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MIGRATION-BOLIVIA: Women’s Remittances Come at High Cost

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, May 25 2009 (IPS) - The income earned by Bolivian women migrants in Spain, which enables them to support the families they left behind and build a nest egg, comes at a high price: low wages, long hours, no benefits and few or no days off.

Bolivian migrant in the airport in El Alto, next to La Paz.  Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

Bolivian migrant in the airport in El Alto, next to La Paz. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

“This experience is really hard,” Amparo Valda, a Bolivian woman who has been working as a caretaker for the elderly in Madrid since January 2006, told IPS. “You suffer a lot; for me it’s like being in prison, but I’m doing it to be able to buy a house in Bolivia.”

Spain is the fourth largest destination country for Bolivian migrants, after Argentina, the United States and Brazil. But it accounts for the largest amount of remittances sent home by workers abroad.

Annual money transfers from female Bolivian migrants working in Spain are equivalent to just under six percent of GDP, according to a study by, a Madrid-based research institute focusing on remittances.

That proportion is much higher than the percentage of GDP represented by remittances sent home from women migrants to Ecuador (2.13 percent) and the Dominican Republic (1.13 percent), says the June 2008 study.

Bolivian women send home an average of 625 dollars a month, compared to the average money transfers for all Latin American migrants in Spain, which amount to 327 dollars a month.

The researchers also found that female migrants account for 60 percent of all remittances sent home from Spain, even though there are fewer women migrants in that country than men. The study found that women send home 40 percent of their wages, compared to just 14 percent for men.

But in the case of Bolivia, women make up 56 percent of the roughly 600,000 migrants who left the country in search of opportunities between 2003 and 2007, Bruno Rojas, a researcher at the Centre for Research on Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA) in Bolivia, told IPS.

A 2007 study by Bolivia’s ombudsman’s office found that one-fifth (19.4 percent) of all people born in Bolivia live outside of the country, Betty Pinto, the office’s national head of human rights affairs for migrants, told IPS.

Bolivia, a country of 10.2 million people, has an economically active population of 6.6 million, comprised of 55 percent men and 45 percent women.

Valda is an example of the two million Bolivians seeking better opportunities abroad. She quit her administrative job at a public office here, where she earned the equivalent of 327 dollars a month, to emigrate to Spain, where according to CEDLA most Bolivians earn between 680 and 817 dollars a month, compared to 1,360 to 1,640 dollars a month in 2006 – a plunge caused by the global financial crisis.

Most Bolivian workers in Spain have no social protections or benefits and work more than eight hours a day, said Rojas.

“My goal, like any other immigrant, is to return to my country as soon as possible,” Valda told IPS from Madrid. She forms part of the army of migrant workers who forego any sort of rest and relaxation, or non-essential expenses like eating out or buying nice clothes, in order to save up and send money back home.

She takes care of her elderly charges or is on call around the clock, and has no breaks or days off. The holidays that most Spanish workers have off tend to bring especially heavy work, she said.

Pinto’s office has received reports of women facing difficult labour conditions in Spain, which prompted it to form a strategic alliance with to carry out specific studies on the situation faced by Bolivian migrants in Madrid, in order to better advocate for their rights.

The impact of remittances

The report, which outlines economic aspects of the Bolivian diaspora, clearly shows this country’s heavy dependency on remittances from women migrants in Spain.

The study says Bolivia is a “unique and extremely outstanding case of macroeconomic dependence on transfers from women, whose extraordinary significance requires a detailed analysis of their effects.”

Bolivia’s Central Bank reported a current account surplus of 1.6 billion dollars in the first eight months of 2008 – 535 million dollars more than in the same period in 2007.

“This increase was principally the result of an increase in exports and migrant remittances,” the Bank reported.

Total remittances for 2008 were estimated by the Central Bank at nearly 1.09 billion dollars, equivalent to eight percent of GDP and higher than the 1.02 billion dollars sent home in 2007, despite the global economic crisis that broke out last year.

The Central Bank reported that 40 percent of remittances came from Spain, 22 percent from the United States and 17 percent from Argentina – accounting for 79 percent of all money transfers.

But and financial institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) say official remittance figures underestimate the magnitude of transfers by 20 to 30 percent.

The Central Bank reported that Bolivia’s exports totalled six billion dollars in 2008. But while remittances were officially only one-sixth of that amount, they are actually the country’s second largest source of foreign exchange, only surpassed by natural gas, which brought in 3.13 billion dollars last year.

Crisis accentuates feminisation of migration

A study of the labour market in Spain carried out by Rojas shows that women migrants have an easier time finding work, because of the lower skill levels that are required in jobs that typically go to women migrants, and the lower wages they are paid.

Bolivian women in Spain work mainly as caretakers for the elderly or children, or as domestics – jobs that do not require special training or skills; “demand that offers opportunities for women, not men,” Rojas explained.

Since 2008, male migrants have been hit hard by massive dismissals in Spain caused by the crisis, while women have generally held on to their jobs.

As a result, men are returning in greater numbers from that country, expelled by the global economic crisis, said Rojas.

Valda said she had seen that her countrywomen have generally kept their jobs.

But it is also true, she said, that “women who do not have documents to work legally can only get work in caretaking, cleaning or similar jobs,” which are almost always far below their level of training and education.

Pinto reported that as a result of the reports of poor working conditions of Bolivians in Spain, the ombudsman’s office had pressed successfully for the signing of inter-institutional agreements with non-governmental entities in Spain, to offer advice and assistance on legal and labour issues and on gender violence in Madrid.

The disproportionate number of Bolivian women going abroad takes on even greater magnitude in the central department (province) of Cochabamba, which is the largest source of migrants in the country. In Cochabamba, 67 percent of those who leave are women, according to the ombudsman’s office.

There is also a country that is a case study in feminisation of immigration: Italy, where 70 percent of Bolivian workers are women, said Pinto.

One problem in the Bolivian “exodus,” said Rojas, is the “improvisation” that characterises the phenomenon. A survey carried out by CEDLA in 2006 showed that most of those who planned to emigrate decided to do so before they actually had a job contract lined up abroad.

“They preferred to go and test their luck, perhaps drawn by reports from acquaintances and relatives that it was easy to find work,” he said.

The researcher mentioned an even more disturbing effect of migration: when they go abroad, women often leave behind children, in the care of their fathers or other family members.

The result, he said “is a very serious breakdown of the family.”

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