Migrating in ASEAN with a mobile phone: Gender gaps are not only in migrants’ salaries, but also in digital access

The increasingly widespread access to and use of the Internet in the ASEAN region has meant that more migrant workers are now seeking information using social media platforms. However, obtaining accurate and reliable information is still a challenge, not to mention gender gaps in digital access that women migrant workers face.

Press release | 29 November 2019
BANGKOK, 29 November 2019 - A recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN Women’s joint Spotlight Initiative programme “Safe and Fair” reveals that the increasingly widespread access to and use of the Internet in the ASEAN region has meant that more migrant workers are now seeking information using social media platforms. However, obtaining accurate and reliable information is still a challenge, not to mention gender gaps in digital access that women migrant workers face.

The report titled “Mobile women and mobile phones Women migrant workers’ use of information and communication technology in ASEAN” was launched at the Asia-Pacific Regional Review of the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, providing insight into women migrant workers’ use of mobile phones, and how women migrant workers could access more accurate information throughout the migration process. This qualitative study involved potential and returned women migrant workers in four countries of origin in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, namely Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. Women included in the study were intending to migrate to, or had just returned from, Malaysia, Singapore, or Thailand.

Research areas in each country of origin

Key findings:

Mobile phones can play a big role in the migration process

The majority of women migrant workers in ASEAN who access the internet do so from their mobile phones. Gone are the days of internet cafes or even computers. As a result, mobile phones are playing a big role in the migration process.

Access to mobile phones as well as to internet connections is predominately allowing women migrant workers to communicate with friends and family as well as with migration recruitment agencies. Migrant women report that they use the internet to look up information on working conditions, salaries, time off and remittances. A number of migrants also download dictionaries and translation apps to facilitate the migration process, helping them to better communicate with their employers as well as host communities in destination.

Access to accurate information can have a positive impact on women’s labour migration in terms of the pathways they take and any assistance services they access. If used properly, social media can be an effective avenue for women migrant workers to share problems and find solutions. Many women migrant workers interviewed recognize benefits of technology in migration, such as forums where migrant workers can help each other to be aware of migration-related risks and can provide advice or help each other.

Challenges associated with ICT for women migrant workers

Although ICT provides a host of migration-specific practical solutions, there are several challenges associated with ICT for women migrant workers, the report reveals.

While the internet reaches about 44 per cent of the population in Southeast Asia, there is still a gender gap in mobile internet usage and mobile phone ownership – with some women only being able to afford a mobile phone and access to the internet after arriving at the destination country. In Myanmar, for instance, women are 28 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone.

Myanmar women’s ownership of a mobile phone (Galpaya et al., 2017)

In addition to this gender gap in mobile internet usage and mobile ownership, some workers face gendered challenges in accessing the internet and mobile technology. Barriers to access can be sector-specific. In domestic work particularly, it is not unlikely for women migrant workers to either have their phones confiscated or have their access to Wi-Fi restricted. They then have limited access to information and communications, as well as to help when they need it.

Women migrant workers can be at risk when they have no access to their phones or the internet. In the study Indonesian women migrant workers report that because their phones were confiscated, they were effectively barred from connecting with their children and families, helplines, credible migration information, and necessary assistance when they were in trouble. One reported being locked in her employers’ house with no phone, the study reveals.

"I need to be allowed to carry and use my phone and contact my family at any time"

- Indonesian returned woman migrant worker

Although using social media to share problems can enable women migrant workers to connect with people who can give useful advice or people who can help them, the ILO and UN Women’s joint study reveals that women migrant workers who decide to report abuses or violence on social media also face risks of victim blaming, retaliation from employers and humiliation. Some women reported receiving negative comments that caused social stigma. Confidential, anonymous platforms are key, as are referral mechanisms to services that can provide support to the women migrant workers who need it.

Further, migrant workers are not unaffected by “fake news” and other false information online, and like the rest of us, find it hard to verify information online about migration or jobs abroad that can sometimes be inaccurate.


Equal access to mobile phones and the Internet, as well as digital literacy including understanding how to navigate and verify information will increase opportunities for women and help them make more informed decisions when they migrate to neighbouring ASEAN countries to fill labour market gaps.

Women are due equality with men not just in terms of working conditions or household duties, but also in terms of how much access they have to the internet and the information and social connections it can deliver. We need to engage multiple stakeholders and the ASEAN Member States to promote digital gender equality.
With equal access to phones and the internet, women have equal access to translation apps, to speaking with their children who may be in countries of origin, to accurate information about minimum wages and the cheapest remittance channels, and to online reporting of complaints of abuse or violence.

Note to the editors

The ILO recommends using the terms “labour migration”, “labour movement” or “labour mobility” instead of “labour export” as labour is not a commodity.

“Irregular migrant workers”, “migrant workers with irregular status” or “undocumented migrant workers” should also be used instead of “illegal migrant workers”.

“Domestic workers” should be used instead of “maids”, “helpers” or “servants”.

Your support of using rights-based language can prevent discrimination against irregular migrant workers and promote social inclusion.

For further information please contact:

Pichit Phromkade
Communications Officer
Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant worker’s rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region
Tel.: +66 (0) 2288 1762
Email: phromkade@ilo.org