Human rights violations and the exploitation of migrant workers have increased amid the COVID-19 pandemic since it first spread in early 2020. In Southeast Asia, the pandemic exacerbated existing issues faced by women migrant workers, pushing them to pursue opportunities through irregular migration. Women already face exploitation from their employers in destination countries, and the pandemic presents additional pressure in the form of an increasingly challenging migration process.
Destination countries and employers have not sufficiently tackled these issues. Informed by interviews with women migrant workers, this article shows the violations that emerged during the pandemic and how these took place at different stages of the immigration and employment process, caused by mobility restrictions.
Existing challenges for women migrant workers
Compared to male migrant workers, women are more vulnerable to exploitation. Human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and physical and sexual assaults are some of the most common challenges that women migrant workers face.
Women, especially from rural areas, who wish to go abroad and earn money, are often exploited during immigration processes due to their lack of or little knowledge of migration procedures. Poor governance of migration and migration policies in the countries of origin leave women susceptible to exploitation by staff and brokers at immigration offices.
‘It normally takes one day to complete the application process for a passport, followed by a fourteen-day wait before receiving it. I have to get to the passport office in Yangon by 5 am and finish the application process by the evening. But if one does not want to undergo this process, it is quite popular to pay brokers or office staff fees amounting to six times the actual passport cost to receive passports within one day’, says Julia, a female migrant worker from Myanmar, currently working in the textile industry in Malaysia.
Julia’s employment agency found her a job in the textile industry, but their fees were equal to two months of wages. Challenges faced by women will often intersect with their ethnic and national backgrounds. For instance, Julia said that she was paid less than female migrant workers from other ASEAN countries. While her manager claimed that this was because of her poor education and work experience, she was still assigned the same duties and responsibilities as other women workers from Laos and Cambodia. Despite this, her manager has refused to match her salary to theirs and is now using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to justify her lower salary, while also threatening her with redundancy if she insists on a raise. She says, ‘Being a woman and a Myanmar migrant worker makes it easier to be exploited’.
COVID-19 pandemic rubs the salt into the wound for women migrant workers
The pandemic has put women migrant workers in a more vulnerable position as employers threaten workers with redundancy. Women and men have experienced these impacts differently, as employers have relied on reducing their male workforce while underpaying their women workers.
‘The employers retain a large number of women workers because they assume they can easily manipulate them and pay less. I had to work for longer hours with a wage cut and fewer holidays because my employer threatened to fire anyone infected with COVID. And if anyone was public about this, they would immediately be fired’, shares Thuza, currently a woman migrant worker on a construction site in Thailand.
The pandemic and mobility restrictions have created new burdens for women migrant workers in their workplaces, such as staying at work for most of the day, working more hours, getting a decrease in monthly wages, and even fewer holidays. As economies have come into chaos, along with pandemic containment measures and immobility, both male and female migrant workers lose their jobs, some return home, and some become unemployed and stranded abroad. Thuza adds, ‘Migrant workers like me who managed to keep their jobs face longer work hours, deferred wages, unpaid leaves and insufficient access to basic services’.
Despite the pandemic affecting both women and men migrant workers, women are much more vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, and inequality. Indeed, it can be assumed that the pandemic rubs salt into the wound for female migrant workers, as this has only worsened their struggle.
A better normal in ASEAN?
It is imperative that women migrant workers are able to move and work in a policy framework that supports a better new normal in Southeast Asia. These pre-existing and new challenges to survivability and human rights make women migrant workers more vulnerable in their destination countries, as they have been especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tackling these migration issues and challenges to build a better normal in ASEAN needs gender-sensitive, evidence-based policy change.
Myoh Minn Oo
Myoh Minn Oo is an independent writer and researcher with a passion for social and political work in Myanmar and ASEAN. He is actively involved in social and political movements both locally and internationally for a democratic and just society. He conducts research and publishes articles while remaining actively engaged in local and international organisations in the areas of democracy, federalism, human rights, and social matters.