Since the 1950s, the international movement of capital has resulted in the relocation of manufacturing production in developing countries while the latter adopted export oriented growth strategies for economic development. In this new global order of industrial development, women had a high share of employment and their employment has been crucial to the growth of manufacturing, especially in readymade garment and electronics industries. In Asia, export-led industrialisation spread from Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan to other South East Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in South Asia, and to China. Mauritius has led the way in export-oriented industrialisation in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Twenty to thirty years later some of these countries had begun to experience labour shortages necessitating the import of labour to maintain production and retain existing markets or capture new ones. The required labour was available from countries, which had experience in export industries and a lower wage structure.
In the Middle East, countries with limited oil reserves such as Oman have begun moving away from oil export economies to more diversified ones with heavy investment in service and industrial sectors. In terms of its industrialisation policy the government of Oman provided infrastructure facilities for the establishment of large-scale industrial estates. The majority of those who set up garment factories were expatriate industrialists. Skilled labour however was in short supply, which led to the import of labour from Asian countries.
For women, therefore, the demand for their labour came from industrial establishments in their own countries and from overseas. Deregulation and international labour mobility facilitated overseas job placements and enabled women from countries such as Sri Lanka and China to take advantage of formal sector employment providing a higher remuneration than what was available in their own country.
Although employment opportunities existed in overseas factories, the bulk of Sri Lanka's migrant workers were housemaids employed in the Middle East as rising levels of income and higher standards of living created a demand for domestic workers in Arab countries. This trend has not changed since the early 1980s when under a liberalised economic policy regime the Sri Lankan government promoted overseas contractual employment.
According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, the first recorded batch of workers in the category of skilled workers migrated in 1980. By 2001 this number had increased to 36,708, which was 19.96% of the total workers that migrated in that year. The number of women skilled workers that migrate has been increasing steadily -from 7, 712 in 1995 to 11,482 in 2001 and accounted for 31.3% of the total number of skilled migrant workers. This category includes women employed in garment and textile factories overseas. The major destinations of these women skilled workers are United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Maldives, and Lebanon. Another destination is Mauritius.
There is a substantial body of literature on Sri Lankan women migrant domestic workers, but empirical studies on overseas garment factory workers are almost non-existent. The main focus of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, the non-government organisations and other agencies is on domestic workers. Although the garment factory workers are required to obtain an insurance policy and register with the Bureau before migrating their protection and welfare have not engaged the attention of the government in the same way as that of the domestic workers. For example there is no standard contract of employment that they are required to enter into. Recruitment, training, when required and service conditions of garment factory workers are left in the hands of labour agencies. Government welfare programmes are not specifically directed at them. They do not have much visibility in the migrant labour force.
It is in this context that the Centre for Women's Research initiated a study to find out the conditions of garment factory workers in three countries - Mauritius, Maldives and the Sultanate of Oman.