Global Cinderellas: Migrant Domestic Workers in Asia | by Pei-Chia Lan

by Jun 7, 2012All Articles

The increasing prosperity of East Asia since the mid-1970s has stimulated substantial international migration within the region. It is estimated that the number of temporary migrant workers in Asia, with or without legal documents, reached 6.1 million by 2000.[1] Women occupy one third of this migrant labor force, concentrated in particular occupations like the entertainment industry, health services, and especially domestic service.[2] Migrant domestic workers in Asia originate from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, and they migrate to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.
The introduction of migrant domestic workers in this region is a practice that exacerbates the privatization of care encouraging people to continue to define housework and care work as a woman’s calling and a family duty. This practice thereby excuses the lack of care work done by the state or by men. One critical difference with this new practice is that women who can afford migrant domestic workers oversee the hiring of domestic work instead of doing the work themselves, thereby creating even more levels of hierarchy and exploitation. As I will argue in this essay, we should recognize care as an essential social right and public responsibility, rather than reducing it to a “parochial concern of women”[3] or the devalued work of powerless minorities.
In East Asia, as in many other areas of the world, because most states have not established comprehensive welfare programs, the family is assumed to be the primary institution that guards the economic and social well-being of individual people. Policymakers praise and encourage three-generation cohabitation as a time-honored solution to childcare and eldercare. For example, in Japan and South Korea, grown children living with parents receive benefits like income tax reduction, preferential treatments of housing funds, and privileged entry into public housing.[4] This romanticized image of family unity, however, obscures power inequalities along gendered and generational divides. The privatization of care in connection with the principle of familism exacerbates women’s subordination to the patriarchal family. For instance, while sons are expected to guard the welfare of aging parents, in fact, daughter-in-laws are burdened with the physical labor of eldercare.
Live-in migrant domestic workers enable many ethnic Chinese households in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore to maintain the socially perceived ideals of in-home care for children and the elderly. By recruiting migrant women as substitute mothers for their children and fictive relatives for their aging parents, employed women are able to mitigate their motherly guilt and avoid the stigma of consigning elders to nursing homes. This is a global solution to the local norms of familism and filial piety. Ironically, the idyllic picture of carework done within the family is staged against the sober backdrop of migrant domestic workers separated from their own children and families for extensive periods of time.
In my work I use the metaphor of migrant domestic workers as global Cinderellas[5] to illuminate the complexity and paradoxes in their migratory trajectories: their relationship with employers is a combination of physical intimacy and social distance, and the impact of their migration is a juxtaposition of emancipation and oppression. Migrant women work overseas to escape poverty and stress at home; they also embark on the journey to expand life horizons and to explore modernity. After crossing national borders, they are nevertheless confined within the four walls of their employers’ households. At work they act with deference; only during days off are they able to dress and act as they wish. Although migrant women may partially achieve the goal of upward mobility in their material lives back home, Cinderella’s happy ending remains a fairy tale for many who remain trapped in the flow determined by patterns of international migration.
“Guest Worker” Regime in Asia
East Asian host states opened the door to migrant domestic workers in response to labor shortages and care deficits in their societies. Hong Kong and Singapore started recruiting foreign domestic workers in the 1970s in order to push local women into the formal labor force.[6] Other countries in the region hold more rigid regulations concerning the settlement of foreigners given that their populations are much more ethnically homogeneous. Taiwan slowly opened the gate with caution in the early 1990s. Japan and South Korea initially only permitted the labor recruitment of noncitizens of Japanese or Korean descent. The situation changed only recently when Korea decided to accept unskilled foreign labor in August 2004 and Japan has been negotiating with the Philippine and Indonesian governments about recruiting nurses and caregivers to provide home-visit care services for their aging populations.
Despite differences in policies, all these host states employ migrant workers on a temporary contract basis. The “guest worker” regime is predominant in European and Asian countries that lack a history of immigration or an ideology that favors permanent settlement.[7] In Asia, more restrictive immigration policies are enforced on the basis of state concerns about geographic constraints, population densities, and nationalist agendas. Quota controls, work permits, and levies are widely adopted to control the volume and distribution of migrant workers.[8] Immigration is not granted for unskilled migrant workers, although professional migrants (known as “foreign talents”) are entitled to naturalization after several years of residence. The Singapore government even prohibits residency to migrant workers married to Singaporean citizens.
The guest worker regime treats migrant workers as disposable labor, even when recruited to care for needy children and frail seniors in host families and nations. Migrant contract workers live in the country of destination for restricted terms of employment. Through prohibiting migrant workers from permanent settlement and family reunification, host states externalize the cost of renewing labor to the economies and states of origin.[9] Such an arrangement allows the host countries to enjoy the labor power of migrants while they are young and healthy. They are, however, sent back home after they age, fall ill, or suffer injury.
The sending state also favors the guest worker system, positioning migrants as temporary visitors rather than permanent immigrants. The sending state often invests in ideological work to secure the loyalty of its overseas nationals as well as the flow of their regular remittances. For example, the Philippine government has promoted the notion of “national heroes” in media campaigns based on the nationalist imagery of “homeland.” In addition, many sending states have established special financial programs to attract overseas remittances, such as offering tax breaks, setting up banking facilities in receiving countries, and requiring the remittance of a fixed share of earnings into government-controlled accounts.[10]
Shackles of Fees and Debts
The guest worker regime in Asia exacerbates the commercialization of migration, which has dire consequences for migrant workers. In North America, where migrant workers are entitled to acquire permanent status, settled migrants act as contractors by recruiting relatives or acquaintances back home. Yet, in Asia the contract workforce is constantly replenished with new migrants, creating a situation where employers and workers alike lack sufficient information about the other party. They must therefore rely on private agencies as intermediaries.[11] The agencies can thus appropriate a significant cut from the process of recruitment and placement.
Based on my investigation in Taiwan, a Filipina domestic worker usually pays 60,000 pesos, or around $1,300 USD, to her broker in the Philippines[12] and the Taiwanese agent deducts “service fees” from her monthly wages (the fees add up to NT$60,000 (New Taiwan Dollars), or around $1,900 USD, for a contract of three years). The total amount equals to what she earns in half a year in Taiwan.[13] Indonesian domestic workers are burdened with even higher financial costs. They have to pay monthly installments of NT$10,000, or around $300 USD, over a period of 14 to 16 months—the total equals 8 to 9.3 months of their salary. The charges, usually disguised as loan contracts, cover expenses for their stay in training centers and placement fees. Taiwanese agents usually give one-third of the payment or less to their Indonesian partners.
Migrants are usually told by recruiters that job offers in Taiwan are valid for two or three years. In fact, their contracts are renewed annually. Those who fail to extend their contract after one year rarely get their placement fees refunded. The financial burdens of debts and fees discourage migrant workers from asserting their rights. A group of migrant workers in Taiwan reported the following with respect to their fees: “Placement fees tie our arms from fighting.” “We still have five-six[14] to pay at home!” “We are afraid if we speak out, we will be sent back to the Philippines. We don’t want to spend money on placement fees again. We would rather stay in Taiwan, at least making some money.”
Migrant workers, bound by financial shackles, exercise overt resistance only when a contract’s termination is inevitable. Open confrontation mostly happens toward the end of a contract or when employers attempt to terminate a contract. In Taiwan, migrant workers are also deprived of the opportunity to freely switch employers; as a result, some migrant workers manage to “run away” from their contractual employers. Ironically, the deprivation of freedom among documented migrant workers presents a striking contrast to undocumented migrant workers, who are “free” to switch jobs and gain increased bargaining power vis-á-vis unauthorized employers.[15]
Policy and Activist Suggestions
Asian governments have introduced migrant domestic workers as a privatized welfare program that solve deficits in caring labor and to push their female citizens into the labor market as part of national development. In the meantime, state regulations, in particular the “guest worker” program, have maintained the status of migrant workers as disposable labor and as transient residents. States ensure the dependency and subordination of migrant workers to facilitate extraction of flexible labor and to sustain their marginal status in host societies.
As feminists have argued for decades in various contexts around the world, to change this situation, we should first challenge the public/private dichotomy and advocate the publicizing of care. To counteract the privatized, familistic model of care, the public should support tax reforms that aim for social justice, while the government should provide affordable institutional care and establish universal welfare programs such as pensions and child allowances.
The second action item is to formalize and professionalize domestic and care work. Because employers do not recognize domestic work as real work, they tend to impose unreasonable demands upon their surrogates (rather than treating them like “employees”) and ignore the contract-bound nature of employment. Without adequate social recognition and institutional protection for paid domestic service, a personalized employment relationship can only reproduce an oppressive, family-like hierarchy for these fictive-kin employees.
The project of professionalizing domestic work needs to be grounded in changes in the institutional regulations that legitimize domestic work as an occupation. Otherwise, the rhetoric of professionalism could turn into a form of self-discipline in accordance with the discourses of labor brokers. In Taiwan and other Asian host countries, domestic workers are not covered by the Labor Standards Law. Such legal exclusion has intensified the vulnerability of foreign domestic workers in comparison with migrant workers (mostly men) employed in formal sectors. This, again, reflects the state ideology about the feminized and privatized nature of domestic work. In the eyes of the state, the foreign domestic worker is not a worker in the national economy but “an appendage of the household.”[16]
In addition to legal reform, it is also vital to seek effective strategies to mobilize and unionize domestic workers, whose workplaces are scattered across individual households. Another barrier to the organization of migrant domestic workers is their transient status and limited duration of stay in host countries. This point leads to the third political agenda for the labor rights of migrant workers. Some inappropriate interventions by the state, such as the regulation of job transfers in the local labor market, should be abolished. Migrant workers should be allowed to change employers and extend their residency, conditional upon job availability. In the meantime, the state should strengthen its protection of migrant rights and better enforce its own regulations.
In conclusion, we need a new framework for the regulation of citizenship and membership. In reality, the presence of “guest” workers has become relatively permanent in Taiwan and other Asian countries, contributing greatly to the welfare of the host societies. The receiving states should consider opening the possibility of naturalization to migrant manual laborers, or else relax the dichotomous model of citizenship. Migrants could be granted economic, social, and local political rights based on a “membership without citizenship”[17]. In the era of globalization, we need to reformulate the idea of sovereignty on the grounds of human rights and moral obligations. After all, the essential values of membership are not based on blood ties or formal identifications but are constituted by equality, solidarity and participation of members in a community, be it a society or the globe.
1. Graziano Battistella, “International Migration in Asia vis-á-vis Europe: An Introduction,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 2.4 (2002): 405-414.
2. Keiko Yamanaka and Nicola Piper, “An Introductory Overview,” Asia and Pacific Migration Journal 12.1-2 (2003): 1-19.
3. John C. Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care, (New York and London: Routledge, 1993): 180.
4. Byung Hyun Park and Han Oak Lee, “A Comparative Study on Housing Welfare Policies for the Elderly between Korea and JapanÑfocused on the Policy for Home Residence,” available at (PDF).
5. This article is based on my book, Global Cinderellas: Migrant Domestics and Newly Rich Employers in Taiwan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
6. Nana Oishi, Women in Motion: Globalization, State Politics, and Labor Migration in Asia (California: Stanford University Press, 2005).
7. Douglas Massey et al., Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
8. Shu-Ju Ada Cheng, “Migrant Women Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan: A Comparative Analysis,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 5.1 (1996): 139-152.
9. Michael Burawoy, “The Functions and Reproduction of Migrant Labor: Comparative Material from Southern Africa and the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 81.5 (1976): 1050-1087.
10. Premachandra Athukorala, “Improving the Contribution of Migrant Remittances to Development: The Experience of Asian Labor-Exporting Countries,” Migration Review 24 (1993): 323-346.
11. David Martin, “Labor Contractors: A Conceptual Overview,” Asian Pacific Migration Journal 5.2-3 (1996): 201-218; Yoshi Okunishi, “Labor Contracting in International Migration: The Japanese Case And Implications for Asia,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 5.2-3 (1996): 219-240.
12. This amount will cover expenses for the preparation of a passport and other documents, as well as a medical checkup. According to the Philippine law, brokers are only allowed to charge one month’s salary as placement fee. The actually charged amount is usually more than that.
13. In 2009, the minimum monthly wage for a migrant worker in Taiwan was NT$17,280, or around $540 USD.
14. “Five-six” is a short-cut expression referring to loans borrowed from loan sharks in the Philippines: If one borrows 5,000 pesos, he or she has to return 6,000 pesos in a month (with a monthly interest rate equal to 20 percent).
15. See Pei-Chia Lan, “Legal Servitude, Free Illegality: Migrant ‘Guest’ Workers in Taiwan,” in Rhacel Parreñas and Lok Siu, ed., Asian Diasporas: New Conceptions, New Frameworks (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007): 253-277.
16. Shirlena Huang and Brenda Yeoh, “The Difference Gender Makes: State Policy and Contract Migrant Workers in Singapore,” Asia and Pacific Migration Journal 12.1-2 (2003): 93.
17. Brubaker, W. Rogers, “Membership without Citizenship: The Economic and Social Rights of Noncitiznes,” in Brubaker, ed., Immigration and Politics of Citizenship in Europe and North America (Lanfam, Md.: University Press of America, 1989): 145-162.
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