"Caring for Carers": A Study of the Precarity-transnationality Nexus in the Life Course of Migrant Domestic Workers

Project: Research

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This study examines the precarious life of female migrant domestic workers (MDW) who engage in overseas domestic work. Much of the existing literature on MDW discusses: (i) the exploitative and discriminative nature of domestic work; (ii) the structural constraints that the global care chain has exerted on migrant women from the developing South, and (iii) the “development-migration” nexus in which migrant workers are reckoned as economic heroes for their country, and where governments often rely on remittances for economic growth. Yet, relatively few studies have examined holistically how migration and overseas work has impacted on the life courses and life plans of migrants. Many MDW have engaged in such contractual work year after year, and from one place to another, rendering their work “permanently temporary” and making their life endlessly floating across borders.  Hong Kong is one of the Asian cities having the longest history of importing foreign domestic helpers from Southeast Asia. This is a timely project to unravel the long-term situations of MDW, who have left home for years and will still be doing so for many years to come. The research seeks to provide a systemic study of the various repercussions that migration and domestic work have brought to migrant women over time. The precarities that MDW suffer from does not only exist in work and the job environment. There are other vulnerabilities too, especially regarding migrant women’s home connections and long-term life plans. One primary reason for these women to seek jobs overseas is to raise the family and improve its material wellbeing. However, after working overseas for some years, many of them experience broken marriages, estranged mother-children relationships and other familial tension and conflicts, making “returning home” an increasingly difficult trajectory and a remote goal. Without a clear idea what to do next, or after going home, many continue to sojourn. Based on the PI and Co-I's previous research work in labour migration and on domestic workers, this research will further interrogate what impacts “working overseas in the domestic field” has had on MDW's personal life plan and relations with home, how they cope with long-distance relationships, what kind of life goals they are setting and various obstacles hindering them from making clear life plans and conditions that change their aspirations. Indeed, their absence and presence at home is not a static issue; many have tried to engage in creative networking and dynamic negotiations with family members and maintain reasonably close contacts across transnational spaces. Familial relationships are not necessarily “sweet” all the time and will sometimes involve resentment, aversions and remorse. Home connections and relations often affect MDW's future plans. How long do they plan to work overseas? Why are they entrenched in a migration cycle? Under what circumstances will they return home for good, and how will they prepare for their home-returning paths? These include whether and how they will save up money, what they will do after returning, and how they will plan to reintegrate into the home environment. This project will develop a new framework, the “precarity-transnationality nexus”, to explore further the structural constraints and various impediments that have trapped millions of migrant women along their life course. It will fill the gap of knowledge in the field (1, 5), especially on MDW’s changing home relations and life plans, and bring novel insights to the ongoing debates regarding migration, gender, and development. It will also transfer new knowledge to the policy fields of global labour governance and migrant rights (46, 47). 


Project number9043250
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/09/21 → …