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Toil of the migrant women

By Dr Shanthi Thambiah, The Star

THE movement of people from one country to another as immigrants and workers is a phenomenon of this millennium, in particular of the 19th century. In most cases, this movement is a product of colonialism and international capitalism. The majority of migrant workers are men and much has been written about them.

However, the role of female immigrants as workers has not received the attention it deserves.

With few exceptions, previous analyses of international labour migration have ignored women's migration experience and economic contributions. This article is an attempt to redress that lack and examine the impact of female labour immigrants on Malaysia--but many gaps remain because of a lack of data. This is certainly an area worthy of further research.

Throughout the 19th century, the influx of immigrants from China and India consisted mainly of young men. The early stages of labour migration was masculinised, in that mostly men went to work abroad but this depended on wives and mothers who were left behind to manage the family while they were away.

It is difficult to establish the possible date of the first Chinese and Indian female immigrants to Malaysia. However, it is known that in 1794, there were 3,000 Chinese men, women and children and about 1,000 Indian families in Penang.

Following the expansion of British rule in 1874, Chinese immigration increased, averaging 150,000 immigrants annually in the late 1880s and in the 1890s, and over 300,000 annually in the 1920s.

Organised labour migration from India began about 1838. They were mostly single males recruited to work on Malaya's sugar plantations and to build roads and railways. It is estimated that between the 1840s and 1930s, over 1.9 million Indians entered Malaya.

Female participation in labour migration to Malaya was low before the 1920s. In 1860, the Convention of Peking allowed wives to leave China and join their husbands. But the Chinese and Indian sex ratio in the Straits Settlements showed a predominance of males. As a consequence of this imbalance, we saw the prevalence of inter-ethnic marriages. Chinese men married local women from which evolved the unique Straits Chinese culture. Indian Muslim men married Malay women and created a Jawi Pekan community.

In 1881, the Chinese and Indian sex ratios in the Straits Settlements showed a predominance of males, with 1 Chinese female to every 6 males and 1 Indian female to every 4 males.

Those immigrants who brought their wives and children with them were few and most of the single men formed themselves into messes at the houses of the married men. The wives cooked and washed for the single men besides doing their own household work for their own families. In return, they received a small fee. This can be considered the most neglected kind of work that women did--and still do. The contribution made by migrant wives in sustaining and caring for migrant workers has not been studied much.

In terms of numbers, more Chinese women migrated to Malaya, but Indian women comprised a larger share of total Indian migration up to the 1910s. The Kangany system developed from about 1875 in response to criticisms of abuses in the system of indentured labour migration and allowed for the recruitment of the family as a unit of migration.

The entry of Chinese women into Malaya increased dramatically in the 1930s. Restrictive immigration policies on Chinese male immigration, such as the Aliens Ordinance of 1933, contributed to increased female immigration.

In contrast to the growth of Chinese female immigration to Malaya in the 1930s, the level of Indian female migration hovered around 10% to 12% throughout, except for an increase to about 15% in the 1910s in response to the boom in rubber prices and the corresponding rise in the demand for plantation labour.

As more Chinese and Indian women arrived in Malaya, the proportion of females in the two populations increased. The percentage of Malayan born Chinese increased from 22% in 1921 to over 62% by 1947. The figures for Indians are 12% in 1921 and 50% in 1947.

The dominance of males in both Chinese and Indian temporary labour migration led to immigrant communities with few women and families. Bringing in female sex workersbecame a profitable enterprise. Colonial authorities were tolerant on this matter.

Diverse accounts indicate that many of the early Chinese and Indian women immigrants to Malaya became sex workers. Most were not voluntary. There are many references to the kidnapping and deception of women by labour recruiters.

During the height of the indentured Indian labour migration, abuses relating to young women were rampant. And the expansion of Chinese male labour into tin mining from the mid-1850s saw a corresponding increase in the traffic of women for prostitution. In 1863, 500 Chinese girls were ordered for such services by the secret societies.

Single workers resting in the dormitory of a mine kongsi. Wives of male migrant workers who came along with their husbands in the early days of migration would cook and clean for the single men in return for a small fee.

Besides domestic work and prostitution, both Chinese and Indian migrant women also worked in tin mines and rubber plantations.

The economic role of Chinese women in mining can be seen in the increase in the number of registered dulang washers, almost all of whom were female, from 12,000 in 1936 to nearly 23,000 in 1946. By 1937, women comprised 20% of the Chinese estate labour force. In the towns, women worked as domestic servants, hawkers, shop assistants, nurses and teachers.

Similarly, Indian women and children living in rubber estates contributed to the household economy and to the plantation economy. Indian women's share of the labour force in plantations increased from 20% to 25% in the late 19th century to 43% in 1947. Outside the plantation economy, Indian women worked as domestic servants and labourers.

Moreover, both Chinese and Indian female migrant workers worked as construction labourers. Chinese women worked more in the construction sites for houses and other buildings. Indian women were used in the building and maintenance of roads, railways and buildings. As a direct legacy of this phenomenon, we still see to this day Indian women as road sweepers of many of Malaysia's roads.

Women comprised one fifth of the total labour force of Malaya in 1931, of which 19% were Chinese and 22% Indian. Agriculture was the largest user of Chinese (53%) and Indian (84%) female labour. Rubber cultivation alone employed 70% of Indian women and 29% of the Chinese women. Besides all the work they did outside their households, most of them also worked in their own households and towards the formation of the family.

Female immigration was an important factor in transforming a transient work-force into settled and growing communities that contributed to the development of the economy and towards the formation of Malaysia as it is today.

The role of gender in the process and context of international migration is gaining recognition. International labour migration is a persistent phenomenon. There is a need to understand this gendered labour export system as being built on the personal relationship between women and men in the exporting country.

Besides that, it can also be seen in terms of the changing structural conditions that transforms labour migration as a male-dominated phenomenon to one whereby women figure as the dominant migrant labour. This process may also contribute to impeding the transformation of gender relations in the labour importing country.

Dr Shanthi Thambiah is a Social Anthropologist with University Malaya's Gender Studies Programme.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, University Malaya.

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