Exploitation risk for women migrant workers has increased during pandemic, labour migration experts and rights activists say

Chandan Kumar Mandal

At a time when tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers are bearing the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in various labour destination countries, it is the women workers who are having it worse, according to labour migration experts and human rights workers.

They say women workers are facing hardship from various fronts in the wake of the pandemic further aggravating their seemingly never-ending struggle as migrant workers and putting them at higher risk of exploitation.

“Nepali women migrant workers have been bearing the most brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Ashok Rana, chairperson of National Network for Safe Migration, an umbrella organisation of civil society groups working in the field of labour migration, said during an interaction in Kathmandu on Saturday. “In labour destination countries, women workers have been dealing with the risk of contracting coronavirus as well as various forms of exploitations. Even for those women who have returned home, they neither have safe quarantine space nor the guarantee of a secure future.” 

Condition of women migrant workers, who are mostly working as housemaids in the Persian Gulf and have been subject to various forms of exploitation by sub-agents at home and their employers, has further worsened during the pandemic.

“We know a majority of Nepali women migrant workers are working as housemaids in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Their conditions may be different in different countries but they are at risk,” said Sudip Pathak, a member of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). “As labour destination countries imposed lockdowns and other measures to contain the coronavirus spread, women migrant workers were burdened with more work and extended working hours as their employers stayed home. They also underwent psychological pressure.”

According to the International Labour Organisation’s latest assessment of ‘Covid-19 and the World of Work’, women workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, creating a risk that some of the modest progress on gender equality made in recent decades will be lost, and that work-related gender inequality will be exacerbated.

The ILO pointed out that the severe impact of the pandemic on women workers relates to their over-representation in some of the economic sectors worst affected by the crisis, such as accommodation, food, sales and manufacturing.

“Women also dominate in the domestic work and health and social care work sectors, where they are at greater risk of losing their income and of infection and transmission and are also less likely to have social protection,” said the ILO assessment, which was released on Tuesday. “The pre-pandemic unequal distribution of unpaid care work has also worsened during the crisis, exacerbated by the closure of schools and care services.” 

Pathak, the NHRC member, said the pandemic has put the women workers at further risk of ill-treatment by their employers as family members stayed home.

“Despite all of this, their access to information and justice was curtailed during the pandemic. Not only their communication with their families back home was disturbed, but they also could not file their grievances to the authorities as the cities were under lockdown,” said Pathak. “Women migrant workers’ health, wages and legal rights should be ensured. There should be a mechanism to look into their grievances and a plan in place once they return home.”

After the pandemic hit major labour destination countries for Nepali workers, the country’s labour migration sector was brought to a halt. Many workers faced job losses and pay cuts. There was also the fear of infection due to unsafe working and living conditions.

After remaining stranded for months, Nepali workers are currently being evacuated from these countries.

Rights activists have pointed out that a large number of workers, including women migrant workers, are returning home without their wages. 

Women rights activists have already been raising concerns about the ongoing repatriation process for not being women friendly and demanding safe, dignified repatriation and reintegration of returnee women migrant workers. 

In Saturday’s interaction, stakeholders urged the government to analyse the difference between the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic situation and address the new challenges faced by migrant workers. They also said the government needs to find out the actual number of women workers losing jobs so that they could be brought home and reintegrated.

“A large number of Nepali women workers are in Kuwait where at least three of them have committed suicide after being infected with the coronavirus,” said Hari Krishna Neupane, a Kuwait-based Nepali journalist. “Four Nepali migrant workers have died due to Covid-19. But the government has not shown enough concerns other than taking them back on chartered flights, which are several times expensive.”

Published on: 5 July 2020 | The Kathmandu Post


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