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Love through letters, cash and cassettes

July 21, 2012


When a 35-year-old in Philippines gets accepted for a job in the Middle East, It is always good news, except if she has a child.

Most employment contracts for positions like nurses, domestic workers, cleaners and laborers offer a rewarding package when compared to the salaries back home but this comes with a hefty price tag; the workers often have to leave their families behind. One 1984 survey conducted in Sri Lanka found that over three-quarters of the females departing for foreign employment were married. From an average family size of 5.7 persons, 90 per cent of the women left children behind, many of them under five years old.

Always good news, except when it’s not:

An influx of foreign workers in the Middle East since the discovery of oil has been on the rise and the overwhelming majority of these workers come from developing countries. When hiring for roles like nursing, housekeeping, even secretarial staff, companies prefer female workers. For most of these positions, however, there is no family visa, which means that the children if any are often left with grandparents or relatives while the mothers travel abroad for work.

Work related migration is seen as a way to alleviate the family poverty and often to guarantee a better future for the children. Although, these earnings do enhance the economic and social status of the families, the psychosocial costs are huge and could violate child’s right to development, survival and education. As Amy Waldman in her NYT article describes:

“The exodus has reconfigured family life. Women dispense maternal love through letters, cash and cassettes sent home. Divorce, children leaving school, husbands turning to alcohol, and child sexual abuse has become routine by-products of the women’s absence. There are less tangible tolls as well. "That time will never come back," Roshan Prageeth Kumarasinghe, an 18-year-old neighbor of Lalitha's, said, choking back tears, of his mother's decade-long absence.”

The children left behind

According to the study titled LEFT BEHIND, LEFT OUT: The Impact on Children and Families of  Mothers Migrating for Work Abroad, nearly half of the children were less than six years of age at the time of the mother’s departure and almost 33 per cent were less than three years  of age. Child psychologists agree that the first five years of a child's life form the foundation that determines future health, happiness, growth, development and learning achievement at school, in the family and community, and in life in general. The long term absence of a mother in these formative years can have disastrous effects on the child’s wellbeing.

Some companies in Middle East especially in the healthcare and hospitality industry do not allow their workers to get pregnant during the tenure of the contract. This leads to women often going for botched abortions for fear of losing their job. Even women who are not contractually bound but are on a singles’ visa often terminate their pregnancies because they cannot afford to raise a child without health insurance, child care and education allowance, which they are not entitled to unless they have a family visa.

What can be done?

Part of the dilemma about working as a lower rank foreign worker in the region is that you can never assume an equal footing when it comes to contractual obligations. There are a lot of reforms needed at the policy level to address the issue of visas and family status for these positions but like all things government, that may take years.

Companies in the region are beginning to realise the long term effects of such visa restrictions and have started taking remedial steps. A few companies have started the practice of recruiting both husband and wife. It is a practical solution for bigger companies and by offering employment to both parents, they not only ensure that the family remains intact but also save money by increased productivity and lower turnover rate. Onsite crèches and childcare allowance for all married employees regardless of visa status is also a practice gaining traction.

One practical solution that every company who hires foreign labour can implement is to guarantee yearly time-off and air ticket to the home country. Although, this is part of the standardised contract for all foreign workers, only a few actually get to enjoy this month-long, paid trip back home. By ensuring that the parents spend at the very least one full month with their children will mean that the parent is involved in the upbringing of the child and the child does not grow up in complete isolation.

While migration is seen by workers as a way to give their children a shot at a better life, the immigration rules and company policies can make it hard on the children. The demand for foreign workers in the region is only going to go up in the coming years and host governments and businesses need to take steps that ensure not just prosperous but also a joyful future for the children of these workers.


Bushra Azhar is a CSR and Sustainability Consultant based in the Middle East. She is the founder of Good Business Sense. You can contact her through her email


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.