Sensational Cases Expose Conditions Faced by Overseas Workers Throughout Asia

09/22/2010 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza Former DNC Deputy National Press Secretary; Co-Author, 'Forty More Years' with James Carville

Last week, a Filipino woman working in Qatar as a maid gave birth on a flight from Bahrain to the Philippines, and then abandoned the child in the lavatory trash. She told officials she had become pregnant after being raped by her employer. Only a few weeks before, Sri Lankan physicians removed 24 nails and needles from a woman who had been working in Saudi Arabia. Saudi employers had hammered the nails into her body as punishment for complaining about her workload. She did not report the assault to Saudi officials for fear that her employers would prevent her from leaving.

Each year, inhabitants of the least-developed Asian countries pursue the economic benefits of overseas employment despite the high social cost at home and possibility of injury at the hands of employers abroad. Workers experience abuse along a spectrum, from being denied legal status and labor protections to enduring legally condoned and even legally abetted forms of physical and psychological abuse.

Of the $316 billion in remittances reported worldwide last year, more than half went to East and South Asia. Even as remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean declined, South and East Asian remittances continued to grow. Within the region, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam number among "source countries" while Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan represent the primary "destination countries." Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries are other major destinations.

While some Asian countries are increasingly dependent on remittances, others have become dependent on migrant labor to fuel economic growth. As of 2004, Asian overseas workers represented between 40 and 70 percent of the work force in gulf countries. Ten percent of Filipinos now live and work overseas, sending more than $17 billion home each year. Their remittances have doubled since 2003 and now make up more than 10 percent of the Philippines's national GDP. Of the 20 percent of Singapore's 2.8 million residents who are foreign citizens, many are from less-developed countries. Nearly 250,000 of these foreign workers do construction work, often under dangerous conditions. Another 100,000 foreign workers will join them this year to maintain Singapore's economic growth, predicted to be somewhere between 13 and 15 percent.

Millions of Asian migrant workers live in a gray area outside of the protection of law. Nearly 2 million Sri Lankans work abroad, including 1.4 million in the Middle East, as many as 400,000 of whom are in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 1.5 million overseas domestic workers in Saudi Arabia altogether.

While labor standards to protect domestic workers are lacking in many parts of Asia, labor conditions for foreign workers are worse yet. Human Rights Watch has criticized Lebanon for the legal barriers to protection for its 200,000 foreign workers, who are predominantly Asian. Saudi law explicitly excludes overseas workers from labor protections and upholds a sponsorship system (kafala) that permits employers to control workers' entrance, employment, and exit completely. A 2005 draft annex granting rights to foreign workers has yet to be passed by the Council of Ministers. Meanwhile, advocates of labor protections in Taiwan have pushed for the extension of the Labour Standards Act to foreign workers unsuccessfully.

Improvements in labor standards for domestic workers may result in increases in the population of unprotected foreign workers. In China, the implementation of labor laws requiring employers to provide benefits to workers, time off, and severance pay has spurred an employer-sanctioned increase in undocumented immigration from Vietnam. Chinese academics and activists argue for the legalization of foreign workers in order to place them under legal protection.

The lack of labor protections results in underpayment, overwork, unsafe conditions, inadequate living accommodations, and other forms of indirect physical abuse. In Taiwan, home to 360,000 foreign workers, workers allege to have been subjected to conditions on par with enslavement, including low pay, long hours, and no time off. Inadequate and unenforced laws also allow employers to abuse employees directly with impunity. Muslim workers from Indonesia in Taiwan have been forced to eat pork and even convert to Buddhism. In Shenzhen, China, this spring, working conditions provoked a series of suicides. Employers coerce workers to cooperate and comply with their demands--sometimes by legally sanctioned means, as in the case of the Saudi sponsorship system--and rely on official complicity, as police and other authorities often do not register or act on complaints filed by migrant workers. Source countries often lack strong domestic labor laws and have only a limited ability to protect citizens overseas.

Sexual abuse of female overseas workers presents a special, growing problem. Increasing demand for female workers and the "feminization" of migration has resulted in greater numbers of women pursuing work separately overseas. Yet there has been no corresponding improvement in conditions or rights for women working overseas. Women who are raped while working abroad have little success in filing or pressing charges and, in the case of an abusive employer, may be forced to remain legally dependent on their abusers. Further, they fear reprisal from family and friends upon return home, especially in the case of those who become pregnant. Right now, 10 Filipino women who became pregnant after being raped by their employers in Saudi Arabia await repatriation in Riyadh with their children. So many women returning to Jakarta brought unplanned children that a non-governmental agency in Indonesia, BNP2TKI, founded a shelter specifically for children born to migrant workers, many the products of rape.

The implications extend beyond the workers' immediate circumstances. The growth in overseas work arrangements comes at a tremendous social cost and impedes economic and political development in the remittance-rich countries. Split families endure separation indefinitely, and a generation of the children of overseas workers has been essentially orphaned. In the absence of more than a tenth of their residents, communities and towns may not develop strong social networks or build infrastructure. Moreover, governments become dependent on overseas workers' remittances rather strengthening the domestic economy and increasing opportunities for work at home. With remittances now a part of World Bank-IMF assessments of countries' ability to repay loans, dependence on remittances to supplement domestic economies may only increase as countries accept loans and attract external investment predicated upon sizable remittances.