Nicole Constable on migrant workers in Hong Kong

Nicole Constable is a Professor of Anthropology and a Research Professor of International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is former JY Pillay Professor of Social Sciences at Yale-NUS College, former Director of the Asian Studies Center and Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research has focused primarily on migration and mobilities; the commodification of intimacy; gender, sexuality and reproductive labor. She is the author of four monographs including, Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers and Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography, and Mail-Order Marriages. Her most recent book, Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor is about Filipina and Indonesian migrant workers who become mothers in Hong Kong, and their legal and personal struggles in relation to work, family, citizenship and parenthood. She spoke with Erica Rawles CMC '17 on April 11, 2017. 

Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Constable.

How did you become interested in studying migrant workers? How did this issue become important to you?

I have always been interested in things that seem to be on the margins, or people who do not seem to fit 100 percent into the community. My earlier dissertation research project in Hong Kong was among Chinese Christians, and one of the members of that community, who helped me with the research and who I respected, said something racist about Filipino migrant workers. I was shocked because that was the first I had heard such local attitudes toward migrant workers, but it also caught my interest. In those days, in the 1980s, there were not as many foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, but they were beginning to be very visible on Sundays in Statue Square where they would hang out on their day off. It was something so public that when I would go and sit in Statue Square, migrant workers would come and talk to me, perhaps because I looked like an outsider as well. The topic of migrant workers was wonderful because I found them very accessible, public and visible, unlike my earlier work where I literally had to knock on doors and try to make appointments with people to talk to because they were all so busy. At that time, there were relatively few people studying domestic workers and there were far fewer domestic workers, so they were very willing to talk and be interviewed by a scholar. 

Can you describe your methods of researching migrant mothers in Hong Kong and talk a bit about the amount of time you spent forming personal relationships with the women? What were the advantages and disadvantages of your research being so closely tied to your day-to-day life?

As a cultural anthropologist, I largely follow what’s called participant observation, which involves hanging out with people and listening to them. This research builds on earlier work that I did with domestic workers in the 1990s, during which time I met a lot of Filipino NGO staff who worked with domestic workers. One of the staff members introduced me to a new NGO that she thought I would be very interested in, called PathFinders. They work with migrant workers who are pregnant. PathFinders became an important entrée for me into the community of migrant workers who were pregnant or had small children. I attended some of their meetings and started interviewing the women, who then introduced me to other mothers. I got to know them not only within the NGO, but also outside of it. I would get invited to kids’ birthday parties, accompany people to various registries and offices where they might have to wait in line with their babies to get a birth certificate, get checkups or do other kinds of migration related things. One of the women working for PathFinders was a former domestic worker and would invite me to come along if she was going to meet domestic workers at one of the registries or the consulate or to meet women who could not come into the office. 

Some of the women I met invited me to meet other women who they said needed to talk to me. I asked, why do they need to talk to me? Part of their response was that I listened to them. I realized that listening to them and finding their stories interesting, valuable and often moving was important for them. Sometimes I offered advice or practical information on how they could contact PathFinders or other organizations that might help them. I was with them through the mundane day-to-day activities of picking up supplies or walking around with a child. Sometimes when they had to wait in line for ages and I would hold the baby so they could go to the bathroom. When someone was not feeling well, they felt they could call me and I would come and hang out with them. It was nice for them to have someone who was willing to go along and relieve some of the monotony of some of the things they had to do everyday. I was partly entertainment and partly diversion; and I was someone who was a little weird, but someone they became fond of. It was very mutual. 

It was the most meaningful and wonderful fieldwork experience; my day-to-day activities were their day-to-day activities. There was not really a line between my work and my life and I found that incredibly rewarding. It was the closest I ever got to what they call “going native” –where I felt like, had I not had another life and family in the U.S., I could have been tempted to stay there forever. From my point of view there were no disadvantages, but from the point of view of someone who thinks research ought to be detached and objective, that might be seen as a problem. Given the kind of work I do, becoming attached to people and really caring about them adds to a sense of responsibility; you have to be as incredibly fair to them as possible. The only disadvantage is being really sad to leave.

Can you talk about the effect globalization has had on the number of migrant workers, which has increased in recent years? 

There are over 350,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong now. Roughly half are Filipino and roughly half are Indonesian. One or two percent are men. There are small numbers of people from other countries as well such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Thailand. The number of migrant workers has continued to increase and the number of women migrant workers in Asia has increased faster than the number of men. There used to be more positions for men to work in construction or the oil and gas industry in the Gulf or the Middle East, but now there are relatively fewer male workers from Southeast Asia, but there are many more women from the Philippines and Indonesia who migrate for work than previously due to the increasingly commodified need for care workers who can look after babies or the elderly and do housework. This labor allows more privileged women in the host countries to go out and work and make more money themselves. If local women can afford not to work, domestic help gives them more leisure time away from the chores, since housework is still considered women’s work.

How did you decide to specifically research migrant mothers who became pregnant in the host country and as opposed to migrant women more generally? What made you interested in the stories of this subgroup?

Before I wrote Born Out of Place, I wrote a book called Maid To Order in Hong Kong, which focuses more generally on migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, but Born Out of Place has a narrower focus. I learned from a Filipino friend who had worked for an NGO about the problem of migrant workers who get pregnant. It’s not a well-known problem; it’s mostly invisible. If you see a migrant worker walking around with a baby you might well assume that she is just looking after someone else’s baby. Most would assume it’s not hers. The more I talked to people about this issue and the less interested in it they were, the more important it seemed to me. One NGO worker told me that migrant workers with babies are just a tiny problem, and numerically they are, compared to the number of women who face problems of underpayment and being overworked. However, it seems to me that even infrequent issues can often be very telling. They can serve as barometer of other societal problems. 

The issue of babies born to migrant workers points right to the problem of how people view migrant workers in many of the destination countries. They are only seen as temporary workers, not as people. Although they are often in their 20s and 30s, they are not seen as young women who have lives, friends, broken hearts, sexual desires and families. They are just viewed as workers. All of the rules and policies in Hong Kong are designed to bring them there as workers, keep them there as workers, make sure they are only workers, and send them home at the end of their two year contract. They are only allowed to come to Hong Kong by themselves, not with family members. Women who have babies in Hong Kong are breaking the unwritten rules. They are obviously more than just workers because they are pregnant, which means they have a life beyond their work. Sometimes they have married to these men in a religious ceremony or they consider them their husbands, even if they are not legally so. The locals view them as bad workers because they have gotten pregnant even though by Hong Kong law they are allowed to get pregnant in contrast to Singapore, where as soon as they are discovered to be pregnant they are sent home. In Singapore, every six months they are required to have pregnancy tests. In Hong Kong, some women who have gotten pregnant try to get abortions; others choose to give up their children for adoption and some choose to keep them. Some women are in permanent or long lasting relationships with their partners. In some cases, the partner disappeared as soon as he found out she is pregnant. This group of women is really interesting because they represent a whole range of challenges that they have faced as migrant workers, as women, as mothers, or as pregnant women. They open up a lot of different issues. 

What does looking at the experience of migrants who become mothers in the host country show about the social setting in their home countries? How are they perceived in their home countries when they leave and once they have become pregnant? What does their experience say about their political status in their host country?

It’s mixed. In the Philippines it's seen as an admirable thing for a wife or a daughter, especially the eldest daughter, to work abroad to support the family. For Indonesians, who only started coming to Hong Kong in large numbers in the 1990s, there has been more anxiety about women leaving their home and family to work abroad. In Indonesia, in order to go, they need the permission of their father if they are unmarried or their husband if they are married. Although some are pressured to go, more of the women who I talked to from Indonesia wanted to get away from home or the pressure to get married. Some left in order to escape a bad marriage, which is also sometimes the case in the Philippines as well. Some people choose to leave the country to go and work abroad to escape bad situations at home. For others, they just want to be able to help the family by making money and sending it home. Besides admiration and respect for the women who go to work abroad, there is also a sense of anxiety about what kinds of trouble they could get it into far away from the supervision of family members. Such anxiety seems to be more common in Indonesia than in the Philippines. That might be partly because Filipinas who go abroad to work tend to be a bit older than Indonesians and they also tend to have more formal education. A lot of them have at least a high school education and often a college education as well; whereas Indonesians tend to be from small, rural villages in East or Central Java and have only a middle school education or a bit more. For Indonesians, leaving home seems to entail more ambivalence from their families. 

If an Indonesian migrant worker gets pregnant abroad, for example, even if she has had had a religious marriage ceremony or a Muslim nikah ceremony, which means the relationship is not haram, or not forbidden, her family and her community back in Indonesia might still disapprove. If she returns home and the man is not there with her, if she has come back alone with a child, she is assumed to be an unwed mother and the child is assumed to be born out of wedlock. This is stigmatizing for the woman, for the child, and for the woman’s family. Rarely would the man go back to Indonesia with her, so she often becomes the object of gossip and scorn. Although it varies from one region of Indonesia to another, in parts of Java, returning home with a child and no husband is usually viewed as a really shameful thing; all the more so if the child looks he or she is mixed race or has darker skin. In Indonesia, not only are the mothers sometimes viewed as problematic, but they can also be seen as immoral women, as bad mothers for not being married, and as bad daughters for shaming the family. 

In Hong Kong the view of the mothers is that they are bad workers because a domestic worker is there to work and when she gets pregnant the assumption is she is not going to be able to do her job or do it as well. She is marginalized both at home when she comes back as a single mother and in Hong Kong where she gets pregnant. In both places they are in difficult situations from the beginning. In Indonesia, they are usually from relatively poor and rural communities. Being women who travel abroad alone places them under some suspicion in terms of their morality, because the family is not able to keep an eye on them. In Hong Kong they are supposed to be workers. They are not citizens, so they are not subject to the same treatment and benefits as locals. Even though they have a monthly minimum wage, it is far below the minimum wage for locals. In both contexts within each society, they are not in a privileged position. They face difficulties and exclusion from the good life fantasy. 

Can you explain your concept of migratory cycle of atonement and the social climate in the home countries of the migrant mothers?

When the migrant mothers return home with babies born abroad, things are often worse for them and worse for the kids, especially if the kids are visibly mixed race and especially if it is a community where the woman is being criticized for her morals. In one case, a woman who I knew was constantly being propositioned by men who assumed she was “that kind of woman,” because she had come back with two children and no man. Men thought she would be open to their advances, but she wasn’t. In many of the cases, the families were happy to see their daughters at first and then the community gossip and criticism started. The family would start to feel uncomfortable with them being back with children and another mouth or two to feed. The welcome wore out quickly. The only way for the women to feel better about themselves as daughters and mothers was to go back into this migratory cycle, reenter migration, and try to earn money to send back home. By doing this, they are atoning for the difficulties and shame that they have brought to their families, and they are supporting their children. They have gotten themselves out of the situation where they are being constantly criticized.

The migratory cycle of atonement is interesting. If you think about how migrant workers are out of place in Hong Kong, then the whole mechanism of the global economy and the need to migrate to earn money, can keep them in place and prevent them from going home. The dream of many migrants is to make enough money to invest in something at home and not have to migrate again. But in fact, for many women and especially those who have babies, it is much harder to go home and stay home; they end up having to go back to work abroad again in order to make up for the perceived problems they have created. 

Are the children more accepted if they stay in the host country?

That’s a good question. Unlike the U.S. where being born here entitles you to citizenship, Hong Kong does not recognize birthright citizenship. Instead you have to have a parent who is a citizen or who has Hong Kong right of abode. The children of the women I know that have stayed in Hong Kong do not have the legal right to stay permanently. The only exceptions are those whose fathers are Hong Kong permanent residents who recognize the child as his. Then the child is entitled to residency but the mother is not. In the cases where the man is not a Hong Kong resident, but an asylum-seeker, or a visitor, the child is not entitled to Hong Kong residency. It would not do the child much good to be the citizen of Pakistan or India or Sri Lanka or elsewhere, since the fathers from those countries usually don’t want to go back to those places either. In some cases they are already married back there and have no desire to bring the child. Some women have children with local Chinese men, but some of those men were already married as well and don’t want to maintain the relationship. There are quite a few cases that I knew of in which a domestic worker married a local man and stayed in Hong Kong and did pretty well.

When I finished the research around 2012, I thought that the women who had asylum-seeking partners would probably be forced to leave Hong Kong, but I was surprised to find quite a few of them are still in Hong Kong with their partners years later. One of the reasons is that in the relationships where the family actually stays together, the men are willing to put the women and children on their applications for asylum. If the men are granted refugee status, then the women and children are resettled with them. Hong Kong does not accept refugees to be resettled there, but they do facilitate third country resettlement. If you file an asylum claim and get approved to be a refugee, then you might be resettled in Europe or Canada or somewhere else. Then there’s a chance that these women or children could go with the father. 

These asylum cases are often delayed, so I know some kids who are eight or nine years old and who have been in Hong Kong all their lives, yet they are not Hong Kong residents. It’s unclear what will happen to them, but I’m amazed that they have been able to stay that long. I do think they are better off there in terms of education, health, and standard of living. They are in many ways better off than the children I know who returned to Indonesia. Some of the families I know there are really struggling to get the kids an education and good health care. The Philippines is a bit different. I haven’t followed children back there, but from what I hear, they are doing reasonably well. 

There is often a misconception of migrant workers that views them as victims without any sense of agency or lives beyond the scope of their work. In your own research, how have you decided what part of a migrant’s story to focus on (so they are not merely characterized as victims of exploitation) while showing their activism and power (without downplaying the discrimination and exploitation they face)?

Writing is always a balancing act. What the writer chooses to include and exclude can shape the story. I remember one story that I wrote about in my first book on domestic workers. The domestic worker’s employer took her to a barbershop to have her hair cut the minute she got off the plane. She insisted that the barber make it a super short boy’s cut. The woman and her friend who told me this story was saying that obviously the employer thought she was too pretty with her long beautiful hair and didn’t want her husband to be attracted to her, but in fact, she looked very beautiful with short hair. A reader posted a comment saying that my article focused on victimhood and how these women are maltreated, and that it would be much better to read stories about workers and employers who get along well. I found that really interesting because I could indeed just write stories of situations that are good, or just leave out the bad parts, but I think we are required to understand both.

Often the stories of difficulties that workers face tell us much more about the situation than those where they are perfectly happy, get along with their employers, manage to save money, go home, and start a small business. Those are great stories too, but they’re not the whole story nor are they all that common. I’m influenced by Chandra Mohanty's article “Under Western Eyes,” where she criticizes the notions of Western feminists seeing third world women as just victims. It’s a very important article and I realized that no one is ever just a victim. There may be the moment or time where they are victimized, but they are always more than just that. Ethnographic methods are perfect for studying these situations because you are able to observe people across time in different situations. Someone was perhaps a victim when she was fired by her employer or when a man left her pregnant, but she is never just a victim. Looking at people through a longer timeframe, allows you to see the other parts of them. They look for help and support; they try to think about their future; they manage to get away from an abusive partner; they struggle to improve their situations with more or less success. 

I try to balance structure, agency and limitations on their actions as well as their ability to act. Almost everyone, except in probably the most absolute dire conditions, has some ways in which they act and react to situations rather than just accept them. 

What does migrant worker activism in Hong Kong look like now and how has it changed in the past few years? Do you think such activism has made a difference in improving the working conditions and the status of migrant workers?

Hong Kong migrant worker activism is very impressive. In the time that I’ve been in Hong Kong studying and getting to know the migrant worker community, I have seen them become increasingly active. This includes Indonesian domestic workers, who began arriving later in the 1990s in large numbers and who learned a lot from Filipino migrant workers, who have been active in Hong Kong for a longer period of time. The activism continues to grow and has developed more transnational networks and connections. For example, one domestic worker leader, Eni Lestari, is an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong and an activist. She is the chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance and she spoke at the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants to the General Assembly in September 2016. That’s just one example of how visible domestic worker activists and their issues are becoming and how people are becoming more aware of the issues that migrants face. The migrant workers themselves are also increasingly aware of their rights. The public, not just in Hong Kong, is aware of the issues as well. This is partly because of the transformation of the discourse, which, over the past decade, has increasingly shifted from a labor rights discourse to an anti-trafficking discourse. 

The notion of human trafficking has been useful to get the media to pay attention to the problems that migrant workers face, like overcharging or physical abuse. Amnesty International has written a report about the different kinds of vulnerabilities of migrant workers. Because trafficking is such a popular topic these days, issues that did not get enough attention when activists they called for domestic workers’ labor rights, now get more attention if they are considered “trafficking.” One important issue is the overcharging of domestic workers who to pay recruitment fees to the employment agencies. The fees are always far above the legal limit of what the Hong Kong government allows; but it’s done so that agencies can claim that it happened in Indonesia or the Philippines, so it is not a Hong Kong issue. However, women are often forced to sign loan agreements and, for Indonesians in particular, up to seven months of their two year contract salary can go toward paying back those loans. Overcharging is a major problem and has recently gotten a lot more much needed attention. Some employment agencies have been shut down or fined for doing it. It’s still not as far along as it needs to be, but the problem is getting more attention. That’s one of the changes that I’ve recently seen. 

In terms of improving the working conditions and the status of migrant workers, domestic workers have managed to get a lot more locals involved in these issues and there is more visibility and more outreach raising awareness among the workers about their own rights. The conditions have improved, not so much by improving Hong Kong’s policies but by raising awareness so that workers know their rights and how to protect themselves. 

Erica Rawles CMC '17Student Journalist
Featured Image Source: "外籍家庭傭工在香港." by VP7071. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons —
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