Repairing and Exploiting the Underclass Image

By: Michelle Phillips  

With news of their abuse in Asia making headlines worldwide, Indonesian live-in maids working in foreign countries have aptly been described as “modern-day slaves.” Often young and with little education, they frequently have little recourse from abuse, as the many laws meant to protect them in practice oppress them – in contrast to the prototypical, often highly educated Filipina maids, who have an experienced state speaking for them (Rodriguez 2010). Aside from vastly different demographics and culture, the Indonesian state also takes a different approach to controlling and protecting its migrant citizens as compared to the Filipino state – but that approach has barely been explored as yet. Migrant domestic workers' identity is defined by a state of limbo – they are citizens of one state but residents of another; paid workers hired on the open market but confined to the intimate sphere of the home; earning more than they would back in their country but still at the bottom of the host state’s social hierarchy. Such tensions are not merely the result of case-by-case incidents or even demographic patterns, but of institutional structures (government policies, support networks) that perpetuate inequalities and disadvantages – structures that differ by nationality and in host nations, with very real consequences for maids. My research thus seeks to make an intervention by asking how inequalities between states – particularly in sending and receiving states – affect migrant labor identities and outcomes, and what are the interactive mechanisms by which they affect outcomes.

Defining Identity Labor
Identity and Belonging
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Michelle Phillips

Ph.D. Candidate, Sociology, UC Berkeley, United States
United States

I am a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley, with my current research focusing on the intersection of business, politics and human rights, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.  Raised in Mainland China from the time I was four years old, I am fluent in Mandarin and have learned Indonesian up to the intermediate level (as part of my dissertation, focused on the system of transnational migrant domestic labor).  I do my research with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for social justice, focusing on questions ranging from the role of the state in international trade an migration, the effectiveness of particular policies along with their unintended consequences, to the impact of business interests on the implementation and consistency of government intervention.  In an increasingly interconnected economy crossing political borders, I believe it is crucial to sutdy and understand what motivates teh people behind these institutions, as well as to highlight the de facto impact of the policies and strategies they implement.  I hope to use my dissertation research findings to propose changes in Taiwan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines regarding better protections for migrant workers and their employers, and to increase understanding on all sides.