Migrant Encounters: Intimate Labor, The State, and Mobility Across Asia

For more than three decades, Asia’s uneven development, intensifying globalization, and changing demography have dramatically increased demands for reproductive labor in the private homes of wealthy countries. Large numbers of women from the developing economies have responded by crossing borders as domestic workers and even migrant spouses. However, fearing their sexuality and ability to reproduce prospective citizens, the host governments have erected laws to restrict migrant women’s freedom and independence. As a result, the region’s immigration policies are not only sharply gendered and racialized, but also exceedingly rigid and complex. Across Asia and the Persian Gulf, the reproductive workers’ migration trajectories are characterized by unpredictability, inconsistency, and fragmentation. The edited volume by Sara L. Friedman and Pardis Mahdavi, Migrant Encounters: Intimate Labor, The State, and Mobility Across Asia, provides rich and nuanced accounts of the intricate and often precarious circumstances fallen into by many migrant women. It also sheds light on the unusual but innovative measures they come up with to counteract the difficulties they meet in foreign lands.

The nine chapters comprising this book are mostly based on interviews, observations, and case studies of migrant domestics and marriage migrants from China, India, Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries working in Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and the Gulf countries. The cases of migration and migrant experiences analyzed in the anthology reveal unexpectedly fluid and dynamic forces generated at the intersections of rigid policies, intimate labor, and individual agency that together may lead to a change in inhumane law and exploitative practices common in the region. The chief goal of the edited volume is therefore “to illustrate the productive and at times perverse dance engaged in by migrants and state actors as they move in and out of various intimate settings and relationships across Asia” (p. 3). The editors argue that such events produce “unpredictable policy consequences, new modes of intimacy, and alternative frameworks for assessing migrants’ claims to presence, rights, and citizenship” (p. 3).  This shift occurs precisely because migrants are “irreducible to pure labor but continue to act as social, political, psychological, emotional, and relational subjects” for their desires, sexuality, and family (Yeoh and Chee, p. 186).

In Part I, “The Intimate Lives of Intimate Laborers,” two chapters examine migrants’ own intimate lives and relationships that are disrupted and reconstructed by migration. In Chapter 1, Hym Mee Kim analyzes the importance of remittances in international marriages in South Korea. In the absence of intimacies in “marriages of convenience” (p. 36), the act of sending remittances to impoverished families of migrant wives takes on special exchange value, mediating money and love for the couples, elevating marital satisfaction. In Chapter 2, Filippo Osella discusses public anxiety over morality and sexuality of migrant men working in the Gulf and their wives left home in Kerala. For many decades, massive numbers of differing classes, castes, genders, and ages migrated from the state to the Gulf. This has threatened traditional social orders held by upper classes and upper castes that blame the migrants and their bodies as Kerala’s moral transgressors.

In Part II, “Migration and the National Family,” three chapters address goals and results of rigid immigration policies and nationality laws on migrant women and their children. In Chapter 3, Pardis Mahdavi explains the presence of stateless children in the Gulf countries.  Their extremely sexist and racist policies punish migrant women severely if they, either voluntarily or involuntarily, have a child. As a result, some children born to migrant mothers are not granted citizenship in the country of birth or that of their mothers’ homeland. Their future is bleak. Luckily the region’s nascent civil society has begun to act on their behalf. In Chapter 4, Nicole Constable reports about migrant domestics in Hong Kong who are denied their rights to family reunification. But a few defy the rule and form a family. In order to support the family, some mothers use torture claims to stay and work until the court determines their cases. In Chapter 5, Nobue Suzuki examines contradictory results of the amended law that grants nationality to the children born to unwed migrant mothers and citizen fathers in Japan. The combination of the absence of national integration policy and the economic insecurity of their migrant families denies the children a chance to learn the Japanese language. Many of them, thus, live on the margin of their fathers’ land being reduced to secondary citizens.

In Part III, “Negotiating the State,” four chapters discuss the ways migrant workers in trouble negotiate the state and fight for their rights. In Chapter 6, Mark Johnson and Christopher Wilcke describe the cases of migrant domestics in the Gulf who leave abusive employers and take up freelancing jobs. The kafala system of the region that requires an Arab citizen to be a sponsor of foreign employees creates an exploitative environment for the migrants. Their freelancing is therefore seen to be an act of challenging the state that sanctions the unjust system.  In Chapter 7, Hsiao-Chuan Hsia analyzes consequences of migrant women’s escape from abusive employers in Taiwan. If they leave, the state punishes them as illegal runaways instead of protecting their rights. By so doing, the government keeps a pool of cheap labor available, while saving on welfare expenditures. In chapter 8, Brenda S.A. Yoeh and Heng Leng Chee examine the negative impact of a state ban on marriage between migrants and citizens in Singapore. The strict law makes it nearly impossible for migrants and citizens to marry, thus controlling the human intimacy from crossing national and legal lines. Finally in Chapter 9, Sara L. Friedman discusses Taiwan’s visa control aimed at blocking sham marriages between the mainland Chinese women and Taiwanese men. The tension across the Strait raises state suspicions over the wives’ motives, subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny by the authorities. The result often causes the wives to endure domestic abuses.

The messages of each chapter are clear: Asia’s rigid immigration laws inevitably force migrants to violate them precisely because they violate their rights to privacy and intimacy. States admit large numbers of foreign women to work in reproductive labor, of which human emotions and relations are an integral part. Controlling the workers by law leaves ambiguous areas between legality and illegality, and that is exactly what the women portrayed in the chapters stumble upon by chance or through their own efforts and strengths. Are they a lucky few among the unknown numbers of migrant women subjected to unjust sufferings including imprisonment and even death? The chapters of the volume deliver unusual episodes in which women exhibited their empowered subjectivities in the midst of legal and social difficulties. A larger question unaddressed is: what can be done to make a fundamental change in the inhumane immigration policies common in Asia and the Middle East? Although the women’s actions appear to have made some progress in reducing state violence against them, state power is largely untouched in carrying out the agenda: keep out low-class, foreign women from the nation and deny them citizenship – and potentially their children as well. As such, Migrant Encounters contributes to gender and migration studies, and also theories of development and human rights.

 Keiko Yamanaka, University of California

Friedman, Sara L. and Pardis Mahdavi. Migrant Encounters: Intimate Labor, The State, and Mobility Across Asia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.




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