“Public” or “Private” Labor? A Discourse Analytic Comparison of Regulations on Women’s Transnational Domestic Work

Project: Research

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The regulation of women’s labor is often performed in relation to a distinction between the “public” sphere of commercial and political life and the “private” sphere of the family and the household. This public/private distinction is invoked globally in the negotiation of decent work for women, and is highly relevant to the local situation of transnational domestic workers in Hong Kong. The simplest understanding of the role of domestic workers is that they move into the private sphere to enable local women to participate in the public workforce. In reality, the status of these workers is much more ambiguous, in part because they additionally engage in thepublic sphere through political activism, and by supporting their national economies through the sending of remittances to their home countries. Furthermore, the public/private distinction itself is highly unstable and politicized as the stakeholders involved in regulating domestic work (e.g. governments, agencies, employers, and domestic workers themselves) all use the distinction in ways that reflect and support their own viewpoints. For example, some might argue that domestic work is an important part of “public” life, while others might sideline the issues surrounding domestic work as merely “private” concerns. With a specific focus on the large population of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, the proposed study will analyze different expressions of “public” and “private” to create aspace for greater cooperation between the various groups involved in regulating domestic work and, in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM), to advocate for a view of “domestic work as work.”To identify commonalities and differences in the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders surrounding domestic work, the proposed study will take a discourse analytic approach to the public/private distinction. Such an approach takes language as central. It examines how linguistic forms are used to construct and reconstruct the public and the private and, in the process, how they are used to make arguments about what domestic work is and what it should be. Previous work has shown that a discursive approach is able to bring cohesion to apparently contradictory viewpoints and to facilitate comparisons between differing understandings of public and private.Accordingly, drawing data from public documents, interviews, and ethnographic observations, this study will conduct a discursive, comparative analysis of how the public/private distinction is used in the discourses of stakeholders influencing the regulation of domestic work in Hong Kong.


Project number9048203
Grant typeECS
Effective start/end date1/01/21 → …