Women Domestic Workers and Nurses in India’s Migration Policy: Problems and Recommendations

To equip India’s emigration policy to deal with the emerging character of the overseas market, policymakers would need to rethink the restrictive gender perspective that has guided policy hitherto and adopt a fundamentally different perspective that empowers women migrant workers by ensuring their right to mobility and protection from exploitation.


India’s emigration policy has evolved over the past several decades as a response to highly emotive and nationalist reporting of abuse of women migrant workers by foreign employers and extortion by migration intermediaries. The migration policy is not and has not been based on demand and supply characteristics and importantly, the voices of women migrants are and have been absent, conspicuously from the policymaking process. Whereas migrant women’s experiences are diverse and varied, the policy has been formulated on the basis of one aspect of these experiences alone – harassment/​abuse – and has sought to suppress women’s migration rather than protect the rights of women to mobility, against discrimination in access to overseas employment and to freedom from exploitation and abuse by employers. The pursuit of policy protectionism has shaped an opaque regulatory environment, generated information asymmetry and fostered clandestine recruitment.

There is an increasing demand for domestic workers, nurses and other care sector workers across the global north and also in the Middle East on account of rising women’s work participation rates among nationals and the progress of ageing. The Middle East has been the largest destination region of Indian migrant workers, but we are already witnessing a push-back in opportunities for male migration as countries in this region are resorting increasingly to workforce nationalization policies. The recent announcement by Kuwait is a case in point. In June 2020, the Kuwaiti National Assembly introduced a quota bill to reduce the population of expatriates from the current percentage of 70 per cent of the population to 30 per cent. The stipulation that Indians should not exceed 15 per cent of Kuwait’s population could result in 800,000 Indians having to leave Kuwait. Yet, opportunities in the health sector and for social care – including eldercare, childcare, home care for the ill and domestic work – are likely to increase across the Middle East, presaging more rather than fewer opportunities for women workers.

India’s emigration policy shows no signs of being equipped to deal with the emerging character of the overseas market. For it to be so equipped, policymakers would need to rethink the restrictive gender perspective that has guided policy hitherto and adopt a fundamentally different perspective, one that empowers women migrant workers by ensuring their right to mobility and protection from exploitation. In what follows, I discuss the case of Migrant Domestic workers (MDWs) and nurses separately. I discuss four sets of problems that policymakers must confront in dealing with a policy on MDWs and make recommendations to address these problems before turning to the case of migrant nurses. The discussion is with reference to policy and experience in the Middle Eastern countries, which besides being the largest destinations of migrant women from India in both occupations are also categorized as Emigration Check Required (ECR) countries, i.e., a set of countries that are identified as having difficult and exploitative conditions of employment. The ECR category pertains only to workers with less than 10 years of schooling corresponding largely to those in manual and other less skilled’ occupations. It has been used by the Indian government to impose restrictions on the mobility of women.

Migrant Domestic Workers

Problem 1: Harassment and abuse of MDWs in the destination

There are, broadly, two aspects to the problem of harassment and abuse of migrant women. Protection from harassment when it occurs and prevention of harassment or measures that reduce the possibility of harassment.

a. Mechanisms for protection against harassment: Such as they are at present, mechanisms to protect women who face harassment are vastly inadequate and even dysfunctional. The MDWs who face harassment may approach the embassy with a complaint and if harassment is severe, they may seek refuge at a shelter. But MDWs have been denied access to the Indian embassy and have been subject to hostile treatment by the embassy staff.

The MDWs who flee their employers because of abusive treatment may not possess their identity documents because employers usually take custody of these documents. They are also generally reluctant to approach the embassies because it usually results in one of two undesirable outcomes – they end up either having to continue to work with the same employer or having to return to their homes in India. Therefore, women who are subject to abuse turn to the Indian Embassy usually in circumscribed circumstances, i.e., when they do not want to remain in the destination country any longer. Some workers who succeeded in making complaints said that during negotiations with their employers, the embassy officials blamed them for their problems, supported employers and brought pressure on them to return to the same employers. Workers who do not want to return to India may flee from their employers and obtain employment through their informal networks rather than approach the embassy. This behaviour is driven by the compulsions they are under to earn enough money to repay debts and to support their families.

To add to this, employers in the Middle East are aware that the Indian government is not proactive in supporting MDWs from their country. As a result, they may feel less hesitant to exploit, harass and abuse Indian MDWs than say, workers from the Philippines, whose government defends their workers strongly. Though proactive support in the destination country is not sufficient to eliminate the abuse of workers, support from their own governments could serve as a form of deterrence against exploitation.

i. Proactive government support for MDWs through embassies and civil society organizations (in association with the government).

ii. Such support would require a massive expansion of infrastructure for the protection of workers in the destination countries, strong outreach to migrant workers and extensive information dissemination about support mechanisms. India has very poor outreach compared to the Philippines or even Sri Lanka though India has a much larger number of workers in the Middle East. Indian embassies should have offices in the major cities and towns; information about these centres should be widely disseminated among migrant workers such that even workers who go through irregular channels have access to them.

iii. Special measures may be introduced to keep a section of the Indian embassies and outreach centres open on weekends to enable MDWs who flee employers to be able to access these for it has been observed that abused workers are usually able to escape on weekends.

iv. Migrant workers should not be refused access when they approach the Indian Embassy and they must be provided immediate succour, which may involve shifting them to shelters, even if they lack documentation. The Philippines government, for instance, instructs embassies not to discriminate between their citizens irrespective of whether they have migrated through regular or irregular channels.

v. Migrant workers who have fled from their employers and sought refuge in the embassy should be given legal aid and support to fight cases against employers. There may be empanelled civil society organizations to assist migrant workers in this respect. Workers should be allowed to explore intermediate forms of employment to be able to earn a livelihood during this period. Civil society support may be provided to workers to explore ways of remaining in the destination and finding employment after processing legal cases.

b. Mechanisms for prevention of abuse: The main mechanism for prevention of harassment and abuse of MDWs instituted by the Indian government is the ECR category and various restrictions that are imposed on women under it. The experience of migrant workers shows that the ECR mechanism has been a failure and is inappropriate to meet the challenge of preventing the abuse of workers in the Middle East, which is systemic. The restrictions imposed on women in the ECR category flout provisions under CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women), which India is a party to, as they curtail women’s right to mobility and equal access to employment. The problem with the ECR category has two inter-related aspects.

First, as a mechanism to prevent abuse, the ECR category is systemically flawed as it does little to protect workers against systemic problems encountered in the Middle East. The MDWs who migrate after complying with all the legal requirements may be no less prone to abuse than MDWs who migrate through irregular channels. International organizations like the ILO (International Labour Organization) underscore the findings from empirical research that workers who migrate through regular/​legal channels do not necessarily end up in safe circumstances and those who resort to irregular migration are not necessarily unsafe. On the contrary, in individual instances, irregular migration has proved to be highly beneficial and these instances have had a demonstration effect.

The ECR mechanism does not address problems arising from the system in the Middle East even to the extent that it is possible, rather, it takes the easy way out by seeking to prevent workers from migrating. But also it suggests that those who migrate are capable of taking care of themselves and, by implication, are responsible for their own safety. The minimum age of 30 years for women in the ECR category is one of the most violated of provisions. Analysis of the experiences of MDWs shows that abuse has nothing to do with the age of the woman emigrant. In a survey that I conducted in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in 2013, about half the respondents who took up their first jobs in the Middle East after the year 2000, were less than 30 years at the time. Violations of the minimum age underscore the aspirations of young women to seek overseas employment. The minimum age and other provisions for the ECR category set off a vicious circle that has spiralling effects on costs of migration and returns to employment, the willingness of aspirants to invest in skills and it lowers the labour market prospects of MDWs (Kodoth, 2020).

Second, there are problems of large-scale corruption within the system in India. The large-scale flouting of the minimum age condition is only one indication of rampant corruption. There are several cases of corruption involving the Protector of Emigrants (POEs), the very office that is in charge of emigration clearance and yet at every point, the State has sought to address problems of MDWs by vesting the office of the POE with more power, which is quite inexplicable. Large scale corruption that involves rent-seeking government officials enable MDWs to migrate without emigration clearance but places them at the risk of extortion.

i. Lower the minimum age for women to migrate to 21 years (age of eligibility to vote).

ii. Abolish the ECR category as it creates conditions in which women are diverted to the use of irregular channels and intermediaries extract large sums of money from them as expenses of migration.

iii. Remove the $2500 bank guarantee (which is also violated with impunity at present) and instead have other measures like blacklisting of abusive employers and recruitment agencies and aggressively pursue legal cases against such employers and agents.

iv. Under the umbrella of the embassy, it is possible to form a network of MDWs (only trade unions are banned) and to sponsor cultural activities. The Philippines has such organization in some Middle Eastern countries – Jordan and Lebanon. This would provide a legal network of MDWs and increase the flow of information, help to detect cases of abuse and enable abused workers to seek refuge.

v. Under the international framework, trade unions like the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) may organize workers in some destinations like Kuwait but at present, they may not have the capacity to do so on their own. The Indian government should tie-up with such organizations to support Indian MDWs in the destination countries.

Problem 2: Exploitation of MDWs by migration intermediaries

Private intermediaries including social networks have been banned from providing visas and facilitating the migration of MDWs since 2016. This policy prescription is based on the premise that private intermediaries are responsible for the exploitation of MDWs and the mistaken belief that prohibiting them will eliminate them and end abuse. Neither of these is true. The MDWs continue to migrate with the assistance of private intermediaries and only a small proportion migrate through the public sector agencies. Private intermediaries are highly diverse and while some of them are highly exploitative, MDWs depend on intermediaries because the regulatory system makes it difficult for women to comply with requirements on their own. Private intermediaries are seen as indispensable in the source regions also because the ECR requirements are perceived as harsh and unjust and private intermediaries are effective in obtaining jobs for MDWs and facilitating their journeys. The MDWs are willing to pay large sums to money to obtain overseas jobs. Their complaints arise when there is harassment and abuse in the destination, especially when their salaries are not paid, and they fear physical violence.

Pubic sector agencies lack the capacity and the necessary understanding of the supply side characteristics to reach out to aspirants. At present, in the source regions of migration of MDWs, public sector agencies do not have the trust of aspirants because they have long neglected MDWs and held class prejudice against them. By contrast, MDWs have been served by private agencies with whom they have developed strong ties. It is important to bridge the trust deficit if public sector agencies are to be effective in recruiting MDWs.

i. Lift the ban on private intermediaries – the ban has not prevented private intermediaries from recruiting but has led to clandestine recruitment, putting women at greater risk. The ban has led to even less accountability on the part of private recruiters as they recruit unofficially and deny involvement if there is trouble.

ii. Sub agents, commission agents and other smaller intermediaries should be recognized and regulated – they are an important link in the recruitment process. They are custodians of useful knowledge and skills that the registered agencies lack. The latter are mostly in the big cities and towns and do not have the necessary outreach to the villages from where most women are recruited.

iii. To foster accountability of private intermediaries, it is important that there is regulation rather than prohibition. There must be a system of effective penalties for defaulting intermediaries, including blacklisting, and incentives for good performers. In an environment that has more rather than less transparency, migrant women too will feel more confident to reveal their experiences and this will go a long way to prevent abuse.

iv. Public sector recruiting agencies must take the initiative to set standards in recruitment which will provide dynamism and incentivize good practices. When aspirants gain trust and confidence in the public sector agencies and choose them, defaulting private recruiters will either be forced to adopt good practices or will be eliminated by market forces.

v. Public sector agencies must base their recruitment strategies on studies conducted in the major source regions of women’s migration – the southern states – to obtain a better understanding of the supply side characteristics and to plan for skill development programs for this category of emigrants.

Problem 3: Asymmetric information and stigma

The regulatory environment for recruitment of MDWs is highly opaque, characterized by extreme restrictions (including the prohibition on private intermediation) and frequent changes in conditions, on the one hand, and the dominance of irregular intermediaries and irregular recruiting practices on the other. Asymmetric information increases the risk of exploitation and abuse of MDWs as aspirants are unable to distinguish between a credible intermediary and an unscrupulous one. In an opaque environment, MDWs are secretive about revealing their experiences which in turn prevents aspirants from identifying rogue recruiters and gaining a realistic picture of the conditions of work in the Middle East. They may, therefore, fall prey to rogue actors, time and again.

A protectionist migration policy has also contributed significantly to the construction of women’s migration as a social problem and has strengthened stigma on MDWs. In such an environment, MDWs prefer not to speak up about their experiences of abuse and harassment except in extreme circumstances. The ban on private intermediaries has given the advantage to the most exploitative segment of private intermediaries, who instil fear in aspiring women and compel them to be secretive about their plans for fear that the government will stop them. Thus, transparency and information flows are important casualties of the current regulatory framework.

i. Shift from policy protectionism to a liberal policy that respects the rights of women in the ECR category to mobility and the right to seek overseas employment on par with other citizens of the country in order to usher in transparency in recruitment procedures and smooth flow of information down to the source regions.

ii. Replace restrictions on the migration of MDWs with regulation of intermediaries.

iii. The government may run campaigns periodically in the source regions to combat misinformation about recruitment and overseas employment avoiding fear tactics and instead resorting to confidence-building strategies.

iv. Establish information centres in the source regions which may be approached by aspiring candidates as a measure to combat information asymmetry.

v. Support civil society organization to work in the source regions to empower aspiring migrant workers and to establish trust in the system so that migrant workers will report their problems.

vi. Provide counselling to rehabilitate workers who face problems and orient those who aspire to migrate.

Problem 4: Decline in the labour market prospects of Indian MDWs in the Middle East

Long-term policy protectionism has raised the costs of migration, reduced returns and generated disincentives for investment in skills, thus, it has compromised the labour market prospects of Indian MDWs in the Middle East. Indian domestic workers, who occupied a niche in countries like Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE prior to the Filipina arrival in the late 1970s, receive lower salaries at present even when they have a similar or greater work burden as the Filipina co-workers. Workers have pointed out that employers believe that Indian women take better care of infants and children and entrust children to them, but they are paid less than their Filipina co-workers even though childcare is a highly valued work.

The recent skilling initiatives barely reach the target group of MDWs. In addition to this, there are inadequacies in how they are formulated and implemented. In the name of professional’ training, skilling initiatives are entrusted to commercial agencies that are from the middle class and operate with middle-class prejudices. These agencies have little or no understanding of supply-side characteristics of MDWs in the country and are limited by their lack of outreach to potential MDWs from the conventional source regions (Kodoth, 2018). Middle-class professionals may not be able to connect with MDW candidates in ways that are necessary to make skilling initiatives fruitful. More importantly, existing professionalising’ skill initiatives are divested of a rights perspective, which is crucial to empowering MDWs. It is a sad reality that misdirected skilling initiatives have allowed commercial agencies in the country to profit but have provided little by way of realistically equipping aspiring migrants for overseas employment.

i. Skills training and orientation must be formulated with a rights perspective, which would transfer knowledge in a way that is empowering. A rights perspective is critical to enable MDWs to understand employment relations within a framework of justice.

ii. Rights-based skills training must be made a pre-requisite for recruitment through the eMigrate.

iii. Skills training centres for housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, childcare and eldercare activities must be set up in the source regions of migration and provided publicity so that aspirants can approach them easily. These could be useful also for employment within the country.

iv. Skill initiatives must be based on a robust understanding of supply and demand-side characteristics (which, at present, public sector agencies and commercial skilling agencies lack).

v. Involve organizations that work with MDWs such as the National Domestic Workers’ Movement (NDWM) in Tamil Nadu, the National Workers Welfare Trust (NWWT) in Telangana and AP and SEWA in Kerala as they have a better understanding of the workforce than commercial agencies.

vi. Evolve methodologies that are appropriate for learning and customized to enhance learning in the class cohort that is likely to require these skills.

vii. It is important to address the question of how to learn’ rather than cramming candidates with information that is difficult to retain.

viii. Insist on the involvement of returnee MDWs with long experience of work in the Middle East in evolving new methodologies and in the training process.

ix. As returnee MDWs are not trained to be teachers, they must be trained with respect to how to translate their experiences into methodologies and practical teaching methods through workshops.


Nurses were brought under the ECR category in 2015 after a complaint by a nurse recruit blew the lid off a major recruitment scandal that implicated collusion by the POE in Kochi and showed that several private recruitment agencies were involved in grave malpractices. Four cases were registered against the POE in Kochi. The first involved collusion with Al Zarafa Travels and Manpower Consultants, which was charged with the extortion of Rs 19.5 lakhs from each nurse recruit as against Rs 19,500 permitted by the Kuwait Health Ministry in a contract to recruit 1,200 nurses. The scam was believed to involve about Rs 300 crores and the use of the Hawala channels. The POE ignored a complaint by the recruit whose agency refused to refund her money after she decided not to take up the offer. Instead, the POE informed the agency about the complaint. This brought the scandal into the open.

In response to the scandal, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) issued an order initially permitting only public sector agencies to recruit nurses and bringing all nurses under the ECR category. The move to bring nurses under the ECR category was inexplicable in view of the fact that the POE, who is the officer in charge of providing emigration clearance (and has discretionary powers in this regard) was accused as the kingpin in the scandal. But the move sums up the reactive manner of functioning of the government when it concerns women’s migration. The government takes a backward step and restricts migration rather than taking up the difficult job of cleaning up the system. The private recruitment agencies challenged the government order legally and soon the ministry back-tracked. The government permitted foreign employers to apply for permission for Country-specific orders (CSO) to recruit through specified private agencies. The court order, in this case, required that public and private agencies must be placed on an equal footing and as a result, public sector agencies were also required to get CSOs from the Ministry of External Affairs, into which the MOIA had by then been merged.

Officials of public sector agencies pointed out that, effectively, public sector agencies did not enjoy a level playing field because unlike private agencies, they could not act directly, i.e., they could only act through the government and the embassies in the destination countries. Private sector agencies enjoyed an undue advantage over them as they could directly seek contracts and were already strongly networked with employers. When public sector agencies were initially entrusted exclusively to recruit nurses, they were unable to get off the block in recruitment to Saudi Arabia because they did not possess e‑Waqalats, which is a sort of license to recruit that has to be obtained from Saudi Arabian authorities. They could obtain e‑Waqalats only through the Indian government and this was a stumbling block that caused considerable delay. Meanwhile, CSOs were granted to ten private agencies to recruit to Saudi Arabia.

An official of a public sector agency, who was interviewed in 2014, revealed that despite assurances from the embassy in Kuwait that they would be chosen for nurse recruitment contracts, when the decision was announced, they had been shocked to find the contracts go to private agencies. A recruitment scandal broke out in Kuwait following the 2016 scandal and revealed that Indian private agencies had even paid off high ranking Kuwaiti government officials. This led to a ban by Kuwait on recruitment of nurses from India until the sector was cleaned up.

Recruitment of nurses nosedived as a result of the changes imposed by the government and India lost the market in Kuwait largely to the Philippines which has historically been its competition in the nurse recruitment sector. As a result, also the direction of migration of nurses from India shifted to Saudi Arabia from Kuwait, a matter of concern because Kuwait has a more dynamic market economy that provides better compensations and work conditions than Saudi Arabia. Indian nurses have had a strong reputation and advantage in employment in Kuwait but clearly, their advantage was now threatened by the shortcomings in regulation.

i. A level playing field must be created for public sector agencies for which the government must provide them with the necessary clearances with speed and proactively reach out to employers in the destination countries to obtain contracts for them so that they can compete with private agencies. In the past, government delays and corruption in official functioning has cost them a competitive advantage.

ii. Expansion of public sector capacity to recruit nurses is necessary to provide competition to private recruiters and incentivise good practices in the sector.


Kodoth, P. 2020. In the Shadow of the State: Recruitment and Migration of Women as Domestic Workers to the Middle East, Background paper, International Labour Organisation, July.

Kodoth, P. 2018. An uncertain shift from protectionism to empowerment? Probing the unprecedented decision by a state-run agency to recruit women domestic workers for Kuwait, Commentary on India’s Economy and Society Series No. 3, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum.


Praveena Kodoth is Professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum. She teaches a course on gender and development and is engaged in research on internal and international migration.