Women, Work and Migration: Global Perspectives

By: Dr Parvati Raghuram
Most research on female migrant employment concentrates on two female dominated sectors: domestic work (cleaning and care) and the sex industry. The presence of skilled women in migratory streams is often ignored. This paper presents some research on skilled migrant women and suggests that as with less skilled migrants, their movements too are shaped by family relations and social networks.
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The mobility of skilled labour has been part of transnational migratory movements since the 1960s. At that time skilled flows were primarily analysed in terms of brain drain, initially between First World countries and then from Third World countries to those in the First World. Although much of the literature saw the US as the beneficiary of brain drain migration it is clear that a number of those who moved to Europe during the major phase of labour migration were also skilled. It was the movement of skilled personnel in the science and technology sectors that was of concern. Nowadays skilled migration is back in the news as immigration regulations have increasingly become skill-selective. The skills that are ‘selected’ are those relating to the knowledge economy, particularly sectors such as finance, management and information and communication technology (ICT) which are seen as the key drivers for economic growth. India and China are two of the largest sending countries for skilled migrants currently. In the UK this skill selectivity has been consolidated in the ‘Points Based System’, which has been rolled out since 2008. In Australia there has been a gradual diminution of family stream migration in comparison to skilled migration category and the latter accounted for 61.1 per cent of the Migration Programme in 2002-2003, up from 57.5 per cent the year before. India is a large sender for most OECD countries – in 2008 India overtook China as the largest sending country for skilled migrants to Canada as researchers Wei Li and Lucia Lo stated at the annual conference of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Oxford in 2009.

The policies, the particular skills demanded and the sectors with shortages keep changing, but on the whole skilled migration is male-dominated. However, women too play an important part in skilled migration streams as this article shows.

Gender and skilled migration

Migration policies are gender sensitive. Women and men circulate differently in an unevenly globalised economy. Men dominate movements within transnational corporations, ICT and science. In banking and finance, few women have reached senior positions and still fewer appear within the migrant labour force in such sectors. However, some skilled sectors which are female dominated, such as nursing, have become important employers of migrants in the last decade so that globally the number of women skilled migrants is increasing. In the UK, there were sharp increases in the early 2000s as the welfare sector (education, health and social work), which is a major employer of women, expanded. They are more likely to be lead migrants in these professions. During the 1990s, whilst ICT workers were in demand, qualifications in teaching and health (doctors and nurses) in many ‘classic’ countries of immigration were either awarded no immigration points or even had points deducted (e.g. Australia, Canada), and thus devalued. In Canada, for example, annual migration of post-secondary school teachers fell by 30 per cent between 1990 and 1997, by 50 per cent among elementary and secondary teachers, 40 per cent among physicians and 70 per cent among nurses. Skilled workers in these professions had to seek other less skilled routes to emigration. Thus, Filipina nurses migrating to Canada often entered through the domestic labour programme. In the first decade of the twentieth century, shortages in health and education have become so severe, particularly in inner cities and remote rural areas that these restrictions were lifted and new opportunities for migrant labour opened up. These shifts have led to a globalisation of certain forms of skilled caring work, particularly nursing. Indian women have played an increasingly important part in global skilled migration streams. As Eleonore Kofman and colleagues show in their report to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission UK (2009) the percentage of women among Indians receiving a UK work permit (given to those with qualifications above a certain level) rose from 12.6 in 1996 to 30 per cent in 2004. Similarly, a report done for a German Institute for Labour Studies in 2007 showed that around the turn of the century 43 per cent of Indian-born highly skilled migrants in OECD countries were women. However, in the last two years the proportion of female skilled migrants in the UK has dropped as the migration of doctors and nurses have both become restricted. This  is the changing landscape within which the gendered migration of skilled persons must be analysed, although there has not yet been much work in this field thus far.


Skilled women migrants in workplace

One of the factors underlying the neglect of women in the literature on skilled migration has been the problematic definition of skills. The ascription of technological innovation as the driving force of globalisation has often led to the highly skilled being defined as those qualified in scientific and technological professions while the skills required in educational and caring jobs, are considered to be inherent in their femininity, primarily conceptualised as women’s jobs and therefore semi-skilled rather than skilled. Moreover, the definition of skilled migrants on the basis of the possession of tertiary qualifications may be waived for some categories of skilled migrants (as for example, in ICT) where experience may be given more importance than any qualification. Finally, the definition of skills is further reworked in the context of migration. Thus, in many receiving countries the shortage of labour has been a key factor used to define skills as they pertain to migrant selectivity; that is, those working in shortage specialisms are considered to have skills. As these shortages in the labour market change, so too does the definition of skills.

Moreover, it is necessary to differentiate between skilled migrants and skilled migration. Skilled women migrants do not necessarily migrate in their own right through skilled migration streams as primary migrants or as students who then obtain a job abroad. They are equally likely to migrate as spouses of principal labour migrants, of students, or of refugees. Family reunification, formation and sponsorship, then becomes a key mode of migration for skilled migrant women. Women who enter through such channels do often attempt, and sometimes succeed, to have their skills recognised and are able to take up jobs in the skilled sector.

International migration of women often occurs in occupational sectors that are highly regulated by the state. Work in the ‘caring industries’, seen at least in part as a state responsibility, enables the state to play a crucial role in regulating such labour markets. Thus, sectoral differences in male and female labour force participation means that the state plays a greater role in the migration of women, than in that of men. In some countries accreditation may be strongly influenced by hierarchies of recognition that marginalise Third World qualifications and experiences. Furthermore, racial and sexual discrimination in the labour market has led to unemployment and to poor pay and conditions of work for those who have found employment. As a result, the migration of skilled women, and less commonly men, often accompanies de-skilling and occasionally reskilling. Thus the skills required to migrate are often devalued after migration.

Relationships between spouses also influence the possibility of entering the labour market for migrant women. In many instances the husband’s career may take precedence and there may be no appropriate employment available to skilled women in the area to which the husband’s career takes the family. The lack of support systems for child care may also force women to abandon their career for some time, both for those moving permanently as well as for those moving for shorter periods. As such, although women may have skills, they do not necessarily enter the labour market, all of which serve to erase skilled women from discussions within the skilled migration literature.


The new decade

More recently the global recession is altering the job opportunities available to men and women in many OECD countries. However, China and India continue to see economic growth. Towns like Bangalore have seen the impact in the differential economic growth in sending and receiving countries as there has been a slow trickle of return migration to India. The economic opportunities in India are even more marked for skilled people. However, new questions around gender equity in skilled migration arise. Are the job opportunities for skilled people equal for women and men in India? Are the job losses in management, finance and ICT in OECD countries going to make it harder for male migrants than for female migrants? Are women, who are often paid less than men for doing the same job, likely to get an edge in the labour market in these new straitened times? Will women, who stand to lose most from the loss of social support networks in the post-migration scenario, spearhead skilled return migration? These are important questions for the future.


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