By Manjula Luthria
It happened again a few weeks ago, this time it was in Boston. A year ago it was in Frankfurt and a few years before that in Wellington. As I make the case for loosening restrictions on labor mobility to a room full of well-meaning development experts, I am asked repeatedly: How can I possibly celebrate the effects of international mobility and make the case for more of it when the mobility we observe right now is so far from fair? Do I have no concern for the plight of the poor young woman who looks after the children of a well-off couple in New York while her own children suffer her absence and consequent neglect at home? Do the horrible impacts on “those left behind” not point to a grave need to pause and take a second look before we start celebrating mobility? What about the poor workers who face exploitation at the hands of powerful employers, in the form of wages well below that of the native workforce and faced with poor conditions at work? Isn’t the development-friendly course – not to mention the morally responsible one-- to work on improving these conditions first before we unleash more poor and vulnerable into the non-ideal conditions?
In fact, in one capital city we even had a vote on it. The audience was asked to vote on whether they thought migration was a clear win-win for all, versus whether they thought it had benefits but also costs. No surprise, the majority of the audience voted for the latter. And this opened the door to conversations about some type of justifiable restrictions on movements since the costs were far from negligible. All in the name of saving the vulnerable - the migrants themselves, and the wronged innocents, the ones left behind.
As all of this transpires around me, I am compelled to switch hats. From a development professional making the development case, to a migrant from a developing country, then to working woman and finally to a working mother. And I start to wonder…..how different is this conversation on placing limits on migration different from one that must have occurred a generation before mine when women first sought employment outside the home?
Could these concerns mirror all the realities that described women’s participation in the labor force certainly a generation ago, but even today? In terms of unequal wages for similar work we’ve only just made it to 82c on the dollar, and from role placement in teams to promotions, we know unequal treatment is well documented. Working women also report more stress in their lives than their stay-at-home female counterparts. Those left behind suffer the absence of mum at home, and some evidence points to a higher incidence of obesity amongst kids of working mums. So whether viewed from the point of view of the women who seek employment or their family members – it’s not an unequivocal happy story. Yes, it has benefits and costs, like almost everything else.
But would we ever hold a vote on this issue of whether some restrictions to women’s employment is therefore justified on this basis? It’s hard to imagine this today, certainly not in the cities I’ve mentioned above. Yet we know that restrictions did exist a few decades ago – indeed, there were laws on the books that prohibited women from continuing to work once they got married and were based on the paternalistic notion that someone else knew better. And it’s true that the conditions at work were far from ideal, they were quite horrible by today’s standards in fact! Absent from the workplace were the all-female bathrooms, any notion of maternity leave, childcare facilities, home based work, family leave, or redress mechanisms to report misdemeanors. How could anyone keep asking for more access for women into the labor force when the conditions facing them at the workplace were so deplorable? Shouldn’t we just put the brakes on it until we’ve weighed up the costs and benefits and come up with a clearer picture of whether this is truly a win-win?
Today, you’d be embarrassed to be in a room full of people who phrased a question like this.
How long before we are equally embarrassed to discuss this in the context of migrants who seek labor market access, especially those who are willing to do jobs that natives won’t? How long before we stop talking of this false cost-benefit analysis and move on to talking about the barriers to mobility?. How long before we can make the case for more access and agency for migrants, knowing that the supporting policies and institutions surely still need to be built? Isn’t that the task where we ought to put our financial and political capital in the development community?