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Colloquium FRIAS Research Focus Southeast Asian Studies - Stefan Rother (JF, Political Sciences): Indonesian migrant domestic workers in transnational political space(s): agency, gender roles and social class formation

When Dec 01, 2014
from 12:15 PM to 01:45 PM
Where FRIAS, Albertstr. 19, Seminar Room
Contact Name
Contact Phone 0761 203 97362
Attendees universitätsoffen / open to university members
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This paper is part of a proposal for a Special Issue of Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on “Gender and social class in transnational migration: intersecting experiences of Southeast Asian migrants and their families”.

Important research has been conducted on the various dimensions of Philippine labour migration to Hong Kong, which is almost exclusively female and composed of migrant domestic workers. For most of the past four decades, Filipinas have been the largest group of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. While this has certainly provided an opportunity for social transformation for many Filipinas, this process has been even more pronounced for a less-well-researched group of “newcomers”: migrant domestic workers from Indonesia, whose numbers have risen from almost zero to more than 100,000 in less than two decades. Many Filipinas came fairly well-equipped for their new lives in the “global city” and a role as migrant organisers: They speak fluently English, are in possession of university degrees and may have gained experience as political organisers during their time at university. The Indonesians, on the other hand, come predominantly from poor rural areas, possess limited English skills and rarely have experience in political organising. Regarding gender roles, their husbands or other male members of their household have to grant them permission to leave the country. In many cases, they are exploited by the migration industry and the Indonesian state, both before departure (in many cases leading to debt bondage) and after their return. They are also discouraged by the Indonesian consulate in Hong Kong from raising any complaints, and are perceived and promoted as being more ‘docile’ than the self-assured Filipinas. It is thus all the more remarkable that this manifold-marginalised group has managed to establish a dense network of NGOs, grassroots organisations and trade unions that promote migrants’ and women’s rights at the local, transnational, regional and global levels. This paper explores the transnational political space(s) in which these migrants achieve agency, reformulate their gender roles and identify themselves as a transnational social class. This class identification is based on their awareness of the transnational nature of the exploitation that migrants experience but is also framed within a wider global perspective: Neoliberal policies and unjust trade agreements are seen as the “root causes” that force migrants to leave their countries as a “steady flow of cheap and highly exploitable foreign workers living as a sub-class through labor flexibilisation and control” (2013 statement of the IMA, see below). Notably, this transnational class struggle is a gendered one: in migrant political mobilisation, no close alliance has been made with political organizing initiated by their male compatriots.  Thus, within this subclass, women migrant domestic worker are seen as being even further discriminated against because of their gender and the specifics of domestic work, which remains excluded from labour regulations in many destination countries.

The focus of this paper is on a central actor – the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers (ATKI), which was launched in Hong Kong but has now managed to establish a chapter back in Indonesia and to become a founding member of a “global grassroots” network of networks, the International Migrants Alliance (IMA). The paper is based on extensive fieldwork in Hong Kong, Indonesia and at global events for migrants’ advocacy.