Women Who Migrate, Men Who Wait: Eritrean Labor Migration to the Arab Near East
Over the last five decades, Eritrea has experienced a massive outflow of labor migrants to the Arab Near East. Although this labor migration has grown steadily since the 1950s, there has been a profound change in the magnitude and dynamism of the migration since the early 1970s. The reason is that Eritrea has suffered from severe economic problems resulting from its three-decade-long war of liberation with Ethiopia. By contrast, the Arab Near East, the oil-producing countries in particular, have enjoyed a significant increase in their wealth as a result of a sharp rise in energy prices following the world energy crises in 1973 and 1979. With the accumulation of wealth, these countries engaged in large-scale restructuring and development programs that created chronic labor shortages. This great contrast in the wealth and size of the labor force resulted in a pronounced difference in the rewards for employment between Eritrea and the Arab Near East. This difference has attracted a large number of Eritrean labor migrants to countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and the United Arab Emirates. This article examines the labor market patterns and the cultural effects on economic behavior, and investigates to what extent earnings and remittances and therefore the income of women migrants are impacted by cultural variables. It also reveals that women are likely to take up domestic work when they migrate to various destinations in the Arab Near East, that such women were unemployed prior to their migration, and that the earnings of women, are, on average, lower than those of men, but that women send more money back home than do men. These higher rates of remittances by women are not simply expressions of income and expenditure but are rather attributable to higher savings abilities embedded in cultural values. In sum, the article looks at the dynamics of household labor in the context of migration; discusses paid household work as a structural continuation of unpaid household work across the public sphere; demonstrates how Eritrean women travel through the household worker/housewife boundary in their home country and become family breadwinners, men’s supporters, sources of funding for state projects, and urban property owners by engaging in household work; and underscores women’s agency by articulating their paid household work through the negotiation of the monetary and emotional value of their labor in the Arab Near East.