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Women and Globalization

Immigration and Refugee Board - ReceptionGlobalization & Migration

Migration is not a new thing. People have always left their homes in search of better economic opportunities, both within and outside of their own homeland. But economic globalization has put a new spin on global migration, causing global uprootedness and human displacement on an unprecedented scale. Because economic globalization exacerbates the inequalities between nations, migration for many becomes not a choice, but an economic necessity.

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Migrant workers
Many migrants arrive in the form of migrant workers who are simply looking for a job. Estimates say that nearly 1 out of 6 people in this world, more than one billion people, are crossing national borders as migrant workers. Of these 1 billion, 72% are women.1 The work migrant workers do is usually poorly paid, low-status work that citizens are happy to pass on as an 'opportunity' to migrant workers escaping poverty. Two of the most common jobs found are domestic and farm labour. Remittances of migrant labourers – sending home money to help support family – contribute to a large part of many countries GDPs.

Domestic labour
Women and girls from all over the world are recruited to be domestic workers. In Africa and Asia girls from rural areas are often expected to move to urban areas and become domestic workers in order to help support their families financially. In North America and Europe, women from South America and Asia work in the homes of the rich sending money back home to their families abroad. Common experiences of domestic workers include low wages, long working hours, no time off, loneliness, verbal abuse, being forced to wear uniforms and act in roles of servitude, heavy work demands, homesickness, the denial of a family life of one's own, racism, and vulnerability to sexual abuse and HIV.2 Many domestic workers leave children and families behind choosing to care for others' children in order to feed their own. Filipina women make up the majority of domestic workers in Canada and around the world. GABRIELA-Philippines estimates that between 6 and 8 million Filipina women are living abroad.3 As journalist Christa Wichterich comments, "So long as women earn more from housecleaning and childminding overseas than from teaching in their homeland, they will tend to set off and leave their own country and children behind."4 It is estimated that 60 million women from poorer countries are recruited into carework for employment in wealthier nations every year.5

Vegetables at grocery storeFarm labour
Farm workers make up another large percentage of migrant workers. Between 18,000 – 20,000 migrant workers come to Canada from the Caribbean and Mexico each year to pick fruits and vegetables, working up to 15 hours per day.6Migrant farm workers face hard work for low pay and are subject to health and environmental hazards such as farm accidents, chemical poisoning. All these risks are present because migrant workers are not covered by labour and safety laws. Migrant workers in Manitoba face the least protection of any other province in Canada from provincial standards.7Because they are migrants, they face the additional challenges of a foreign culture and language, and often experience increased levels of depression, loneliness, suicide, alcoholism, and the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Living conditions are often poor. While many migrant farm workers are men, women also perform much agricultural labour. Women who stay at home while their partners go abroad are also affected. Temporary migrant workers are gone for months at a time, creating social upheaval for families left behind and forcing women to assume all day-to-day responsibilities for raising children. Sometimes migrant farm workers take their families with them. This creates other forms of upheaval as women and children are moved from place to place and schooling and other health and social opportunities are disrupted as they follow the work.

The dark side
Globalization places a special emphasis on borders between countries, specifically on opening them up. Economic globalization encourages free trade agreements between countries, multinational corporations, and the free flow of goods across the world. However, the focus on open borders does not appear to apply to people. As inequalities between rich and poor countries increase, borders are becoming more and more closed to people. Because of these tight border controls and a growing global fear of those seeking refuge, migration is risky business. Stories abound of people crossing highways and deserts, mountains and seas, hiding in trucks and boats or clinging to lifeboats adrift in the ocean. Some never arrive and are found tied to boats, dead in cargo containers of airplanes, or shot dead in the Mexico desert in flight to the United States.8 People smugglers cash in on tough immigration laws, promising asylum seekers safe passage for a fee. Many of these smugglers are part of a growing ring of sex-traffickers.

Huge numbers of poverty-stricken girls and women accept the promise of a good job or a kind husband but find they have been tricked into prostitution. Some girls are even sold to smugglers by poverty-stricken families who see them as their only hope for an escape from poverty. GABRIELA Philippines reports that a Filipina woman sells for between $3000 and $5000 in the international sex trade. Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who herself escaped the sex trade after being sold at the age of twelve recounts violent, vivid stories of women and girls as young as four who are raped for profit in her book The Road of Lost Innocence. She estimates that 2.4 million young women and children will be forced into prostitution in 2011.9Most trafficked women come from Asia, but Eastern European women have also been prone to be trafficked into prostitution as they escape poverty created after the erosion of the social safety net in their home countries. In Canada, foreign trafficking for prostitution is estimated to be worth $400 million annually.10

Migrants also face racism and marginalization, despite the fact that many of the citizens of countries where they arrive are also immigrants or the children of immigrants. Policy makers who themselves benefited from compassionate immigration and refugee policy are turning people away in the name of security.11 Migrants are often seen as free-loaders or suspected of being criminals. Often their stories are not believed. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Middle Eastern-looking asylum seekers are subject to racial profiling and suspected of being threats to security. Migrants without proper paperwork are called 'illegal' and many find themselves in detention centres for months or even years at a time, imprisoned for the simple crime of searching for something better. Some migrants owe a debt to their smuggler, forcing them to work in situations of indentured labour. Women and girls trafficked into prostitution are often locked into rooms in cities where they know no one nor the language spoken and forced to turn tricks in exchange for food. Their passports are taken away and they have little means for escape.

Because of their precarious status, many are hesitant to speak out about abuses they suffer. Fear of deportation looms large; for many being sent home means facing death threats in their home country. Many migrants never wanted to leave home in the first place. The less than warm welcome they receive in the countries where they arrive is a cold reminder of all they have lost and all they have risked in getting to a place where they hoped to feel safe.

Citizenship & Immigration Canada ElevatorWho benefits from migration?
In Canada, foreign domestic workers who stay two years are 'allowed' to apply for citizenship..12 Though Canada's immigration policies have been more compassionate than those of most other rich countries, there is much discrimination in our treatment of migrants. Though migrant farm workers in Canada contribute much to the Canadian economy, their monetary reimbursement is minimal. Alongside already low wages, for decades migrant workers have paid into Employment Insurance but have been unable to claim any benefits. In 2004 EI policy was changed to allow migrant workers to claim parental benefits through EI. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canadian Office reports that they assisted 4,000 people in accessing the new benefits in the first three years of the changes. Workers sought support in filing these claims despite threats and intimidation from employers and liaison officers stating that they would not be allowed back to Canada if they filed for EI benefits.13 And, Canada's immigration policies - however open or closed - tend to ignore the part that Canadian economic policy plays in upholding systems of global inequality and therefore encouraging global uprootedness.

Many people make the link between migration and international debt. Migrant workers have become a top export for many countries saddled in debts to the first world. GABRIELA Network reports that the Philippines top export has become, "live human bodies, outstripping electronics, garments, agricultural products and other traditional exports." Each year, some 2 million overseas contract workers send home $7 billion to the Philippines.14 Much of the money that these workers bring into the Philippine economy finds its way back to rich countries in the form of debt repayment. If we are going to give people a reason to stay home, the debt will need to be cancelled (For more on global debt visit our Intro to Globalization.) At the same time, economic globalization will need to be recreated into a system for spreading wealth out rather than creating another means by which the rich can preserve their already disproportionate share of it.

Migrants are looking for basic human rights: safety, a home, and the ability to provide for themselves and their families - all rights guaranteed to them under international human rights laws. There are ethical and moral reasons for countries to open their borders. But there are also economic reasons for encouraging immigration. Immigrants tend to contribute more in taxes than they receive in social services. As well, immigrant labour is needed to sustain the workforce in rich countries with aging populations and to protect industries that rely on immigrant labour.15 Ironically, the United States, despite their tight border controls, depends heavily on illegal farm workers to do work such as fruit and vegetable picking.

Migration and the UN
The UN has adopted several conventions to protect migrant workers including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Although in effect, Canada, the United States and many other developing countries who employ migrant workers have not yet signed - despite appeals from labour, church, and human rights organizations. There is also a UN protocol dealing with the rights of trafficked women and children under the International Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. Canada has signed on to this convention as well as the optional Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. This convention entered into force into 2003.

To learn more
For more information on migrant workers listen to Migrant Matters Radio. See the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Fact Sheet on The Rights of Migrant Workers. To learn more about the No one is illegal movement working towards open borders, read the New Internationalist magazine's December 2002 issue on 'The Case for Open Borders.' Also, and be sure to visit our Links page.


1 Enaskhi Dua. "Beyond Diversity: Exploring Ways in which the Discourse of Race has Shaped the Institution of the Nuclear Family" in Enashki Dua and Angela Robertson. Eds. Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Feminist Thought. Toronto: Women's Press, 1999. pp 237-260. Quoted in Helene Moussa "Global Surge in Forced Migration Linked to Colonial Past".
2 Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis. Not One of the Family: Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
3 GABRIELA Philippines. For more information see http://members.tripod.com/~gabriela_p/
4 Christa Wichterich. The Globalized Woman: Reports from a Future of Inequality. New York: Zed Books, 2000.
5Globalization and Feminist Activism by Mary E. Hawkesworth. USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2006. p 2
6 The UFCW Canada Report on the Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada 2006-2007, United Food and Commercial Workers Union – Canada. p 5
7 same as above
8 See "The Case for Open Borders." New Internationalist. October 2002.
9 Interview with Cambodian activist Somaly Mam, New Internationalist, March 2010
10 "Inside the Sex Trade." Maclean's. December 3, 2001.
11 http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/canada/Now-about-those-ships-Mr-Toews-105593983.html
12 Tanya Shecter. Race, Class, Women and The State: The Case of Domestic Labour. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998. See also Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis. Not One of the Family: Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
13 The UFCW Canada Report on the Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada 2006-2007, United Food and Commercial Workers Union – Canada. p 9
14 GABRIELA Network. For more information see www.gabnet.org
15 For more information see Teresa Hayter. "The New Common Sense." New Internationalist. October 2002.


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