Book

Multinational Maids: Asian Migrant Domestic Workers in a Global Labor Market (under review)

Taiwan AdMultinational Maids unpacks an understudied and undertheorized migration pattern observed amongst Asian migrant domestic workers. Drawing from extensive ethnographic, in-depth interviewing, and survey work I have conducted since 2008 in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United States, and Canada, Multinational Maids illustrates how many Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers adopt a stepwise international migration pattern to better their living/working conditions and, in some cases, gain permanent residence in Western countries. This multistate migration pattern involves working (legally) for one or more years in various “stepping-stone” countries to save up some foreign earnings, build work experience, and expand networks—all of which can then be leveraged to find better-paying jobs in countries higher up the migrant’s destination hierarchy. A quarter of the 600-plus migrants my research team and I surveyed in Singapore had engaged in stepwise international migration, and, amongst the 600-plus migrants we surveyed in Hong Kong, the prevalence rate went even higher to half. There was a clear pattern to the order of countries these stepwise migrants had worked in, moving from countries with relatively poorer working conditions and wages, to countries with better protections and more freedoms. Rather than treating these women migrants as flotsam and jetsam tossed around the world by the relentless forces of globalization, my book highlights their agency to engage in these dynamic, yet intentional, stepwise migrations up their destination hierarchy. At the same time, I explore how expanding multinational migration networks, information technology-fueled migration imaginaries, and the global labor market for paid domestic work, both encourage and enable such multistate mobilities, and how differing migration cultures and structures at home result in varying trajectories and aspirations amongst Indonesian and Filipino migrant domestic workers. In essence, this book paints an empirical picture of the spatial and socioeconomic mobility dreams of migrant workers near the bottom of the global economic ladder.

From a theoretical perspective, this book extends our understanding of the relationship between migration, mobility, and migrant capital, and the mediating role of the ever-expanding migration industry. In the last two decades, the subfield of migration studies that looks at migration trajectories spanning multiple destination countries has grown considerably (see Paul 2011; Aydemir and Robinson 2008; King and Newbold 2007; Ossman 2013; Xiang 2007; Siu 2005; DeVoretz and Ma 2002; Lam 1996, 1994; Takenaka 2007; Bhachu 1985 to sample a few). But there have been few attempts at theorizing this phenomenon’s emergence. This book focuses instead on a very different population of migrants who adopt multistate migration because they lacked sufficient pre-migration capital and therefore could not gain immediate, direct access to their preferred destination. I am able to prove that very little in the way of pre-migration capital is required to engage in stepwise labor migration, allowing even very lowly-educated and lowly-paid migrant workers to take part in this mobility phenomenon (if they so choose) though in a more constrained manner.

Extant work on Asian migrant domestic workers has noted individual cases of women migrant domestic workers having worked in multiple countries (see Liebelt 2011; McKay 2005; Lan 2006; Constable 1997; Gamburd 2000; Oishi 2005), but there has not been to date a concerted effort to systematically study this migration behavior and theorize its drivers or mechanisms. That is what this book aims to do. I show how, at the individual level, these migrants are able to engage in stepwise international migration by acquiring and accumulating new migrant capital (of various kinds) once they start working overseas (Paul 2011, 2015; Carlos 2013; Xiang 2007). At the meso-level, they are advised about new destination markets and often encouraged to engage in stepwise trajectories by migration information networks in both the home country and their initial destination. And, at the macro-level, the global migrant domestic worker industry creates opportunity structures that steer migrants towards the adoption of an iterative migration trajectory through debt-financing schemes and work experience pre-requisites.

Multinational Maids thus contributes in equal parts to migration theory and to empirical studies of Asian labor migrations in the age of globalization. Each chapter is packed with migrants’ accounts of their migration dreams and strategies, journeys, and work experiences. The book draws on 160 in-depth interviews I conducted between 2008 and 2011 with Filipino migrant domestic workers in Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Canada and the US, for my doctoral dissertation. It also draws on original survey data my students and I collected from more than 1,200 Filipino and Indonesian migrant domestic workers in Singapore and Hong Kong between 2014 and 2015. This extensive and sustained fieldwork gives me the confidence to make strong claims about the widespread prevalence of this migration pattern amongst Indonesian and Filipino migrant domestic workers, the differing motivations behind its adoption, and the role of the migration industry and migration information networks in enabling it.

Chapter Outline

  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Chapter Two: Stepwise International Labor Migration in Theory
  • Chapter Three: Asian Maids for Hire
  • Chapter Four: Global but not Open: The Overseas Labor Market for Migrant Domestic Workers
  • Chapter Five: The World According to Migrant Domestic Workers
  • Chapter Six: Onward and Upward: Characterizing Stepwise International Migration
  • Chapter Seven: Taking the Scene Route: The Thinking behind Stepwise International Migration
  • Chapter Eight: Unpacking the Suitcase: The Mechanics of Stepwise International Migration
  • Chapter Nine: Mobile Servitude in the Lives of Stepwise Domestic Workers
  • Chapter Ten: Conclusion
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