New UN survey on migrant workers with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in South-East Asia

Migration is giving workers in South-East Asia with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expression (SOGIE) a higher quality of life. However, they still experience discrimination at multiple levels, a new UN study found.

The new report titled “A very beautiful but heavy jacket: The experiences of migrant workers with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in South-East Asia ” was released today by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in collaboration with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and Edge Effect. The title – A very beautiful but heavy jacket – hints at the complexity of migrant work experiences for people with diverse SOGIE. It draws on surveys and interviews with 147 migrant workers with SOGIE who work in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, and hospitality as well as adult entertainment. The report explores their experiences across the migrant work journey as they travel from countries of origin such as Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Viet Nam to work in countries of destination in South-East Asia (especially Thailand), East Asia, and beyond.

The report shows that people with diverse SOGIE often enter migrant work for reasons similar to those of many other migrant workers. 72 per cent of migrant workers interviewed for this study reported economic advancement as their primary motivation for migration; 63 per cent reported that working abroad allowed them to meet their basic needs, remit money to families, save money to open businesses or purchase land in their countries of origin, and obtain skills and experiences that would enhance employment opportunities.

“The first thing I wanted is to have a stable income to support myself. It would be great if I can find a partner to support me through the hardship there. And of course, I wanted to be able to live freely and express myself.” – Gay man, Viet Nam

The study also reveals that, of the migrant workers interviewed, 41 per cent reported escaping from violence, discrimination, or restrictions on personal freedom at home as a motivation; and 59 per cent reported that their quality of life was higher in their country of destination than in their country of origin.

“Of course, I was anxious, even though I didn’t come out. It’s like putting on a very beautiful but heavy jacket every time I go to work. I had to hide myself all the time, I would get scared every time somebody mentioned LGBT stuff. I would be sad, or I randomly thought that somebody was talking about me behind my back.” – Bisexual man, Viet Nam

“The Philippines is a strongly Christian country, so the family is not extremely open in terms of sexual diversity and relations. I need to go to a place where I can be the woman that I am and where I can further my visions and my goals in life.” – Trans woman, the Philippines

While acronyms such as LGBTIQ are often used generically, people with diverse SOGIE are not homogenous. Gay men and lesbian women migrant workers may have different motivations and experiences from those of trans men and trans women and people with non-binary gender identities, and different to people with other diversity of gender and sexuality. The study illustrates that workplace discrimination in countries of origin was cited as a motivation for migrant work more often by transgender and gender diverse people (85 per cent), as was community discrimination (52 per cent); gay and lesbian people (26 per cent and 22 per cent) reported fewer instances of community-level discrimination.

H.E. David Daly, EU Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand stated “The European Union is funding the Safe and Fair programme to strengthen and protect the rights of migrant workers. It is important to recognize that migrant workers with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression might face additional challenges and discrimination in their migration journey. This report will help fill the gap in knowledge about experiences of migrant workers with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and be the first step to strengthen the existing relevant policies and programmes.”

Migrant workers with diverse SOGIE experience at least two forms of discrimination – experiences that impact migrant workers with diverse SOGIE simply because of their diverse SOGIE, and which have specific consequences; and experiences that impact all migrant workers, but have distinctive consequences for migrant workers with diverse SOGIE.  Many migrant workers, therefore, avoid sharing their sexual orientation or gender identity for their own safety and the risk that being “out” may undermine their chances of secure employment. The study shows that 32 per cent of participants took steps to conceal their SOGIE some or all the time, including transgender people dressing during transit as per their sex assigned at birth.

Emily Dwyer, lead author of the study said “There is very little support available for migrant workers with diverse SOGIE, before they travel or in countries of destination. Most service providers do not train their staff to provide specific support, and there is little policy or funding to support development of safe and relevant services. So migrant workers with diverse SOGIE who experience discrimination and violence often have nowhere to go and no-one to talk with, and that needs to change.”

Based on its key findings, the study stresses the need for collaborative efforts to ensure inclusivity and equal opportunity for all migrant workers. In an attempt to strengthen and protect the rights of migrant workers with diverse SOGIE in the ASEAN region, both in countries of origin and destination, the report details a set of recommendations below to help achieve more favourable outcomes.

  • Policy reform to reaffirm that human rights principles enshrined in UN human rights instruments apply to all people;
  • Build knowledge and capacity for key stakeholders;
  • Leverage inclusive services and information for all migrant workers;
  • Ensure gender-responsive programming to go beyond the gender binary;
  • Ensure fair recruitment for all migrant workers; and
  • Ensure availability of programmes which are inclusive of migrant workers with diverse SOGIE.

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