On 25 March 1911, a tragedy that later became known as the Triangle Factory Fire Scandal in New York City took the lives of 146 women garment workers. Most of them were Italian and Eastern European immigrants, some as young as 12 and 13 years-old. This disaster exposed the life-threatening working conditions of immigrant women workers in New York sweatshops at that time. It eventually led to a significant change in American labour legislation and is commemorated on March 8th, International Women’s Day (IWD).
International Women’s Day is now celebrated in many countries around the world. This is the day when women in all continents, despite being divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to honour a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.
IWD events celebrate the acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of women’s rights. It is a day to reflect upon the progress made and to call for a better deal for women. This day is a unique occasion, too, for men and women to pay tribute to the achievements of women and to highlight the needs and concerns of women in national, regional and global agendas.
Almost a century of struggles for their rights has certainly brought significant changes in women’s lives. Yet in many parts of the world, women’s work continues to be undervalued, underpaid, or not paid at all. This is the story of women migrant workers.
Every day, in countries around the world, women and girls, desperate for economic opportunity and seeking to follow their dreams of a better life, are lured from home by promises of jobs and security. As of 2000, 49% of all international migrants were women or girls, and the proportion of females among international migrants had reached 51% in more developed regions. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that women account for a significant portion of the 80 to 100 million migrant workers in the world today. They constitute 50% or more of the migrant workers in Asia and Latin America and are now the principal wage earners for themselves and their families.
In the Philippines, women migrant workers have exceeded the numbers of their male counterparts since 1992. Based on the government’s 2003 figures, the number of women migrant workers stood at 209,822 or 73% of the total Filipino labour force overseas. The number of Filipino women migrating through illegal, undocumented and clandestine channels is, of course, not included in these figures.
Hidden from the picture of her story of migration are the costs that are shouldered by a woman migrant worker and her family back home. While she contributes to making family life more comfortable and easier for her employers, a woman migrant worker suffers psychologically and emotionally from the separation from her own family - especially her children. This takes a toll on her health and well-being.
Employers, governments and society at large, particularly in receiving countries, oftentimes fail to value her work as skilled labor or regard her as a worker in her own right. Many women migrant workers in domestic service suffer slave-like working conditions because of the hidden nature of their work. They occupy a low social status in society and are deprived of basic human rights in many countries. They are denied their right to fair wages and humane working conditions. When they come into contact with the law, they are deprived of their right to due process, the right to be protected against inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to be heard and air grievances, including the right to complain without the threat of verbal abuse or withholding of salary. They lack access to counselling, legal and social services. And, more so than other workers, domestic workers are vulnerable to physical violence, including sexual harassment and rape.
Despite their hardships, women migrant workers are active contributors to the Philippine economy. Based on their sheer number alone, their portion of the annual migrant workers’ remittances of US$8 billion is undoubtedly significant.
The Philippine government’s labor migration policies remain dismally inadequate when it comes to giving back to women migrant workers what they deserve in terms of protection and promotion of their rights. So long as the Philippine economy is chronically dependent on the earnings of its Filipino migrant labor abroad, the government’s labor export program will continue to be driven by overseas labor market demands. As such, the Philippines has very limited options to negotiate and demand from client-States and employers better protection for its citizens abroad, particularly women migrant workers.
Women migrant workers will continue to bravely cope with their situation by tapping their own strengths, relying on the assistance and support of their networks and most of all by organizing themselves as they have been doing very bravely and effectively for many years now.
Mabuhay ang babaeng migranteng manggagawa ng Pilipinas!
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