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Gender and Migration: Care Workers at the Interface of Migration and Development


Date: 11 May 2011

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet delivered the opening address at the event titled “Gender and Migration: Care Workers at the Interface of Migration and Development, during the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV), Istanbul, 11 May 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Honourable Ministers, Excellencies, Distinguished Colleagues,

It is a privilege and pleasure to partner with the ILO, the Governments of Nepal, Spain and the Philippines on this panel on Gender and Migration: Care Workers [1] at the Interface of Migration and Development.

This is an issue of particular concern to UN Women. In drawing up our Strategic Plan we identified women's economic empowerment as one of our thematic priorities where we plan to work together with ILO and others to provide support to Governments, among other things, on opportunities for decent work, asset-building and extension of labour protections for women workers, including migrant workers and domestic workers. We are also committed to supporting the proposed ILO Convention on domestic workers.

Domestic workers, who are employed by private households to carry out housework and care of children, and elderly or sick family members, make up an increasing number of different categories of care workers. Their work sustains and renews families, including their “working members, who in turn keep the wheels of society moving. The ILO currently estimates that domestic care workers make up about 4-10 percent of the labour force of developing countries and about 2 percent of the workforce in developed countries [2].

Domestic work facilitates women's labour force participation and contributes to economic growth and social well-being in all countries, including the least developed countries. But because it is normally carried out in the private domestic sphere, because it carries the low value of a woman's unpaid household work — seen as part of women's nature and requiring no special skill — domestic work is not considered “productive, even when paid for and provided to others, and is excluded from labour and social protections in about 40 percent of countries worldwide [3].

Today, distinguished colleagues, domestic care work has acquired larger and transnational dimensions. Who are these women and why do they engage in domestic care work? Where do they come from? What are the impacts of this work on the women, their families, sites of origin and destination? What can we do to address their concerns?

Typically, domestic workers include rural women or low-skilled women from urban areas escaping poverty, insecurity and increasing work burdens in unregulated markets. Many are fleeing from conflict, seeking refuge from threatened environments and natural disasters, and struggling against gender-based violence and abuse. At times they are women with secondary or higher education who cannot obtain jobs commensurate with their qualifications at home. These women migrate as temporary labour migrants, as an individual and family survival strategy, from rural to prosperous urban areas or to richer countries overseas that have an unmet demand for household care-giving [4].

Currently, demand for care workers is less dependent on the economic cycle and more on longer-run demographic and social trends in countries of employment. Population aging in many middle income and developed countries is demanding more and more care providers. Women in these societies are often more active in paid work, especially higher income jobs, and this creates a labour demand for care work, which is filled by domestic workers [5].

There are other important factors that fuel the growth of the global care economy — the unequal division of household care responsibilities, inadequate or expensive state or private childcare and other facilities, and the reluctance of local workers to take on low-paid, low-skilled and low-status domestic and care work. For the middle class and rich, the recruitment of local or foreign domestic workers is an affordable solution. In other contexts employing one or more foreign domestic workers is a lifestyle and status issue [6].

The domestic workers' caregiving responsibilities back home are often taken over by other members of the family and/or by paid lower-income domestic workers, in both cases mostly women. Women thus become integrated into a gendered, occupationally segmented global care economy, and assume their place at the lower end of care chains involving women in and across countries of origin and destination.

The absence of legal and social protections in many countries — and failure to implement and monitor gender-sensitive labour and migration laws where they exist — makes care workers vulnerable to various forms of discrimination and abuse throughout the migration process. These include: greater lack of access to information; trafficking, exploitation and extortion by employment agents; non-payment of wages; confiscation of travel and identity documents; denial of rest periods, overtime, sick leave and holiday leave; sexual and emotional abuse; stigmatization by families and communities if they return with no savings and having suffered abuse; family problems because of long periods of separation; and lack of appropriate reintegration facilities. They may also find a continuing lack of jobs and a return to a cycle of poverty and social exclusion that prompts a new cycle of migration.

The flipside of this scenario is the resilience and determination of these women to find ways to survive, and even thrive. Migrant women are often the lifelines of their families and communities, participants in the development of countries of destination — by way of their skills, labour, consumption and taxes and countries of origin — by way of financial and social remittances.

But we cannot continue to expect women to do more with less. We cannot promote economic growth and equitable development without promoting the wellbeing and potential of care workers and other excluded groups. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for all of us — for international organizations, governments, civil society and the private sector.

Let me propose five ways to take up this challenge:

  1. Acknowledge that care work is critical to development. It must be brought from the margins to the visible core of the development and women's economic empowerment agenda.
  2. Recognize all care work, including that provided in homes as productive labour.
  3. Provide labour and social protections for care workers, by revising labour laws to include all care workers and introducing standard employment contracts for them. In this we can draw on the good practice of several countries among which are Jordan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, South Africa, India and others.
  4. Implement suitable monitoring and grievance redress mechanisms for care workers, including for those situated in private homes.
  5. Provide gender-sensitive protection and services for women migrant workers, including pre-departure training and information services, access to health insurance, education and other social services.

It is also important to facilitate the transfer of remittances from migrant workers and ensure that they can find suitable investment options for their return. Remittances of care workers can contribute most effectively to sustainable development if policies and programmes harness these and other resources to address the structural constraints and inequities that limit women's ability to contribute to their economies and societies

In closing, I want to say that UN Women will work closely with the ILO, other UN agencies, governments and all relevant stakeholders to support the implementation of labour and social protections for care workers, including domestic workers, in all countries.


  1. Care workers provide care for people in private homes or in public and private institutions, such as hospitals and nursing homes. Care workers also provide less direct person-care services, such as cooking, cleaning the house, washing the laundry and other housekeeping activities, which are necessary for the welfare and comfort of members of a household. They may be unpaid household members and non-household members or paid non-household members. The latter may be paid domestic workers and health care professionals. Care work in private homes and in public and private institutions is largely done by women and migrant workers.
  2. ILO LABORSTA database 2005, 2007, 2008, noted in ITUC's (International Trade Union Confederation) Decent Work, Decent Life for Domestic Workers: An Action Guide, 2011. Accessed via: /~/media/Headquarters/Media/Stories/en/ITUCdwdAnglaisWEBpdf.pdf
  3. ILO. Decent work for domestic workers, 99th Session, 2010.
  4. UN Women. Claim and Celebrate Women's Migrant Workers Human Rights through CEDAW, 2005; and Crossing Borders II, Gender, Migration and Development, 2008.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.