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MIDEAST: Women Migrant Workers With HIV Get Raw Deal

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 12 2009 (IPS) - Thousands of Asian women flock to the affluent sheikhdoms of the Middle East annually, seeking jobs as domestic workers. For many this quest for a livelihood comes to a humiliating end when they test positive for HIV.

‘’The women learn about their HIV status when they go and get tested before their job contract is renewed,’’ says Malu Marin, director of the Manila-based Action for Health Initiative, or ‘Achieve’, a member of a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO) network dealing with migration.

‘’This test is mandatory and done every two years, but without any counselling services available,” she added.

‘’Once they are identified as having HIV, the employer is informed, and the women are placed in a holding centre in a hospital until their departure is processed,’’ Marin said during a telephone interview from the Philippines capital. ‘’These holding centres are to restrict the movement of these vulnerable women.’’

‘’They are not allowed to go out and they are deported with no chance of packing their belongings or even getting salaries due to them,’’ she revealed. ‘’They can never go back to work in those countries.’’

The scale of the problem faced by these women from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines was singled out in a report released this week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

‘’(The women) often leave for overseas work under unsafe conditions, live in very difficult circumstances, and are often targets of sexual exploitation and violence before they depart, during their transit and stay in host countries and on return to their countries of origin,’’ states the report, ‘HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: from Asia to the Arab States’.

‘’With little or no access to health services and social protections, these factors combine to make Asian women migrant workers highly vulnerable to HIV,’’ it adds.

‘’Migrant women often have limited or no access to justice and redress mechanisms, especially in Gulf countries,’’ the report reveals, referring to places like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that were among those surveyed for the report.

‘’If they are found HIV positive, they face deportation and back in their countries of origin they experience discrimination and social isolation in addition to the difficulty of finding alternative livelihoods,” the report said.

‘’Cases of HIV among domestic workers have been recorded in a number of migrant-sending countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka,’’ the report adds. ‘’As it is often the case in countries with low HIV prevalence, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, migrant workers represent a large percentage of those identified as living with HIV.’’

In fact, the U.N. report was prompted by concerns expressed by Pakistan during the annual assembly of the World Health Organsation’s (WHO) member states in Geneva in 2007. The South Asian nation had been worried at the increasing number of its citizens labouring as migrant workers in the Arab region being forced back after having been infected by the virus.

‘’During that assembly, Pakistan convened a meeting with other Asian countries to discuss the issue of migrant workers being deported from the Arab region because of HIV,’’ Marta Vallejo, an editor of the UNDP-UNAIDS report, told IPS. ‘’It is a sensitive issue in the Arab states.’’

Concerns by the Asian countries that send the female migrant workers to the Middle East is understandable due to the substantial amounts of foreign exchange these women plough back to their home countries. ‘’Women migrants from the region generate substantial economic benefits to their countries of origin and their host countries,’’ states the report.

Filipinos working in Arab countries sent back 2.17 billion US dollars in 2007 according to the report. ‘’Current remittances by migrant workers from Sri Lanka amount to three billion US dollars,’’ it added.

As for impoverished Bangladesh, remittances sent home by its workers resident in the UAE alone reached 804.8 million dollars in the last fiscal year which ended in July, according to the Bangladesh Bank. That figure represents 7.4 percent of all remittances sent to Bangladesh in the last fiscal, which totalled almost six billion dollars.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are an estimated 9.5 million foreign workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, of which 7.5 million are from Asia. The GCC includes Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

‘’The flow from Indonesia is largely female; they are concentrated in Saudi Arabia,’’ says Manolo Abella, chief technical adviser at the ILO’s Asia-Pacific office. ‘’Migrant workers from Sri Lanka are 75 percent women, and from the Philippines, 85 percent are women.’’

What has made these female migrant workers so vulnerable in the Middle East is that ‘’domestic work is not covered by labour laws,’’ Abella said in an interview. ‘’That means if you have complaints about non-payment of salaries or a violation of your labour rights you have no access to a formal procedure.’’

And even if there is some protection offered in the employment contract, female domestic workers have little access to mechanisms that protect their rights, since ‘’they are confined in a home,’’ adds Abella. ‘’The domestic workers are completely beholden to their employees.’’

‘’It is very very tough to actually to take the active role of a complainant,’’ says Abella. ‘’There is very little the domestic workers can do when abused.’’

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