How has the pre-existing gender division of labor and gendered state policies affected Saudi Arabia’s women workers in their demand for equal opportunities and fair treatment? What are some of the factors involved in disempowering migrant workers in host countries and what happens when these workers start asking for their rights?
Given the global economic restructuring and the shifting international division of labor, regions like the Middle East have become salient destination sites for many sub-Saharan African and South East Asian migrant workers. While past scholarship has focused on men-dominated migration patterns, current scholarship reports the increasing presence of women among migrant workers, particularly in the Gulf region (Martin Baldwin). In “Domestic Workers: Little Protection for the Underpaid,” Gloria Chammartin maintains that the number of migrant women have come to equal or outnumber men in recent years. Female migrant workers now constitute larger percentages of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. (470) For instance, data shows that more than 90 percent of Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates consisted of women workers in 1997-1998. In 2001, between 85 and 94 percent of Sri Lankan workers in Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon were women. The increase in international labor demand across this region is mostly attributed to the oil boom of the 1970s.
The oil boom of the 1970s created a demand for both skilled and unskilled labor in the Gulf region. In its early stages, demands for the labor construction sector were met mostly by male workers. (Munira Ismail) Later, as construction projects culminated and living standards rose, opportunities for employment in the service sector became available and opened the doors for female labor migration. (229) Today, domestic workers primarily emigrate from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines, choosing to migrate for a number of economic, social or political reasons. Currently, Saudi Arabia is the largest recipient of migrant domestic labor, with the UAE close behind with over seventy-five percent of its population classified as migrant workers. As the ‘feminization’ of labor increases, risks of trafficking and abuse arise as many women migrants end up in the care industry, working as housemaids. For the purpose of this research, I will focus on migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and identify key factors that restrict and limit their empowerment: gendered ideologies and states policies. I outline the nature of the domestic service in Riyadh and attempt to apply Maher and Staab’s discussion on Peruvian migration to Chile, and Chow’s article on empowerment to the Middle East context. Based on these accounts, I argue that the rise in labor migration caused by globalization has allowed states like Saudi Arabia to further repress basic workers rights.