Consequences of Exploitation

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The primary consequences of exploitation fall on the individual domestic worker – abuse, lower wages, reduced autonomy. Beyond the individual, looking at the patterns of domestic worker travel and exploitation, our findings suggest revisions to the stereotype . That stereotype – common among foreigners and among the migrants themselves – is of a woman choosing to work overseas for some period of time in order to save money, then transferring herself back home with a cushion of wealth.


In fact, it appears that most people are spending several of their prime years contributing cheap labour to a foreign economy and bolstering consumption in their country of origin, but without supporting their household’s savings or investment. Relatively few participants in our research were planning to use remittances to save for future investments, such as business investments or buying a house. Even fewer planned to make productive use of the remittance by becoming entrepreneurs. For remittances, the main purposes are helping the family and paying for school fees, but the main stated motivation for migration is to save money for the future. It is apparent that, for most people, money sent home is not invested, but spent by the family, and that any part of the salary that might go towards future needs or investments has to be saved by the remaining salary of the migrant worker. Put bluntly, remittances are not savings. In other words, this is not temporary migration to save for one’s family – it is recurring participation in an overseas labor market to maintain a subsistence income.

“The money I earn fails to cover my loan in Singapore.”

26-year old migrant from West Java, Indonesia

“If our salary gets deducted every time we transfer employers, it is as though we are sold.”

33-year old migrant from Lampung, Indonesia

But saving is difficult for the migrant worker. For the first few months of a migrant worker’s contract, she receives little to no salary, because she has to pay back her migration loan. Once the salary increases, saving is still challenging because of other types of costs, including personal expenses, loans for a new contract, medical costs, and penalties charged by employers.


This undoubtedly contributes to the long periods abroad that many migrant workers experience. Prospective migrants usually plan to return home after the first two-year contract has finished. Among prospective migrants, 60% said that they would return home after their visa expires or their contract ends. In practice, the low incomes that they make do not allow them to save a meaningful amount of money for the future. However, since their remittances are equal to or more than they can expect to earn back home, their families become dependent on them staying abroad.


In the Philippines, the average time of working abroad was 4.5 years, and 32% worked more than five years abroad. In Indonesia, the average time of working abroad was four years, and 22% worked more than five years abroad.


Our findings also suggest another way to look at the economics of this transnational labor market. Most women go into debt in order to migrate. They then pay back the recruitment agency via months of salary deductions. We estimate that the average migrant spends four months of a two-year contract paying back the debt on that contract. In other words, at least 17% of their time abroad is spent paying the recruitment agency and is in that sense unpaid labour.