Understanding gender disparity in overseas employment
Free movement is a recognised human right around the globe. Both men and women have the right to go where ever they want, and for whatever reason.
The reality is otherwise when it comes to job seeking women. According to the International Labour Organization, in 2017, the number of male migrant workers was around 95.7 million and that of female workers 68.1 million.
The difference between the two numbers varies vastly across regions. In Africa, for instance, both intra-African and intercontinental labour migration is dominated by men. Recent studies show however that more women are now part of intra-African migration. They are increasingly migrating either alone or as heads of households. In South America, the share of female international migrants stood at 50.5 per cent in 2019.
South Asia has been one of the key suppliers of migrant labour to the Gulf states. Pakistan sends the second largest number of migrants to the Gulf States (behind India). An overwhelming 99 per cent of them are men. According to the latest estimates, women migrant workers make up nearly 0.4 per cent of the total. Like their male counterparts, almost 90 per cent of these women go to the Gulf states, primarily the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In most cases, they work as domestic help and as cleaners, followed by nurses, beauticians and teachers.
This makes Pakistan an extreme outlier in female labour emigration. Its SAARC neighbours send far more women overseas. The ratio ranges from 5 percent (for Nepal) to 37 percent (for Sri Lanka).
While there are several factors at play, the most prominent reason cited by both the government and many female migrant workers, is “cultural constraints”.
In an ILO-Gallup Study conducted in 2016, when women in Pakistan were asked if they preferred to stay at home or work at a paid job, 51 per cent said that they preferred staying at home. When men were asked the same question, only 21 per cent said that they would be comfortable if women in their family worked outside their homes.
These findings correlate to numbers in the government of Pakistan’s latest Labour Force Survey (2017-18), according to which the male labour force participation rate is 68 per cent and the female labour force participation rate is 20.1 per cent.
The largest group of women going overseas for employment work as domestic help and belong to the unskilled category. Many of these women belong to rural areas. Most have little to no education and move mostly via personal networks.
According to official 2019 figures, at least 14 per cent of women workers overseas migrated as domestic workers/housemaids, and 15 per cent as helpers and general workers. Women workers from Pakistan do emigrate in other professions as well, including as doctors, nurses, beauticians and teachers. Destination countries have several other categories for decent employment of women, which Pakistanis do not actively pursue.
The pull of socio-cultural factors is immense. Marriage is the most dominating factor in restricting women’s mobility for overseas employment.
Most women in Pakistan lack the decision-making authority. This applies to making decisions regarding migration as well. Even in the high-skilled category, families are reluctant to send female members overseas.
Lesser factors include women not wanting to be in an unfamiliar country. Stories about harassment by employers and knowledge of actual cases have also led to negative opinions about life overseas.
But is Pakistani ‘culture’responsible for these attitudes? Used in this context, the term ‘culture’ is extremely vague. It could mean anything from traditional and religious values to patriarchal norms. This creates many grey areas in terms of why some women go abroad despite cultural constraints, while others do not. For instance, many women who go abroad as domestic workers, belong to some of the most conservative parts of the country. Some of them are barely allowed to leave their homes unaccompanied. Yet, when economic conditions are dire, they are sent overseas.
The biggest factor preventing women from pursuing decent employment overseas, is the lack of a clear policy in Pakistan that ensures equal participation in the work force – both at home and abroad. The fact that there is no policy, let alone legislation specifically geared towards securing women’s livelihoods, is the key factor in limiting women’s migration and mobility for employment. This, coupled with the lack of decision-making authority, is what prevents women from pursuing opportunities overseas, should they want to or need to.
Pakistan does not officially stop women from going overseas to work. However, neither does it create a favourable and navigable environment for women to be able to seek such employment opportunities with impunity.
In order for women to fully benefit from international labour migration regimes and mobility, it is imperative to recognize the value of women’s labour and its contribution to economy and society.
This article is based on some of the findings of the ILO report: Female Emigration from Pakistan. A Situational Analysis, which was published in March 2020 and was authored by the writer of this piece. For more detailed findings of this qualitative study, please consult the report which can be accessed at the ILO website.
Themrise Khan is an independent development professional with over 25 years of experience in international development, social policy, gender and global migration. She is based in Karachi.