A closer look at the nature of migrant workers' role in the economy suggests complex outcomes for women

The gender dimension of
migration and global crisis

6 min read

First published: 06/18/2010

Migration has been one of the more important means of greater global integration. With the onset of the global financial and economic crisis, there were concerns about its impact on such integration, especially falling remittances. But a closer examination of the nature of migrant workers’ role in the economy suggests more complex outcomes.The UN estimates that the global stock of migrants is now more than 200 million, even excluding temporary, irregular and illegal migrants. Most of these migrants hail from developing countries: in the developed world (excluding the former USSR) the share of migrants in total population more than doubled between 1960 and 2005, from 4 per cent to nearly 10 per cent while it has declined in less developed countries.

Women currently make up around half of the world’s migrant population, and this is without taking into consideration short-term and seasonal movements, many of which are unrecorded. Globally, the number of female migrants has been large and increasing, both in terms of the sheer number of women involved and in terms of their share of the world's migrant stock. There is a remarkable diversity of migration patterns among women, and such diversity has increased along with recent economic and social changes in both sending and receiving locations. Women migrate for long and short periods, over short and long distances. They move for many reasons, of which marriage is only one and among which work is becoming increasingly significant. Young women dominate in migration, but older women migrate as well. They move with or without their families. Both single and married women migrate. Indeed, there is growing evidence of women who have borne children moving for work, leaving the care of their children with family members who remain at home.

Most of this recent female migration (as indeed the migration of males) has been driven by economic forces. It has given rise to rapidly expanding remittance flows to home countries, which have become the most important source of foreign exchange for many developing countries. The IMF estimates total remittance flows to developing countries to be nearly $300 billion in 2009, significantly more than all forms of capital flows put together. This has provided crucial foreign exchange and been a major contributor to balance of payments stability for countries as far apart as Philippines and Guatemala, and even for large countries like India and China, where remittances have played a significant role in domestic consumption.

Other elements of global integration are clearly adversely affected by the crisis: exports have declined sharply across the world, and capital flows have “deglobalized” in that foreign direct investment, portfolio capital and bank lending to developing countries have almost collapsed. It is only to be expected that when economic activity slows or contracts in destination countries, migrant workers are the first to be laid off and sent home. Since a lot of recent economic migration has been explicitly short-term in terms of meeting specific labour shortages in the host economies, this is even more likely.

That is why by late 2008 it was widely predicted that remittance flows would quickly show signs of decline, and initial reports also bore this out. By August 2008, remittances into Mexico (which are dominantly from workers based in the US) were already down 12 per cent compared to the previous year. There was also evidence of declining remittances from other countries that relied strongly on them, such as  Lebanon, Jordan and Ethiopia.

But as the crisis unfolded, it became clear that the patterns of migration and remittances may be more complex than was previously imagined. In several countries (such as India) remittance inflows continued to increase strongly in the year since the onset of the crisis. To some extent this can be expected, because even if the crisis leads to large-scale retrenchment of migrant workers who are forced to come home, they would obviously return with their accumulated savings. In such a case, there could even be a (temporary) spike in remittances rather than a continuous or sharp decline because of the crisis. Eventually, as the adverse conditions for overseas employment further aggravate, this would then lead to decline in remittance inflows.

However, it is not inevitable that there should be a sharp decline in migration and remittances. One important aspect that is frequently ignored in the discussions on migration is the gender dimension. International migration for work is highly gendered, with male migrants finding dominant representation in manufacturing and construction sectors, while women migrants are concentrated in the service sectors, such as the care economy broadly defined (including activities such as nursing and domestic work) and “entertainment”.

The different nature of work also affects remittance flows. In the first place, female migrants are far more likely to send remittances home, and typically send a greater proportion of their earnings back. Also, male migrant workers find that incomes are much more linked to the business cycle in the host economy, so their employment and wages tend to vary with output behaviour. Thus job losses in the North during this crisis have been concentrated in construction, financial services and manufacturing, all dominated by male workers.

By contrast, the care activities dominantly performed by women workers tend to be affected by other variables such a demographic tendencies, institutional arrangements, and the extent to which women work outside the home in the host country. So employment in such activities is often unaffected by the business cycle, or at least responds to a lesser extent. Therefore female migrants workers’ incomes are more stable over the cycle and do not immediately rise or fall to the same extent.

This in turn means that source countries that have a disproportionately higher share of women emigrants (such as Philippines and Sri Lanka) would tend to experience less adverse impact in terms of falling remittances. Indeed, in the Philippines, most recent data indicate that remittance flows are still increasing slightly, at an annual rate of around 2 per cent. This does not mean that there will be no impact at all, but certainly the adverse effects will be less and will take longer to work through than if the migration had been dominated by male workers.

There are other  reasons why the crisis has had limited impact on patterns of migration. For example, one expectation was that the return migration would be dominated by the worst hit workers, who in turn were expected to be the undocumented, irregular or illegal migrants who are mostly in low-wage and low-skilled occupations, and do not qualify for any kind of official support such as welfare benefits or social security from the host country.

But the initial evidence belies this expectation because, for one.such migrants may be unwilling to return home to possibly even more fragile and insecure employment conditions in the home country. Many developing countries have been even worse hit by the financial crisis that originated in the US economy. So the push factors that operated to cause international migration in search of work remain  as strong as ever. The unwillingness to return in such a context may be even stronger where the undocumented migrants have already developed some local social networks that allow them to survive for a period while they look out for other employment.

In the host country, undocumented migrant workers may even be preferred by employers who see in them a cheaper source of labour than legal migrants or local workers. In the context of this crisis, preference for cheaper labour may become even sharper. This may be yet another reason why women migrants may be less badly affected, since women migrants dominate in the undocumented and illegal category.

In any case, one of the basic pull factors still remains significant: the demographic transition in the North that is increasing the share of the older population that requires more care from younger workers, who must therefore come from abroad. So the current crisis may temporarily slow down the ongoing process of international migration for work, but it is unlikely to reverse it.

So is this unmitigated good news? Not really, because a significant proportion of such movement, especially by women, reflects distress migration driven by the lack of adequate livelihood and employment opportunities in the home economies. The global economic boom that preceded the crisis was deeply unequal and problematic because the poor subsidised the rich in a variety of ways. Countries competed to send cheaper goods to Northern markets. The financial bubble in the US attracted savings from across the world, including from the poorest developing countries, so that the South transferred net financial resources to the North even when they received large capital inflows. Contrary to popular perception, a net transfer of jobs from North to South did not take place, as technological change in manufacturing and new services meant that fewer workers could generate more output. Persistent agrarian crisis combined with livelihood crises in the South generated short term movements of labour migration that also subsidised production and accumulation in the North.

While such migration definitely has had positive effects in terms of income and even empowerment of the migrating women, it also has substantial human costs. It involves separating families and exposing migrants to difficult, precarious and sometimes even dangerous conditions in the destination.

The globalization of the care economy – and the international division of household work - is a good example of this complexity. Domestic service is one of the most common occupations of women migrants from developing countries to developed ones. This is particularly true in some European countries like France, Italy, Spain and Greece, as well high and middle-income countries in Asia and the Gulf states. In the 1990s, this was also encouraged by official policies: a significant proportion of the migrants who entered Italy, Greece and Spain through the quota system were women domestic workers, and they also dominated among those migrants who were subsequently regularised. For some developing countries, this is now the major component of migration, in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Many such women perform domestic tasks – the labour involved in social reproduction – that are still seen as the responsibility of women in the more developed industrial societies in Europe or North America, or the more dynamic and rapidly growing developing parts of Asia such as Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, or the oil-exporting countries of West Asia and the Gulf. They thereby potentially free such female labour for more active participation in the paid labour market, and contribute to the economic growth of the receiving country. At the same time, the migrant women’s own household responsibilities back home must be fulfilled by other women, since the gender division of labour at both ends of the migratory spectrum still leaves women primarily responsible for doing the domestic work. This housework back home is often performed by women relatives, such as mothers, sisters and daughters. But the very large wage differentials across sending and receiving countries can allow such migrant workers in turn to relegate their own domestic work by hiring poorer local women to care for their own children and perform necessary household tasks. In turn, such women may even be migrants from rural areas who have come into cities and towns in search of income.


Several features of a wider process are highlighted by this example. First, the gender division of labour permeates and even drives the migration process, creating demand in the receiving society and enabling migration from the sending society. This reflects the fact that in both regions women have not been able to negotiate a more equal division of labour within the household, so that social reproduction remains their responsibility. Second, this three-tiered involvement of women in the international transfer of domestic labour becomes an important, even if often unnoticed, feature of the accumulation process in the host society. It becomes an important factor driving economic booms, even if its role is not as explicitly evident as the feminisation of export-oriented manufacturing, for example. It also contributes to the growth of the sending economy through the mechanism of remittances. Third, it leads to the social phenomenon of “diverted mothering”, which has been defined as the process in which the “time and energy available for mothering are diverted from those who, by kinship or communal ties, are their more rightful recipients.”

The picture of women’s migration today is complex, reflecting the apparent advantages to women of higher incomes and recognition of work, as well as the dangers and difficulties associated with migrating to new and unknown situations with the potential for various kinds of exploitation. The desperation that drives most such economic migration, and the exploitative conditions that it can result in, should not be underestimated. But it is also true that the sheer knowledge of conditions and possibilities elsewhere can have an important liberating effect upon women, which creates a momentum for positive social change and gender empowerment over time.