First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 29
Diversity and inclusion

Labour migration and diverse gender identities

16 December 2022

Migration gives workers in South-East Asia with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expression (SOGIE) the opportunity to seek a better quality of life.

However, according to a recent UN study ‘A very beautiful but heavy jacket: The experiences of migrant workers with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in South-East Asia’ they experience discrimination at multiple levels.

Emily Dwyer, Co-Director of Edge Effect joins us to talk about the complexity of migrant work experiences for people with diverse SOGIE and why it’s important to support them.



Welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work Podcast.

I am Jackie Pichit Phromkade.


Every migrant worker has a story to tell,

their motivations to leave home and seek work overseas,

the challenges they face, and their hopes and fears for the future.

Yet, despite a raft of research on migration,

little is known about one important group,

migrant workers with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity,

and expression, or SOGIE for short.


With me, today to discuss this is Emily Dwyer.

Emily is a transwoman, co-founder of Australian NGO, the H effect,

and the lead author of a new report entitled

"A very beautiful but heavy jacket: The experiences of migrant workers

with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity

and expression in South-East Asia".

Emily, welcome to the Future of Work Podcast.

Thank you very much, Jackie.

It's wonderful to be here and to share what we found with people

doing work in this area in Southeast Asia and around the world.

Emily, let's start by talking about acronyms.

Many people are aware of the LGBTQI+ acronym, however,

they may be less aware of SOGIE.

Why the new acronym and how does it differ from LGBTQI+?

Yes, look the first thing I'd say, Jackie,

is I'd encourage people not to get too hung up on the language.

I think within the LGBTIQ communities

or communities of people with diverse sexual orientations,

gender identity and expressions, and sex characteristics,

there are lots of differences,

there are lots of nuances and that language is important.

In this case, the issues are far more important

than the language that we use.

The report looks at migrant workers with diverse SOGIE,

just how big a group is this?

We don't know how many migrant workers there are with diverse SOGIE.

In fact, in most countries in the world,

LGBTIQ people or people with diverse SOGIE are not counted in censuses

or in other data collection exercises.

That's true also when we're looking at the labour sector,

when we're talking about migrant workers, so we don't know.

In some respects, it doesn't matter either.

We know that LGBTIQ people or people with diverse SOGIE are everywhere.

We know that from talking to some people,

including the 147 migrant workers with diverse

SOGIE that we talked to for this report, we know that they're out there.

In a way, that's enough.

We don't need to know exactly how many are lesbians or how many are gay

or how many are transgender.

It's enough to know that there are migrant workers with diverse SOGIE

who are out there, and because they're out there, then the sector,

policymakers, service providers,

other stakeholders need to take into account that they do exist,

that they often will have different life experiences

and their service needs might be different as well.

What did the report set out to achieve?

The report really was trying to sketch a picture

of who these migrant workers with diverse SOGIE are

and why they go into migrant work,

what their experiences are along the migrant work journey,

how successful they are,

whether they do get support from other migrant workers,

whether they're able to get support from different stakeholders

including service providers in their countries of destination,

and what happens to them afterwards.

There are some positive stories

but also some really challenging and really deeply,

concerning stories about what happens to people with diverse SOGIE

when they're migrant workers as well.

The report has a very interesting title.

How did that come about?

The title of the report, A very beautiful but heavy jacket,

it's a quote which actually comes from one of the migrant workers,

a man from Vietnam

who used this to describe the weight

that he carries around being a person with diverse SOGIE.

It's something that is a deep part of his existence,

of who he is as a person, to be a person with diverse SOGIE,

in this case, a bisexual man from Vietnam.

It's something which is beautiful, which is part of who he is,

but it's also something that he feels a need to hide

when he's working as a migrant worker because he's concerned about

whether he'll experience discrimination from other migrant workers,

whether he'll experience discrimination from employers,

whether his contract will be terminated and he'll

be forced to all of a sudden go home, whether he might experience violence

or other forms of harassment along the way.

What motivates those with diverse

SOGIE to seek work in other countries?

Well, to some extent it's the same thing that drives

anyone else to be a migrant worker.

72% of the migrant workers that we talked with for this report

said that they migrated for economic advancement.

They're looking for economic opportunities

that they don't have in their countries of origin,

but I think you need to take a step back and unpack that and say

why don't they have the economic opportunities

that they hope for in their countries of origin.

LGBTIQ people, people with diverse SOGIE,

face lots and lots of discrimination

and challenges in all aspects of their lives,

so it might be very difficult to get a job as an LGBTI person

or a person with diverse SOGIE.

You might not have the same opportunities

for advancement in the workplace as people

who are not people with diverse SOGIE,

or who are not LGBTI.

As well as that 72% who said that they were migrating,

were doing migrant work for economic advancement,

41% also said that they were trying to escape discrimination

or trying to gain access to new freedoms.

As well as the opportunity to work, the opportunity to make money,

people are also trying to get away from some of that discrimination

that they've experienced as a person with diverse SOGIE.

They're also trying to, I guess,

put themselves in a position where they can explore who they are.

Sometimes it's easier to do that

when you're not surrounded by your own family

or people who've known you for your whole life up to that point.

What challenges do workers with diverse SOGIE face when they migrate?

Quite a few, Jackie.

It starts back in the country of origin,

so they might not feel that they can go to the kinds

of support services that exist in countries of origin,

where people can get information about the country of destination,

where they can get information about being a migrant worker.

They might not feel that they can go to those government services

or civil society services and say, "Well, I'm an LGBTIQ person,

or I'm a person with diverse SOGIE, I'm gay, I'm lesbian, I'm a trans person."

Now, I'm going to this country, what should I expect?

Are there going to be services there?

Am I going to be able to get help if something goes wrong?

Is there discrimination?

These are the kinds of questions

that people often have as an LGBTI person

or a person with diverse SOGIE before they go into migrant work,

and it's often hard to get answers to those questions.

Then if they do decide to go down the path of being a migrant worker,

the next big hurdle is getting over a border.

Some people use brokers, or other agents, some people don't.

Some people have more or less trouble crossing borders.

Some people with diverse SOGIE are a little more visible than others.

For example, a trans person who's already transitioned

into their own gender might look different

to what their identity documents say

because in lots of countries, as a trans woman,

your identity documents will still say you're a man,

or if you're a trans man,

your identity documents will still say you're a woman,

so when you cross borders, this can cause lots of problems.

Sometimes lesbians or gay people or others will have a gender expression

that is also obvious as well,

and so they'll get targeted maybe for a bit of discrimination or harassment.

There was a couple of horrible stories

where people were subject to sexual abuse by border officials

and only just escaped from some really horrible situations.

How about when they arrive in their country

of destination to start work?

A variety of things can happen.

I should say, some people had pretty good experiences,

and we'll talk about that a little later, but in terms of discrimination,

it came from a variety of different sources

within the countries of destination.

A lot of it actually came from other migrant workers.

This was particularly noted by migrant workers

coming from Myanmar who were in Thailand,

but also from other countries where they said that

it was other migrant workers from Myanmar who were amongst the people

who were treating them the worst.

This is often a really, really big problem because migrant workers

are often isolated within their countries of destination.

They might not have an opportunity to socialize

much with people from that country of destination.

Their housing might be where they work,

so they spend a lot of time with other migrant workers.

If those migrant workers are discriminating against them,

then where do they go?

Well, they don't have anywhere else to go,

so it can be a dangerous

and very isolating kind of experience.

It also means that when there are service providers,

government organizations or civil society organizations,

or other stakeholders in the labor movement who are providing support,

often they don't feel like it's safe to use that support because they know that

there'll be other migrant workers there,

and again, they might face discrimination.

That's a big part of it.

Another part of it is discrimination from government authorities,

and that can be people who work in government departments,

who are responsible for visas and permits of different kinds.

There's a lot of fear of police and people in policing roles,

especially for migrant workers with diverse SOGIE

who may not be documented.

Some migrant workers travel with formal documentation and approvals

and visas and contracts and so forth,

others cross borders and hope that they will work something out

when they get to the country of destination,

and they're particularly vulnerable.

If you add being an undocumented migrant

worker plus being a person with diverse SOGIE,

that can create a situation

where there's a lot of potential for discrimination and violence,

and migrant workers are often scared that if they interact with police,

they'll get found out.

They might get discriminated against.

They might lose their access to work in that country.

Are there any specific sectors that workers

with diverse SOGIE gravitate towards?

I should say that people with diverse SOGIE

as migrant workers, went to all kinds of different sectors.

Some to agriculture, some to manufacturing, some to services,

some to adult entertainment, food and beverage,

all kinds of different sectors.

In some sectors more than others,

it's probably experiences of discrimination.

Migrant workers with diverse SOGIE who went into domestic work,

for example, we're often isolated.

Maybe they were living in the place

where they were working as a domestic worker,

and so particularly vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation.

Some people who worked in adult entertainment

or the bar scene and things like that,

also found discrimination from employers and clients,

customers of those services as well from time to time.

There's a lot going on there, a lot for people to navigate.

Some people managed to do that really well,

other people had some really disturbing experiences

where there were instances of rape, of sexual assault,

of physical violence, of people losing jobs,

of people not being paid what they should be paid.

To some extent, these are experiences that a lot of other migrant workers have.

I think one of the things

that we were trying to do with this report,

was really say that migrant workers with diverse

SOGIE have a lot of the same kinds of challenges, experiences,

successes maybe as other migrant workers,

but there are also some things which are specific,

which are different for migrant workers with diverse SOGIE.

That's why service providers and policymakers

and other stakeholders really need to pay

more attention to the data in this report,

the stories that are in the report.

There's lots of stories, lots of quotes from migrant workers,

and we really need to do a better job of taking

into account the differences of experience.

You mentioned earlier that workers with

diverse SOGIE did have positive experiences.

Can you tell us about them?

Yes, some people achieved what they set out to achieve.

We mentioned earlier that about 72% of migrant workers

with diverse SOGIE that we spoke to,

were migrating for economic reasons, and of those,

about 63% said that they were able to make

ends meet in their countries of destination,

but they also were able to save money, and in some cases,

remit money back to their families in their countries of origin.

They were able to develop new skills as workers,

and with that experience,

when they went back to their countries of destination,

they also had an opportunity to do work

that they wouldn't have otherwise done.

Some people were able to set up their own businesses

and to have independence and demonstrate that people

with diverse SOGIE or LGBTIQ people can be successful.

There were certainly economic success stories.

59% of migrant workers that we spoke to said that their quality

of life in their countries of destination was higher than countries

where they came from.

Part of that's economic, and part of that is the increased freedom

that they might be experiencing as a person.

I mentioned a moment ago that some migrant workers

were able to remit funds to their families.

One of the interesting things that emerged from that,

we found that of the migrant workers who did remit funds,

about 43% of those migrant workers said that it really improved

the relationships they had with their families.

It's clear that migrant workers with

diverse SOGIE face a lot of challenges.

What needs to change?

Quite a lot.

I think one thing to separate out is direct discrimination

and indirect discrimination.

When we talk about direct discrimination, we're talking about people

who actively discriminated against people with diverse SOGIE

or LGBTI people who have views that LGBTI people

or people with diverse SOGIE are wrong, are sick, shouldn't exist,

are confused, immoral, anti-religious and treat them badly,

say things to them, actively hold them back, punish them,

enact violence upon them and so forth.

That's something that obviously we need to stamp out.

That's just not acceptable in the world of work

or in any other aspects of people's lives.

The second area though that we really need to put

more attention on is indirect discrimination.

It was interesting that one of the things--

Because we talked to a lot of migrant workers,

but we also talked to service providers

in countries of origin and countries of destination.

It was interesting because we found that amongst those service providers,

just 18% of their staff

had received training on diversity,

of sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression.

More than three quarters, no training at all.

When we asked them about the kinds of materials

they have or the services they provide,

only 4% of those service providers

actually have specific materials

or services for people with diverse SOGIE.

There's an assumption here that LGBTI people,

people with diverse SOGIE can just use

the same services as everyone else, but that's not always true

because our life experiences are different,

and because we might fear discrimination

for really good reasons, and so we don't go

and access services in the same way that other people do.

It's not enough just to say that you don't discriminate.

We had lots of people saying, "Oh, we don't discriminate.

Anyone can come here," but that's not enough.

You actually as a service provider, as a stakeholder, as a policymaker,

have to go a step further and think, "Well,

what are the positive steps that we can take to address

the fact that the LGBTIQ people have specific challenges,

have specific experiences?"

Doing that requires a lot more research,

it requires organizations to understand these issues,

it requires funding to be put into addressing these issues.

There's lots of different things that need to change.

It's not just one thing.

Partly, it's about dealing with direct discrimination, but partly,

it's about this big area of work where we need more policy,

we need more funding, we need more services that are actually responsive

to the actual needs of LGBTIQ people.

Then actually, that really involve those migrant workers

with diverse SOGIE in the development of these resources.

That's a great note to finish on.

Emily, thank you very much for joining us today.

It's been great talking to you.

If you want to find out more about the study,

A very beautiful but heavy jacket:

The experiences of migrant workers with diverse sexual orientation,

gender identities and expressions in South-East Asia,

you can find the link on the web page of this podcast on the ILO website.

Join us again soon for another edition

of the ILO's Future Of Work Podcast.

I am Jackie Pichit Phromkade.

Thank you for listening.