Asia: Women migrants face the brunt of capitalism’s crisis

8 March should be start of massive campaign for an inclusive legal minimum wage

In 2009 over 17 million more people were pushed below the poverty line in Asia due to the crisis of global capitalism. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and UN, who produced this statistic, say that migrants and especially women workers suffered most from the crisis – “they represent most of the seasonal workforce, the first to go in a crisis”. One in every two migrant workers in Asia is a woman and their number is rising.

Migrant workers who are forced to uproot in order to support families and children they meet just once or twice a year have been caught in the crossfire of the global crisis. Even in ‘good times’ migrants face massive pressures including long hours, low pay and widespread abuse. Woman domestic workers are at especially high-risk ill treatment or denial of basic rights due to their isolation in private homes.

Now, the economic crisis means higher unemployment in the richest capitalist countries, tougher competition for jobs, cuts in wages, populist attacks on “foreigners” and new government restrictions – such as South Korea’s freeze on hiring Filipino workers last year and Malaysia cancelling 55,000 visas to Bangladeshi workers. In the US migrant employment has tumbled, with the loss of more than 1.5 million jobs since September 2008. This represents more than a quarter of all jobs lost in the US downturn, much of this due to the collapse in construction. Similarly, “the golden age of the Gulf is drying up,” as one Indian commentator put it. The collapse of Dubai’s property bubble in November signals tougher times in the Gulf States, a major destination for Asian migrants, including millions of women who work as domestic workers.

The crisis has cut into the flow of remittances that migrants send home – a crucial lifeline especially for rural areas. The ADB (September 2009 report) estimates that remittances could fall by as much as ten percent in 2009 (a decline of 5.7% in East Asia and Pacific). A ten percent cut in global remittances would translate into the loss of 33 billion US dollars, equivalent to one-third of all the official development aid from capitalist governments. But as the Asian Development Bank warns, the “crisis may be deeper and last longer”, adding that, “rising protectionism may lead to tighter immigration controls”.

The Philippines

With over 10 million migrant workers abroad and with almost one-third of its population officially living in poverty, the Philippines is one of the countries most affected by the global capitalist crisis. It has suffered “historic joblessness”, in the words of one Manila-based think-tank, averaging 11.3 percent throughout the years of pro-Big Business Arroyo presidency (2001-2010). Last year the number of jobless jumped to 2.7 million (September 2009, ADB) from 2.5 million one year earlier.

Around 3,000 Filipinos leave the country each day to work overseas – four-fifths of all “OFWs” (Overseas Filipino Workers) move to other Asian countries. In 2008, the remittances from overseas Filipinos totalled $18 billion, according to the ADB, equivalent to 12 percent of the country’s GDP in dollar terms. Only in India, China and Mexico are remittances higher. In words, the Arroyo administration applauds overseas Filipinos as the country’s “Bagong Bayani” or new heroes. But this is a poor attempt to disguise its real policies, which promote the exploitation of Filipino workers in favour global and national capitalism and the big corporations. Not surprisingly, there is massive discontent in the Philippines over unemployment, rising food prices and greater numbers of children unable to go to school, and dissatisfaction with Arroyo is at its highest level ever.


There are at least six million Indonesians working outside the country and four-fifths of these are women who work in the informal domestic sector. The government of “SBY” has aroused indignation from migrants and other workers for its naked attempts to increase the exploitation of “exported labour” for the benefit of Indonesian and global capitalism. The government has announced a target to squeeze 125 billion rupiah per year in remittances from Indonesia’s super-exploited overseas workforce, which would mean more than tripling the average level of remittances. Living and working conditions for the great mass of migrants mean that this is a thinly disguised slave trade, with corrupt national governments such as Indonesia’s, selling their ‘surplus’ population into a life of drudgery with few opportunities to escape or acquire economic security.

Indonesia possesses staggering natural riches including oil, yet its capitalist elite is completely incapable of developing the economy to create jobs and decent living standards. Unfortunately, the working class does not have a mass party of its own, to fight against the established parties, none of which offer anything but more capitalist misery.

Excluded from the education system and local labour market, millions of women have no alternative but to move abroad. The biggest group of Indonesian migrants work in the Gulf States where conditions are among the worst. A 2009 report on conditions in the Gulf States from US-based Human Rights Watch highlighted cases of physical abuse, forced confinement, passport confiscation, bans on trade unions and even deaths among domestic workers.

Hong Kong: For a revolt of the low paid

There are over 250,000 migrant workers in Hong Kong. Denied residency, migrants are trapped in a subsector of the economy with extremely low wages. They are separated by a series of legal, economic and cultural “walls” from the rest of the working class. This is a conscious strategy on the part of ruling elites everywhere – and the Hong Kong government are masters at this game – who use migrants as cheap labour and a cheap alternative to a government-funded universal welfare system. Such a system should include childcare, pre-school education, elderly care, home helps, and other services that the government refuses to provide.

A welfare sector, such as was built up by working class struggle in many European countries in the past (but has been heavily eroded by neo-liberal governments since), strengthens the hand of the working class in relation to capital and in particular strengthens the social position of women. Under such a system it is easier for workers to unionise and act collectively to stamp out abuses, easier to exert democratic control, and the care of children and the elderly rightly becomes a societal rather than individual responsibility. If run democratically, through a system of workers’ control and management to root out bureaucracy, a strong public care sector would be hugely popular. This in turn would threaten the neo-liberal free-market “small government” mantra of the Hong Kong elite, which is why the idea of a ‘welfare state’ is anathema to the billionaires who run Hong Kong and revel in its “tax haven” status.

Minimum wage must include migrants

Migrant workers in Hong Kong find themselves rock bottom in a society with the most extreme wealth gap of any developed economy. But they are not alone. Over one million of Hong Kong’s seven million people live in poverty, and half a million resident workers earn less than HK$5,000 per month. What’s worse, wages are falling across the whole economy. The Census and Statistics department reports that real wages of non-managerial workers across all industries fell by 2.6 percent in 2009. “Grassroots people’s lives are getting tougher and tougher and most of their wages have not improved during the past decade,” says University of Hong Kong demographer Dr Paul Yip Siu-fai. There is a need for a revolt of the low-paid – to build unstoppable pressure for a decent minimum wage and a cap on excessive working hours. A united struggle for an inclusive minimum wage that covers migrants and not just Hong Kong residents is in the interests of both groups.

Female migrant workers, as our interview shows, are taking steps to get organised and build trade unions. This represents a big step forward for all workers and grassroots struggle in general. Other workers cannot afford to ignore the problems of migrants, or the calls for equal treatment, as the minimum wage issue illustrates. “An injury to one is an injury to all”.

Women need socialism! fully endorses the demands of migrant workers for stronger legal protection and an end to discrimination. The key to winning these justified demands is fighting democratic trade unions and unity in struggle with wider layers of workers and youth. Migrants cannot win on their own. Working class unity, of women and men, is vital in the fight against discrimination and to cut across attempts by employers and governments to sow divisions.

Socialists want to re-establish 8 March everywhere as a day of international struggle for women’s rights. It should no longer be a day dominated by empty platitudes from organs like the UN and national governments. It should be a day to promote, organise and strengthen women’s struggle and also to expose the evils of capitalism, a system based on class and sexual oppression. The capitalist system is global, encompassing the corrupt elites in Asia’s ‘developing countries’ and those in the rich imperialist countries who dictate the rules of the world economy in order to plunder and exploit. The only power that can offer an alternative to capitalism is the working class and for this task it must be organised and conscious of its potential power. This means that in the fight for immediate and urgent demands such as equal pay for women, a living wage and a shorter workweek, we must also fight for a democratic socialist alternative to capitalism, with economic and political power placed in the hands of the working population.

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March 2010