made up of independent experts.  The CEDAW Committee monitors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), G.A. Res. 34/180, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, 1979, entered into force September 3, 1981. State parties submit periodic reports to the CEDAW committee about their compliance with the convention. After review and dialogue with the government, the CEDAW committee issues concluding observations and recommendations to state parties that acknowledge reforms and highlight areas of continuing concern.

[13] United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Human Development Reports, Statistics,” updated regularly [online], (retrieved October 11, 2005).

[14] Ibid. According to the UNDP, Estimated earned income is roughly derived on the basis of the ratio of the female nonagricultural wage to the male non-agricultural wage, the female and male shares of the economically active population, total female and male population and GDP per capita (PPP US$). UNDP, “Definition of Statistical Terms,” n.d. [online], (retrieved October 11, 2005).

[15] Graeme Hugo, Indonesian Overseas Contract Workers’ HIV Knowledge:  A gap in information (Bangkok:  United Nations Development Programme, 2000). 

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Kiyoma Amaratunga (not her real name), Sri Lankan domestic worker, age forty-four, Singapore, March 1, 2005.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Ani Khadijah (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty-four, Singapore, February 19, 2005.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Neerangini (not her real name), Indian domestic worker, age thirty-one, Singapore, March 10, 2005.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with Muriyani Suharti (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, March 8, 2005.

[20] Report of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Twenty-fifth session), Supplement No. 38 (A/56/38) para. 60.

[21] Government of Singapore, Key Indicators of Resident Populations [online], (retrieved October 4, 2005).

[22] Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Twenty-fifth session), Supplement No. 38 (A/56/38) para. 60.

[23] UNDP, “Human Development Indicators 2005” [online], (retrieved October 4, 2005).

[24] Center for Reproductive Rights, “The World’s Abortion Laws” [online],  (retrieved October 4, 2005).

[25] “Singapore should discourage abortion to lift birth rate: MP,” Agence France Presse, March 15, 2004 [online], (retrieved October 4, 2005).

[26] UNDP, “Human Development Indicators 2005,” [online], (retrieved October 4, 2005).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in Parliaments,” September 30, 2005 [online], (retrieved October 14, 2005).

[29] United States Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report 2005 [online], (retrieved October 12, 2005).

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with Yeo Guat Kwang, member of Parliament and Chair, Migrant Workers Forum, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC); and Jeffrey Tan, senior executive officer, International Affairs, NTUC, Singapore, March 11, 2005. Ministry of Manpower, “Labour Force,” Labour Market Statistics [online], (retrieved October 14, 2005).

[31] Ministry of Manpower, “A General Guide on Employment of Foreign Domestic Workers,” revised September 9, 2005 [online], (retrieved September 15, 2005).

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with Ng Cher Pong, director, Foreign Manpower Policy, and Kenneth Yap, head, International Relations, Foreign Manpower Management Division, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, February 22, 2005.

[33] E-mail correspondence from the Philippines Embassy to Human Rights Watch, November 29, 2005 and information provided by fax by the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, Singapore, May 31, 2005.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with diplomat, Sri Lankan High Commission, Singapore, February 18, 2005. The official added, “There are three thousand other types of workers, both men and women, so 15-16,000 [Sri Lankan] workers overall.”

[35] During the nineteenth century, elite Chinese households kept mui tsai, girls sold into a lifetime of servitude. From the 1930s-70s, Cantonese women from the Pearl River Delta region seeking work in domestic service became known as amahs and were well-known for their loyalty. Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, Brenda S.A. Yeoh, and Shirlena Huang, “‘Dignity Over Due:’ Transnational Domestic Workers in Singapore. Contemporary Perspectives on Asian Women,” Paper presented at Transnational Domestic Workers Conference, National University of Singapore, February, 23-5, 2004.

[36] “Live-in” domestic workers live with their employer, versus “live-out” domestic workers who have separate living arrangements.

[37] Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, Brenda S.A. Yeoh, and Shirlena Huang, “Dignity Over Due,” 2004.

[38] Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Shirlena Huang, and Joaquin Gonzalez III, “Migrant Female Domestic Workers: Debating the Economic, Social, and Political Impacts in Singapore,” International Migration Review, 33(1), 1999, p. 130.

[39] Migrant Care, “Crucial Problems Facing Indonesian Migrant Workers,” Powerpoint presentation shared with Human Rights Watch, 2005; “Migrant Workers Demand Abolishment of Death Penalty in Singapore,” Antara (Indonesia), July 9, 2005.

[40] Public Prosecutor v Juminem and Another [2005] SGHC 165, Singapore High Court Decision, September 5, 2005 [online], (retrieved October 14, 2005).

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with a private organization aiding migrant workers, Singapore, February 17, 2005.

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