1.5.2009 | Von:
Eleonore Kofman
Parvati Raghuram

The labour market

Women migrants now constitute almost half (49.6% in 2005) of all international migrants. [1] This proportion has gone up from 46.6% in 1960. Although the percentage difference is small, the increase in female labour migration, i.e. of women moving in search of jobs, has caught the imagination of academics, the media and international and national policy makers across the globe.

Skilled Female Labour MigrationSkilled Female Labour Migration
However, much of this attention has focused on migrant women who enter the lesser skilled sectors of the labour market, especially in work that is dangerous, dirty and low-paid. Academic research on, and media stories of, migrant women's employment usually focuses on sex work or domestic work. But this focus ignores the many other sectors of the labour market where women are also present, including the more skilled sectors.

In this policy brief we aim to address this gap by highlighting the presence of skilled [2] migrant women within migration streams. [3] In the next section we provide a brief overview of some patterns and trends within migration, especially female migration, in the past decade. We then explore why skilled female migration has been ignored in the literature thus far, by analyzing the perception that female labour migrants are mostly unskilled.

The third section shows how, contrary to this perception, women form an important part of skilled migratory streams. The fourth section looks at some of the factors influencing female skilled migration, particularly the gender discriminatory processes that shape migration policy and the issue of skills recognition in destination countries. The conclusion outlines some suggestions for further research and for policy intervention.

During the past decade, patterns of migration (countries of origin, types of migration, duration of residence) have become increasingly diversified. The geographical flows have increased from the global South [4] to the North and from East to West as people move to more developed economies to improve their economic chances.

There has been growth in migration both amongst those with low skills and those with high skills. Another notable pattern in the last few years has been the global increase in the number of female migrants, who in 2005 numbered an estimated 94.5 million (or 49.6 per cent of) migrants. The share of women among migrants in Southern countries was about 38.9 million (51 per cent) in that same year, compared to 46.2 million (51 per cent) in the high-income countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and 8.7 million (40 per cent) in the high-income, non-OECD countries. [5]

Migrants in the labour force (both male and female) may have entered their host country through a variety of routes, ranging from temporary and long-term labour migration to family-related migration (reunification, formation and as accompanying family members of labour migrants), student migration, and asylum and refugee programmes. In a number of European countries, such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Denmark and Portugal, more than 40% of total inflows in 2005 were made up of people admitted explicitly for the purpose of work. For female migrants, family-related migration is the most significant mode of entry into many countries but many family migrants do, however, enter the labour market.

It is worth stating that although there are significant proportions of migrant women in the labour market, evidence suggests that they face many difficulties in accessing jobs. [6] In a number of the OECD countries foreign-born women appear to have a lower labour force participation rates than either foreign-born men or native-born women. The difference in the employment rate of foreign-born and native-born women exceeds 12% in most Nordic countries. In New Zealand, Australia and the United States, the employment rate of foreign-born women is 10 to 13% lower than that of the native-born (6% difference in Canada). [7] Yet this pattern is not uniform. For instance, foreign-born women tend to have a higher employment rate than the native-born in southern European countries. Moreover, these aggregate figures also hide important variations by country of birth. Race and nationality act alongside gender to affect which women have access to which kinds of jobs.

Female employment by sector and place of birth for
Women aged 15-64, 2003-2004, data pooled over EU countries*
Share of total employment of foreign-born women (%)Over-representedShare of total employment of native-born women (%)Over-represented
Agriculture and fishing1,1No3,3No
Minig, manufacturing and energy12,1No12,8No
Wholesale and retail trade12,6 - 15,6Yes
Hotels and restaurants8,1Yes4,4Ja
Health and other community services17,0Yes16,5Ja
Administration and extraterritorial organizations (e.g. EU and UN offices)4,7No7,5 -
Other services23,2 - 21,2 -
* Columns do not sum to 100 because not all employed women indicate their sector of activity. Over-representation occurs when the share of foreign- or native-born women in one particular sector is more important than their share in total employment. Sectoral over-representation is supposed to be undetermined (Ind.) if the share of foreign-or native-born women in the employment divided by their share in total employment is higher than 0.9 and lower than 1.1.
Sources: European community Labour Force Survey (data provided by Eurostat)

The employment of migrant women also shows some sectoral patterns. As the Table makes clear, there is a significant concentration of migrant women in some occupational sectors such as service sector work and especially within personal and social services. In all countries with the exception of Turkey and the Czech Republic, more than 40% of all employed migrant women are working in these sectors. Although these are sectors where native-born women also tend to be concentrated, there is often a significant overrepresentation of migrant women. This is particularly apparent in Turkey (+17% compared to the native-born), Greece (+16%), Spain (+13%), Mexico (+8%), Portugal (+8%) and Italy (+7%). This is to a large degree attributable to a particularly strong concentration in a number of specific sectors such as domestic work, hotels and restaurants. Unfortunately, the diversity of female migrants' labour market experiences is not accorded due attention in academic research, which, we argue below, has focused on domestic work and sex work.


See Morrison et al. (2007).
The definition of skills is an important issue in discussing the migration of skilled workers. There are no clear definitions at present but most researchers treat migrants with a tertiary education as skilled. They also often distinguish between those who are skilled (nurses and teachers) and those who are highly skilled (ICT workers, scientists and doctors).
In this brief we largely focus on migration into the OECD countries and into Europe, especially of migrants from non-OECD countries. This is only part of the overall scope of migration but space does not permit a broader analysis.
The term global South has come to replace other terminology such as 'developing countries' amongst academics. The North is the term used for industrialised countries of the Northern Hemisphere.
See Ratha and Shaw (2007).
See SOPEMI (2007).
See SOPEMI (2007).



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