GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Irudaya Rajan
Title of Paper:
Migrant women at the discourse-policy nexus: Indian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia
Paper Proposal Text :
Women in South Asia are frequently excluded from the labour market, absent from state intervention and statutory coverage. Women’s labour market participation in the region is further constrained by a matrix of factors, including social and cultural norms, occupational segregation, educational attainment and unequal compensation. They are also more likely to engage in precarious work.Given the structural and social constraints to women’s employment in India, the Gulf represents an important avenue for these workers (Rajan and Joseph 2013). While accurate data on the quantum and nature of female labour flows into Saudi Arabia are unavailable, an estimated 1.5 - 2 million migrant domestic workers (MDWs) currently live and work in Saudi Arabia (Human Rights Watch 2008:2). Domestic service represents the leading occupation of South Asian women in the Gulf (Thimothy, 2013) accounting for 47.1 per cent of total female employment in the Kingdom (ILO 2010). Of this, non-Saudis are estimated at 99.9 per cent of the female domestic workforce (CDSI Manpower Survey 2013: Round One). This concentration is due, in part, to low female employment-to population ratio and the highly segmented labour market; stratified along gender, race and class hierarchies. Despite ongoing interventions at the origin and receiving states, domestic service within private households of Saudi Arabia remains among the world’s most undocumented, unregulated and invisible forms of employment. At the same time, these flows represent an important livelihood option for women that otherwise remain unemployed.
The paper presents preliminary observations from surveys of 56 Indian domestic workers conducted as part of a broader study of 1000 low and semi-skilled Indian migrants in Saudi Arabia by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs Research Unit on International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. The authors consider migrant women’s trajectories, agency, liminal legality and the structural and systemic frameworks that circumscribe their lives. The authors analyse the regulatory regimes at sending and receiving country as well as the legal and structural frameworks that circumscribe life for female expatriates in the Kingdom. Where data is available, the paper examines patterns of resistance and accommodation through which MDW’s negotiate their outcomes. Situated in the broader systemic structures that govern the labour market and their social lives, the development of MDWs is found to be facilitated and/or constrained by myriad factors including the Kafala system, Nitaqat labour policies, social networks and labour laws. Despite the tightening of migration and workforce nationalisation policies in the region, the demand for overseas domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is poised to increase (Zachariah, Rajan and Joseph, 2014). Accordingly, we pay attention to the state apparatus in India and policy climate in receiving nation of Saudi Arabia, and point towards the importance of responsible, responsive state support for MDWs.
Studies on South Asian women in the Gulf suggest that these migrant women are largely victims of the migration process. However, a considered evaluation shows them to be, to different degrees, active participants in society and the economy. The recent Kerala Migration Survey 2012 by the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram revealed significant gender differentials in remittance sending behaviour of men and women. Women emigrants on an average sent Rs. 114386 by way of remittances whereas men’s contribution averaged at Rs. 81828 (Zachariah and Rajan 2012). A pertinent observation from the 2012 UAE Survey conducted by the senior author at CDS was that although women migrants earn less in the UAE in comparison to men (income on average is INR 10979 for women while for men it is INR 12109) and the cost of migration is higher (INR 87,885 for women and men INR 81,701), women still send more remittance in absolute terms than their male counterparts (INR 5476 by women and INR 5197 by men). Migrant women workers play an important role as drivers of development both at home and at the destination and should not be obscured from analysis. Thus it is imperative to write women back into the story of mobility and development and ensure that both women and men are equally represented in overseas labour flows and policies (Rajan, 2013). In this context, the study contributes to an emerging corpus of studies on transnational women’s mobility and situates Indian MDWs in Saudi Arabia on the long road from distress to development.


CDSI Manpower Survey (2013) Round one. Gulf Labour Markets and Migration Database.

Rajan, S.I. and Jolin Joseph (2013) Adapting, Adjusting and Accommodating: Social Costs of Migration to Saudi Arabia. Chapter 9, p.139-153, S.IrudayaRajan. (ed.) 2013. India Migration Report 2013: Social Costs of Migration. New Delhi: Routledge.

Rajan, S.I (2013). Drivers of Development: The Impact of Indian Labour Migration to the GCC. Chapter 8, Pp.167-200 in Ali Rashid Al-Noaimi and Irena Omelaniuk (eds). Labour Mobility: An Enabler for Sustainable Development. The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Thimothy, R (2013) Mobility of Women Workers from South Asia to the Gulf: Stakeholders Responses. Chapter 18, Pp.296-309, S.IrudayaRajan. (ed.) 2013. India Migration Report 2013: Social Costs of Migration. New Delhi: Routledge.
Zachariah K.C. and S. Irudaya Rajan (2012) Kerala’s Gulf Connection, 1998-2011: Economic and Social Impact of Migration. Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan.
Zachariah, K.C, S.Irudaya Rajan and Jolin Joseph (2014). Kerala Emigration to Saudi Arabia: Prospects under the Nitaqat Law. Chapter 16, Pp.229-239 in S IrudayaRajan (ed). 2014. India Migration Report 2014: Disapora and Development. New Delhi: Routledge.