At the global level, two features distinguish the current pattern of women’s labour migration. First, an overwhelming majority of international women migrant workers belong to either the low-skilled or semi-skilled category. Second, the increased intensity of population movements has played a major role in shaping the debates over ensuring justice and dignity to workers, both at the national and international levels.
Large-scale migration of women workers from South Asia has well-documented historical roots in the colonial period. Indentured migration to the plantation colonies in the nineteenth century, for instance, was governed by the strict requirement stipulated by the colonial government of a minimum of 40 women per 100 men. Most women who migrated were single, with only a minority travelling with their families. This significantly affected the character of household and community formation in the destination countries as well as the way migration was viewed in the places of origin. The exploitation of single women in the plantations triggered massive nationalist agitation against indentured migration and eventually led to its abolition in 1916. Regulation of women’s migration was thus crucial both at the inception and end of migration systems of the nineteenth century (Northrup 1995, Tinker 1974).
The pattern of women’s migration from South Asia underwent a change starting in the 1970s when migration and emigration of low- and semi-skilled workers from the subregion to Western Asia accelerated (Khadria 2009). The increase of oil prices in the 1970s led to a vast demand for labourers in Western Asia, including domestic workers, and this demand has continued to increase.