Chapter 8: The Plight of Female Migrant Workers

Work, Inequality, and Neoliberalism

While the conditions in some factories in Tamil Nadu, India (described in Chapter 8: Work, Inequality and Neoliberalism) may be extreme, they are not unique. Many workers in the most exploitative situations globally are young migrant women, who face discrimination both as women and as “others” or foreigners (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2002).

UN Women, a part of the United Nations, says that increasing demand for workers in sectors such as healthcare, domestic work, and entertainment, where women predominate, are leading to a record number of women working beyond their home countries, particularly in Asia (Carvalho, 2019). These women often face discriminatory laws both in the countries they are working in, but also in their home countries, which may guarantee them few rights in cases of divorce, child custody, and inheritance (Carvalho, 2019). Carvalho noted that many women “face abuse and betrayal, are left with little money and even are stripped from their children” (Carvalho, 2019, para. 5).

The work migrant women do is often vital to the survival of their families at home. One study found that the money migrant workers sent home equaled three times the world’s foreign aid budgets (Emmett, 2009). But their status is often extremely tenuous. Many female migrant workers end up in the informal sector working as nannies, maids, and sex workers, where they are least able to access legal rights (Ehrenreich & Hochschild). Even in the best cases where benign employers pay wages on time, wrote Ehrenreich and Hochschild, many “Third World migrant women achieve their success only by assuming the cast-off domestic roles of middle- and high-income women in the First World” (pp. 176-177).

Many countries restrict the rights of migrant workers. Female migrant workers in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, for example, receive only temporary status where they are working and may be deported if they lose their employment (War on Want, 2012). It is not uncommon for employers to confiscate migrants’ documents (even though this is illegal), severely restricting their movement. In many cases, laborers must work overtime simply to meet basic needs because they are paid far below the legal minimum. Some are forced to pay back “recruitment fees” and have other fees and taxes deducted from their wages illegally. Female migrant workers are also denied reproductive rights in many instances and face discrimination if they become pregnant. In Malaysia, for example, women migrant workers are denied work permits if they are pregnant (they are tested before they enter the country). Once in the country, they are tested again and deported if they become pregnant (War on Want).



Carvalho, R. (2019, February 23). The invisible struggle: how thousands of female migrant workers lose their money and their children every year. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from

Ehrenreich, B., & Hochschild, A. (Eds.) (2002). Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. New York, NY: Holt.

Emmett, B. (2009, Mar). Paying the Price for the Economic Crisis. Oxfam International. Retrieved from

War on Want (2012, May). Restricted Rights: Migrant Women Workers in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia. Retrieved from