Guest post by Angela Contreras, public legal education practitioner, criminologist, and PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Follow Angela on Twitter @myverapax.

Review of Women Migrant Workers: Ethical, Political and Legal Problems edited by Zahra Meghani (Routledge, 2016)

Women Migrant Workers brings together an international selection of researchers who advance richly nuanced arguments as to why and how women migrant workers, with or without legal immigration status, matter as much as migrant workers more generally. The analyses offered in this book are multidisciplinary and international and are informed by data and case studies that document and explore the systemic and structural mistreatment women migrant workers from the global south experience in wealthy liberal democracies where they are employed. The purpose of this book is two-fold: (a) to make the case for the fair treatment of women migrant workers employed in the so-called ‘low-skilled,’ low-waged occupations of care workers, domestic workers, home health workers, and farm workers; and (b) to propose creative but realistic solutions to the unfair treatment of these women migrant workers. The contributions follow the critique laid out by Zahra Meghani (the editor and author of chapters one and three), which is ‘the failure of liberal democracies to treat international migrant workers―especially those who are on the lower tiers of the hierarchy of professions―as the moral equals of their citizens deserves attention because it violates the key ethical principle that justifies the existence of the liberal democratic states’ (p. 2).

An interesting way to look at the relevancy of Women Migrant Workers is to explore it as a collection of arguments to open borders and to cease the unethical treatment of ‘low-skilled,’ low-waged women migrant workers and undocumented workers from the global south. One good example of the critique advanced by the book is the gender-based analysis offered by Graham Finlay and JoAnne M. Mancini in chapter two. In their examination of immigration policies and legislation in the Republic of Ireland, the authors draw on Amartya Sen’s conception of human rights and capabilities. For Finlay and Mancini, Sen’s theory has a strong affinity to the implementation of ‘special measures’ contained in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)  to effect changes in the constitution and in the attitudes of state and non-state actors regarding the status of women migrant workers and, in general, all women living and working in Ireland. They argue that ‘a substantive moral theory of equality can be developed that tracks moral institutions about what equality means in a world where different people have different abilities to achieve valuable states or actions’ (p. 37). Despite the recent severe recession and fiscal crisis affecting Ireland, Finlay and Mancini conclude that a just response to the movement of people in and out of the country’s borders is both possible and feasible. 

The influence of the works by Arlie Russell Hoschild is tangible throughout the book. For example, in chapter five, feminist economist Amaia Perez Orozco builds on Hoschild’s concept of ‘global care chains’ and on Saskia Sassen’s term ‘feminization of migration,’ linking these perspectives to a broader notion of care and an analysis of the care crisis produced by capitalist economies. For Perez Orozco, global care chains refers to the transnational networks that are formed for the purpose of maintaining daily life (p. 102). The term offers a strategic location from which questions can be asked about the unfair care systems that serve as the root of unsustainable development models (p.122). Her research in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Spain reveals socio-economic flaws in the (hetero) patriarchal, capitalist way of organizing the economy and of using care as a tool at the service of the expansion of markets and the monetization of goods and services. ‘Global care chains,’ Perez Orozco writes, ‘do not lead to societal responsibility for care. Instead, care is reprivatized because it remains the responsibility of households, and it continues to be private because it is increasingly commodified’ (p. 110).

Hoschild’s concept of global care chains is further expanded in chapter nine by Stuart Rosewarne. His analysis problematizes some of the transnational programs and policies developed by labour exporting nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia, which claim to facilitate the transnational flow of care labour and remittances when in fact they capitalize on the exportation of migrant labor. The research and reforms suggested by these and other contributors concur with Bridget Anderson’s arguments regarding the need for gendered immigration policy and the research that informs it to move ‘beyond assumptions about women’s vulnerability towards a far more complex, textured understanding of “migrants” as social and embodied.’ Rosewarne pinpoints interventions that tend to reproduce the shortcomings of certain feminist analysis of care and domestic work as emotional labour (p. 206). ‘As the primary rationale driving individuals to seek offshore employment is to enhance their families; and their own material well-being,’ he posits, ‘how they can maximize the return of their work efforts is an important consideration’ in efforts aimed at reducing the magnitude of claims made on workers’ earnings by state and non-state actors (p. 215).

In chapter six, Sarah van Walsum expands on Anne Stewart’s gendered legal analysis of migration and supplements it with anthropological perspectives to research the transnational social security arrangements migrant domestic workers have developed on their own to take care of their own wellbeing and to meet financial and care commitments to their family dependents. Two examples of transnational social security arrangements are the coordinated investment projects that ensure some financial security for Filipino migrant workers when they return to their home country and the establishment of collective insurance programs to provide family members of Ghanaian migrant workers with the necessary funds to access health care. ‘The initiatives developed by the migrant workers in my study,’ van Walsum notes, should not be undermined by policy makers and others ‘struggling to come to terms with the uncertainties and inequities of the current global economy’; instead, ‘they would do well in building on such alternative strategies’ (p. 149).

Overall, Women Migrant Workers puts forward a compelling case for the immediate reform of immigration and employment laws and policies in receiving nations so that women migrant workers from the global south employed in so-called low-skilled, low-waged occupations or undocumented workers are not subject to discrimination and marginalization. It also effectively argues for the institutionalization of a transnational social security system that would be tailored to meet the particular needs of the diverse communities of migrant workers and their dependent family members. The book  convincingly highlights the flaws in the neoliberal development paradigm and its model of social security, which makes arguments against open borders and the differential treatment of migrant workers from the global south ethically unjustifiable. This collection should be read by any researcher, human rights practitioner, and policy analyst interested in accounting for gender, class, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the reforms to immigration and labour laws and policies.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Contreras, A. (2016) Book Review: Women Migrant Workers: Ethical, Political and Legal Problems. Available at: (Accessed [date]).