Moving to a developed country as a (woman) non-citizen.

Here I am, privileged enough to be studying at an eminent university in the U.K. and being able to publish my thoughts relating to my experiences as an immigrant student and a woman in this great country. I remember my father telling me that I will come across many fellow South-Asians in London from the moment I alight from the aircraft. I did. I looked around Heathrow airport and noticed the immigration staff, the office staff and importantly, the cleaning staff. I saw a great deal of women, specifically non-white women, occupying these cleaning positions. This did compel me to think of certain questions. What does it mean to be a migrant in a developed country? Specifically, what does this mean if you are non-white? And importantly, what does it mean to be a migrant non-white woman in a developed country? If one is a citizen, is one entitled to full state benefits as a woman?

Let’s begin by a discussion around the concept of citizenship. The idea of citizenship is seen as an attribute of modernity often linked to the nation state. Citizenship has traditionally been seen to be a universal concept, as being equally applicable to all. T.H. Marshall (1950) defines citizenship as full membership in a given community, which comprises of three focal elements, namely civil, political and social rights and responsibilities. Apart from the right to vote and participate in the political sphere, citizenship rights can include a right to a minimum standard of living, access to health and welfare benefits provided by the nation state, freedom from violence and the right to bodily integrity. However, citizenship does have different implications for different groups of people, specifically, women. Marshall and all others who have defined citizenship focus on the relationship of class to social integration but omit gender as a category. Women have traditionally been confined to the private familial sphere, which has led to their exclusion from the public or political sphere, thereby attributing the right of being full citizens to men. Feminists have argued that the concept of citizenship is gendered and that women as a category have been excluded from being conferred full citizenship by the nation state and have been reduced to a status of “second class citizens” (See Jennie Munday’s paper here). Now think of migrant women, who aren’t state citizens. Problematic isn’t it? So do they belong to a “third-class” category?

My father was right, I did see many South-Asians upon landing in London. But personally, it was disheartening for me to see non-white South Asian women occupying the lowest paid category of jobs. Even today, when I walk into a morning class early, the cleaner tends to be a person of colour, often a woman. I can see it all around me. This is not to say that Asian women do not have better paying jobs, but the majority still work in the domestic care work sector. Look around and notice the cleaners, the janitors, the nannies and the caregivers. I still remember when I had hired the first non-white woman mining engineer in 2013 for a global mining company based in Australia (not that we had too many white women either). “She’s tough and might be able to sustain the challenging conditions of the country and this mine site”, the hiring manager told me. I was lauded as I had helped bring in diversity to the mine site, whereas, I was wondering why we’re celebrating something that should’ve happened many years ago. A year later, she was one of the best performers on his team. Don’t get me wrong here. I am in no way implying that she performed better as a result of her gender. I am just implying that when given a fair chance, and when not viewed with a gendered lens, women can also perform jobs that have been seen to be a typical domain for men.

Women are often considered as a homogenous category by policymakers. This has had consequences for the citizenship rights of gays and lesbian, non-white, disabled and migrant women, especially those who migrate as dependents of men. Often missed is the fact that when gender coincides with class, race and other categories such as sexual orientation, a different kind of experience (read: discrimination) is generated. Here is where the concept of Intersectionality becomes important. The concept of intersectionality can be traced back to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s powerful essay published in 1989 outlining how theorists tend to marginalise the classed, racialised and gendered experience or in other words, multiple oppressions, of non-white women. Crenshaw discusses the case of General Motors Corporation in the United States and how there was a mass lay off of Black women during 1973–75 following a “last hired-first hired philosophy”. Ironically, the company had never hired non-white women before 1964 and the court refused the plaintiffs to combine sex-based and race-based discrimination in a singular category of discrimination.

In modern times, as a result of rapid globalisation, how a nation state operates and exercises power has been impacted by the increase in cross-national migration and burgeoning of global multi-national organisations. There has been an increase in women migrants and women are increasingly migrating independently rather than as dependents of male partners. It is important to note that women migrants experience economic migration differently from men; especially in regards to the jobs they occupy or the rights and benefits they receive in the host country, thereby making gender alongside other categories such as nationality and ethnicity important factors to be considered. This can evidently be seen in the types of jobs occupied by women migrant workers. Women migrant workers typically have primary household responsibilities, have more children when compared to native women, and live in lower income families and therefore tend to occupy low-skilled, low-wage jobs related to domestic or care-work services.

There are increasing claims by policymakers around the importance of meritocracy in immigration (‘may the best person stay’). For a migrant student to be able to stay in the U.K. post completion of their degree, there is a minimum annual salary requirement (the figure is quite high and seems to increase every year) and a sponsorship from an employer that is required (this also costs a couple thousand pounds). As a migrant student, this is very discouraging. This is my second time studying in the U.K. Back in 2010, upon graduating, students were given a post-study work visa of two years to pursue a career in the country. This has now been discontinued and therefore, finding a suitable opportunity to stay on in the U.K. is becoming increasingly difficult. Studying in the U.K. comes at a price (it is a substantial financial investment) and not being able to find a suitable opportunity due to visa barriers is demotivating for myself and fellow students. This doesn’t principally seem to be in line with the ‘merit-based’ visa system that has been deployed by the government, as companies have to pay extra when they sponsor a foreign student and therefore tend to prefer natives.

With the tightening of visa regulations for students and otherwise, and increasing border controls in the garb of merit-based (or points-based) immigration rules, we must not ignore existing structural biases and mustn’t forget that these policies based on meritocracy will often perpetuate, if not increase inequalities and discrimination further. Social systems that reward through class or wealth, and which increase inequality, don’t aid social mobility. Moreover, people pass on their class privilege to their children through chains of kinship. I cannot imagine what one experiences appearing for an interview where the employer already has certain biases based on stereotypes around class, gender, race and more. Even if I am lucky to land a job and have a company sponsor me, I cannot help but think about the gender pay gap (which was still as high as 18.1% in 2016 and is predicted to only be fully countered by 2069 — estimated by Deloitte) and how I would continue to get paid less than my male counterparts. Implicit biases and gendered inequalities therefore tend to restrain merit-based selection systems as they ignore implicit discrimination based on class, nationality, gender and more (More on meritocracy and why it’s a ‘great delusion’ can be found in this compelling article).

Therefore, it is important to view the employment of migrant workers with an intersectional lens, specifically migrant women as they form a substantial share of the labor market in the U.K. Intersectionality helps identify and recognise the diversity within ‘women’ as a social category and how considering women as a homogenous group obscures and ignores differences based on gender, race, class, nationality and more. Moreover, an intersectional lens outlines the way in which the convergence of diverse social categories produce certain ‘lived’ experiences and also how the experiences are significantly dependent on the cultural and historical context in which women exist. Finally, intersectionality aids policymakers in the analysis of contemporary notions of citizenship and migration by outlining the extent to which rights are conferred and actually exercised by different groups of people.

So, next time you see a non-white woman at the workplace or otherwise, do think of the gendered, raced and classed experiences she comes across every day. Do think of the multiple disadvantages she is probably facing, occupying the position of a migrant woman. And do take a minute to tell her you acknowledge and appreciate the skill-set and diversity she’s bringing to this country.

Some interesting statistics* on the rapidly increasing migrant workforce in the U.K. are stated below (what must be noted, is the ironic absence of gender-segregated data and also the increasing presence of foreign-born workers in relatively low-skilled sectors and occupations):

· The number of foreign-born people of working age in the U.K. increased from nearly 3 million in 1993 to 7 million in 2015.

· The share of foreign-born people in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 16.7% in 2015. The share of foreign-citizens in total employment increased from 3.5% in 1993 to 10.7% in 2015.

· Compared to the early 2000s, the presence of foreign-born workers has grown fastest in relatively low-skilled sectors and occupations. The increase in the share of foreign-born workers was fastest among process operatives (e.g. transport drivers, food, drink and tobacco process operators), up from 8.5% in 2002 to 36.0% in 2015.