Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor

Born Out of Place is a captivating and timely ethnography of the everyday struggles of Indonesian and Filipina female domestic workers living in Hong Kong. Building on her previous research, Nicole Constable provides riveting details of the women and their babies as well as the men they encounter, all of whom face myriad problems within the brutal legal and cultural systems of citizenship in a place that that needs them as workers, but does not view them as humans. Centering on the lives of the women and their babies, Constable provides compelling details of all of their experiences with migration. She discusses: how the women migrate to Hong Kong in the first place for domestic work; what happens when they encounter local and foreign men from various corners of the globe, many of whom themselves are precariat workers; the problems they face when they have babies; the reasons why they continue to stay in Hong Kong despite expired contracts since they are temporary workers; and then finally the often disturbing responses they face from their relatives when some of them return home, often as single mothers and often with no more resources than when they left in the first place.

Constable introduces her formulation of “the migratory cycle of atonement” (p. xiii) as a framework for situating these women’s migratory paths within the political, global, and cultural contexts within which they live. This cycle of atonement is a self-perpetuating precarious  pattern of migration in which these women continue to come and go from their sending community in order to provide for left-behind relatives, but also to avoid them. Many of these women face tremendous shame when they go home as single mothers. Born out of Place is much more than an ethnography of precarious workers, its power lies within the sensitivity that Constable is so much known for in her work as she engages the nexus of public anthropology with what she calls feminist-ethnographic-activism. Therefore, and significantly, readers do not just encounter subjects struggling with precarity, but readers also learn the compassion and humanity that an ethnographer can have on her subjects’ lives when the lines between research and personal life are often, and necessarily, blurry.

The first chapter introduces readers to the central concern of the book:  the babies of migrant workers. In most, if not all situations of temporary contractual and thus precarious work across the globe, especially among intimate laborers such as domestic workers, women migrate as single women or as mothers who leave their children behind in the sending community. But as Constable documents, increasingly many of these women are coming as workers during the prime of their child-rearing years, and initially might delay childbirth for the sake of employment. But for some, they become pregnant or have babies either by choice or by accident. The question of what to do with the babies is becoming a central issue for many countries who rely on migrant workers, and thus “we begin to see the political, nationalistic, legalistic, global, transnational, and ideological issues that come to play around a baby born out of place (p. 3). Following the introduction to the heart of the matter, so to speak, Constable thoughtfully devotes an entire chapter on her role as an ethnographer. She presents descriptions of how she is deeply involved in her respondents’ lives, with some seeing her as a fill-in mother and grandmother for them and their babies. This chapter is especially crucial to reflect upon as readers see a prolific scholar providing moving stories of her work, that which brilliantly and iteratively builds on her research over the past two decades. The next two chapters focus separately on the women migrant workers and the men who they meet. These two chapters describe stories of courtship, romance, and blow-ups among men and women. Such blow-ups result unsurprisingly from the unstable, risky, and treacherous lives that characterize not only the work these women and men do, but also the political and legal systems with which they have to navigate. The four chapters to follow focus on the difficulties the women face when they have babies either by choice or accident; how they respond to the precarious work by seeking some pleasures and intimacy in their lives, often with men who make tall promises; how they navigate the legal system in order to gain asylum that often ends unsuccessfully; and how some of them go back to the homeland with their babies as single mothers, only to be abandoned and rejected by their families, for whom they left in the first place; and then how they find ways to go back as migrant workers, beginning yet again the migratory cycle of atonement.

Over the past two decades, scholars have seen a burgeoning body of work on migrant workers, on both the situations of men and women from different corners of the world. And yet, as Constable notes, very little is known about what happens to babies born to such migrant workers. This book is the first to address this issue, placing it firmly within the body of work on citizenship, precarity, and labor migration. The book succeeds admirably and uses this group of women, their babies, and the men they meet to draw profound conclusions about not only citizenship and precarity, but also about global matters of the heart.

Hung Cam Thai, Pomona College

Constable, Nicole. Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor. University of California Press, 2014. Read more at University of California Press.

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