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Flowers, Fale, Fanua and Fa'a Polynesia - APMRN Working Paper 8
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Asia Pacific Migration Research Network

Change and Continuity:
Female Labour Migration in South East Asia

Edited by Christina Wille and Basia Passl, 2001
Published by the ARCM (Asian Research Centre for Migration),
Institute for Asian Studies,
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok


ISBN 974-347-094-8
Copyright © 2001

Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary - Policy Recommendations
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature and Debates on Women’s International Labour Migration
  5. Methodolog
  6. Country Study 1: Philippines
  7. Country Study 2: Indonesia
  8. Country Study 3: Yunnan, China
  9. Country Study 4: Thailand
  10. Synthesis Report
  11. Conclusion, Discussion and Policy Recommendations
  12. Bibliography
  13. Index

Executive Summary
by Dr. Supang Chantavanich

This study focused on female labour migration from four countries in South-east Asia; namely Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Yunnan-China. The research covered a sample of 387 female returnees from the afore-mentioned countries who had migrated internationally for employment. The major findings for each of the countries' case studies are summarised as follows. They were engaged mainly in the services sector, i.e., engaged as domestic helpers, caregivers, entertainers and sex workers. Some were hired in the manufacturing sector and a few to do agricultural work.

All migrants from Yunnan were undocumented while those from the other three countries were both documented and undocumented. Thus, cases of trafficking could be found mostly in Yunnan but also to a lesser extent in the Philippines and Thailand.

Many returnees were married with children when they migrated, generally between the ages of 20-35 years. In most cases, the husband would help with household work when the wives were away. All female workers earned some income during their time abroad and many remitted money to their parents or family at home. While they were working overseas, some women experienced physical violence and/or sexual harassment.

Once they returned to their places of origin, female migrants faced differing situations. Most Indonesian women went back to their agricultural work, while many Filipinos attempted to migrate again rather than look for work in the Philippines. Thai females often engaged in local service work or became self-employed although many wanted to emigrate again. Yunnanese women generally returned to their housework and farm and few started their own businesses. There were few economic reintegration programmes to absorb returned women in their own country or community, making them vulnerable for re-migration. A "General Health Questionnaire" (GHQ) indicated that two Thai women out of 98 respondents had health problems. The results of this test were not clear for Indonesia and Philippines. The GHQ was not done with the Yunnanese sample group. Thai, Filipino and Chinese women generally reported that they had higher self-confidence and more independence after their return.

In all, labour migration of women from the four countries indicated that there were cases of both legal migration and human smuggling (where women were voluntarily smuggled.) Migrant women were empowered economically when they worked abroad because they had a higher income and they could send remittances home. On the other hand, they were socially vulnerable to exploitation, violence, and sexual harassment. When women returned home, the situation was reversed: they were economically vulnerable because of a general lack of income but socially empowered due to their higher social status and self-confidence, which they had developed. However, family disruptions such as divorce, infidelity and estrangement from children did occur and rendered some women socially vulnerable. Many returned female workers did not succeed in reintegrating themselves into the old social, cultural and economic contexts of their former lives.

Policy Recommendations

The following measures are proposed for the improvement of conditions for female labour migrants.

1. A better protection regime and more efficient social safety nets should be developed to assist vulnerable female migrants. Concrete actions that could be taken are, for example:

  1. the provision of dormitories for commuting domestic helpers to prevent harassment at home by male employers;
  2. the establishment of easy access hotlines and shelter homes for female workers who have difficulties with employers;
  3. the provision of legal advisors to assist migrant women with work contracts and legal status problems;
  4. the encouragement of family reunion schemes to partly subsidize annual or bi-annual travel costs of female migrants to their family in the country of origin;
  5. the provision of reproductive health and mental health care services to migrant women in the countries of destination, including contraceptive services and HIV/AIDS and STD intervention programmes; and,
  6. rehabilitation programmes to be set up for the migrant's families while they are abroad, for example in remittance management or care-giving.

2. A gender-sensitive reintegration programme should be established to absorb returned women into the economic and social life in countries of origin with:

  1. skill development training programmes to assist women to work in accordance with their acquired skills, individual interests and local labour market viability;
  2. the provision of small loans for female returnees who want to start a business;
  3. family rehabilitation programmes for returned women, their husbands, children and other members of their family;
  4. availability of social workers or counsellors to assist returnees who have social and psychological troubles; and
  5. public recruitment services for those who want to re-migrate to prevent undocumented migration.

3. A public awareness campaign should be conducted, highlighting the possible vulnerability of female international labour migrants as well as the types of work which the sending government wishes to encourage its migrating nationals to be employed in. Such an information campaign would aim to prevent grassroots level irregular migration. The use of electronic communication could benefit prospective female migrants as well as those who are abroad, the former for information-sharing and the latter for communicating with their families in the country of origin.

4. A database of returned migrants should be developed, which includes their basic characteristics and monitors their development after return.

5. Research studies should be conducted to elucidate such issues as: the mental health of returnees (or other social costs of migration); the causes of migrant women's reintegration success and failure in various occupations; the sustainability and viability of such work; and the efficacy of existing reintegration programmes.

6. Women's networking through information sharing and self-help interest groups should be encouraged, to raise public awareness with regard to the economic imperatives which force women to move abroad for work so frequently.


This project was generously funded by the Ford Foundation through the Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN). It was implemented through the Asian Research Center for Migration (ARCM), Chulalongkorn University. Thanks go to Christina Wille for her dedicated coordination between the four countries in the project and the feedback she provided on this study. She raised issues from most interesting perspectives during the entire period of the study which increased the knowledge and broadened the thinking of the researchers.

For the Yunnan case studies, the assistance of Professor Xie Yuan Zhang from the Chinese Studies Centre in the Institute of Asian Studies for his support in China and in Bangkok was much appreciated, as was the assistance of Samarn Laodumrongchai, and other support staff at ARCM.

The Sociology Institute of Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences was responsible for the research in Yunnan, under the supervision of Professor Chiao Heng Rui. Throughout the preparation for the research there was much cooperation from the researchers involved in the project, Zhang Hongwen, He Zhixiong and Liu Hui. Other researchers from the institute who had valuable input included Zhao Jie and Zhang Jie, and Fanjian who assisted in the Statistic Programme for Social Science (SPSS) analysis. Support from the Public Security Bureau in Kunming and at the local level is also acknowledged. The researchers in the field are very grateful for the cooperation from villagers who participated in the survey and locals who supported the survey team during the weeks in the field.

In Indonesia, we wish to thank all of researchers at the Population Studies Centre, GMU for their dedication. We would like to extend our thanks to all others who have made great contributions to all parts of the work. Unfortunately, they are too numerous to thank individually.

This project in the Philippines acknowledges with deep appreciation the generous support and cooperation of several institutions and many individuals. The members of the research team in the Philippine study – Ma. Rosalyn G. Mesina, Ma. Luisa R. Yap, Ma. Cecilia V. Guerrero – did most of the interviews and the processing of data. Among the many people that we wish to thank are the women and men in the communities who helped us in locating return migrants, the interviewers in Pangasinan, Capiz and Davao, the life-stories interviewer-writers and Dr. Clemen C. Aquino. We reserve special thanks and much respect for the women migrants who shared their stories with us.

As for Thailand, this study has been successfully completed with the cooperation of many individuals. Dr. Phirom Sukkonthaphirom, a resident psychologist at Chulalongkorn University Hospital kindly agreed to act as a consultant in the analysis of mental health using the GHQ – 30 questionnaire. We must also thank Professor Amphorn Sukhanthawanich, head of the research team, whose experience and ideas were most valuable. Khun Chartra Laokhamphi played a most important role in the collection of data. Five students, who recently finished their studies in Community Development at Rajaphat Institute, Chiang Rai, helped with data collection. Thanks should be given to Thai female workers who previously worked abroad. They freely related their experiences, which were invaluable to the study. Thanks to Professor William Klausner, who translated the study into English. The English translation will enable this particular research study to reach out to and contribute to a greater sharing of ideas with a wider foreign, as well as Thai, audience interested in and involved in this subject area.

Our sincere thanks also go to Basia Passl for kindly editing and formatting the whole volume of the report at the ARCM office. Professor Stephen Castles and Dr. Robyn Iredale from the Center of Asia Pacific Social Transformation Research Advisory Network (CAPSTRAN) played the key role in seeking funds from the Ford Foundation for the Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN) project. The major investigators in each country and their team, i.e., Dr. Sukamdi and the team from the Population Studies Center, Gadjah Made University in Indonesia, Dr. Maruja M.B. Asis from Scalabrini Migration Center in the Philippines, Kannika Angsuthanasombat and Amphorn Sukhanthawanich from the Asian Research Center for Migration (ARCM) at Chulalongkorn University Thailand and Allan Beesey from ARCM and his team in Yunnan (China) made this study possible through their commitment through the long distant communication within the international research team. Without their contribution, the study will not be so insightful and comprehensive

It is expected that this report on Female International Migration in Southeast Asia will shed new light on the migration phenomenon among woman in the region and that its findings will lead to significant changes in the protection and assistants to female immigrant workers in the future.

Supang Chantavanich
Project Director
Bangkok, February 2001


by Christina Wille

Female labour migration has become such a noticeable feature of contract labour flows in Southeast Asia that some have of spoken of the ‘feminization’ of labour migration (Castles, 1993). One million Filipino, 500,000 Indonesian and some 40,000 Thai women worked outside their countries in the late 1990s, and their numbers are increasing. 270,000 Indonesian, 150,000 Filipino and 24,000 Thai women entered into legal and registered contracts in 1997 and 1999 respectively. They constitute an increasing proportion of the overall flows of new recruits. Since 1992 more Filipino women than Filipino men have taken up international contracts. Women account for some 60 percent of all new hires in Indonesia.

International labour contracts are highly gendered. Women are nearly exclusively found in the service sector and domestic and care-giver work and entertainment work. The number of women in factories is also increasing but remains small in comparison to the service industry. Southeast Asia’s women therefore take part in specific female migration systems rather than being part of the same flows as their male counterparts.

Southeast Asian contract labour flows are particular, and very distinct from other migration flows, because they are circular. Receiving countries usually do not allow labour migrants to bring dependants, nor do they allow for permanent settlement. Women therefore tend to leave their families behind and spend a few years working abroad, returning after the completion of one or several contracts.

The increase in female participation in international migration has led to a dramatic increase in interest in female migration. Numerous works on women in the international labour market have appeared recently. However, the specific and particular experience of Southeast Asia has not been adequately discussed in the international debate. It is hoped that this study will make a contribution to an understanding of Southeast Asian women’s labour migration experiences within the region.

This study focuses on specific aspects of women’s international labour migration experiences: the return and reintegration process in the country of origin, and women’s migration decision making within the household / family. Within these issues, this study intends to investigate possibilities for women’s empowerment through the migration experience.

Areas of study have been chosen to complement previous studies. Most studies have examined the working period abroad but detailed information on the return process within circular migration are not as widely available. The household or family has been recognized as a central element in Asian migration decision-making. Women’s role in this, however, is not so well understood. Specific work on the experience of Southeast Asian women in international contract labour has tended to concentrate on the issues of abuse, exploitation and lack of protection. While the issue of adequate protection remains an unsolved and crucial issue, it is important to move beyond the discussion of women as victims, towards appreciating women’s own abilities and the potential for women to act for themselves.

This publication is based on four separate studies carried out in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and the Yunnan Province of the People’s Republic of China. In total, 387 women were interviewed by means of a questionnaire. In addition a number of in-depth interviews were carried out – both with women migrant labourers and with persons connected with them in some way such as, recruiters, village leaders and family members. In Indonesia and Yunnan, the research area was confined to some selected villages within fairly narrowly defined regions. In the Philippines and Thailand interviewees came from various parts of the country. The data was collected during 2000.

This report includes a literature review, a methodological section, individual country reports on the four countries under study and a synthesis chapter identifying common characteristics and differences in South-East Asian contract labour migration and concludes with a set of recommendations for policy makers.

For more information, please contact:

    APMRN Secretariat
    Migration & Multicultural Studies
    Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies
    University of Wollongong
    Northfields Avenue, Wollongong, NSW 2522
    Telephone: +61 (02) 42 213 780
    Fax: +61 (02) 42 286 313
    E-mail: apmrn@uow.edu.au
    On Internet: http://www.capstrans.edu.au/apmrn/

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