Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at USC, researches women’s labor and migration in economic globalization. Her work has been featured in NPR’s The WorldBloomberg NewsThe New York TimesWall Street JournalDe Volkskrant, and The American Prospect. Parreñas’s dissertation was made into a documentary, The Chain of Love (2000), by the public broadcasting station VPRO-TV in the Netherlands.


Rhacel, the last time we spoke about your work, you were doing research on domestic migrants in Singapore and Dubai for a new book.

I’m writing the book right now. It focuses on foreign migrants’ status as household dependents. Foreign domestic workers are not free immigrants when they enter these countries. They’re bound to only work for the person that sponsored them. That is a form of un-free labor. It’s not like they can just quit their jobs and leave. I’m looking at how various stakeholders recognize and attend to the statuses of un-free persons.

Is it similar to foreign domestic workers’ situation in Hong Kong where the workers have to live-in with their employer?

Exactly, but in Hong Kong, they can quit their job. The problem there is that they have two weeks to find a new job.

There’s a case in Hong Kong right now. A domestic worker found out that she has cervical cancer, and then, her employers fired her because she has cancer. That means she is no longer able to use her health insurance that she had. She has to be deported in two weeks, ‘cause she no longer has a sponsor. She is also made ineligible to get a new sponsor due to what is now her precondition of cancer. This is a perfect example of the limited rights of workers. 

You’ve been researching the plight of foreign domestic workers for a decade plus, have you uncovered any new findings?

Yes, there was one big difference that I found. The migrants who end up in the Middle East, what we can call undesirable locations, are really different from their counterparts in higher paying destinations, let’s say in Italy. My past work indicated that many of the people who might be domestic workers, let’s say in Italy or the U.S., were of the middle class prior to migration.

They were highly educated, had professional jobs usually, often times as teachers. After migration, they become domestic workers. At these new destinations I’m looking at, specifically in the Middle East, these women are not highly educated. Many of them didn’t even complete a sixth grade education, and many of them are the poorest of the poor in their countries of origin. Oftentimes they are from undeveloped and really remote regions of the Philippines. Where they are most vulnerable to effects of climate change, for example, flooding and typhoons.

You’re saying new destination, and include the Middle East among them, what are the other destinations?

The Middle East is mostly is what I’m talking about. Two-thirds of domestic workers from the Philippines are in the Middle East.

The Centre Research of Migration and Mobility’s director, Eric Fong, in Hong Kong mentioned that the research among 2,000 plus domestic workers indicated higher mental health issues versus the local population.

All my interviewees have highly stressful lives. Maybe 1 in 100 has no stress. Even if they have a good employer, they have stress because they don’t live with their children. If they don’t have children, they have horrible employers.

Do you feel that most of them do live in better circumstances than at home?

For all of them, it is a better situation, because they were super impoverished with no financial mobility. They sacrifice and risk entering these highly vulnerable employment situations for the promise of more financial mobility.

You mentioned this before, right? It’s either the ‘un-freedom of poverty or the un-freedom of servitude.’

That is definitely the case for each and every one of them.

Is there a difference between employment as a domestic worker in the Middle East versus Asia?

In many countries, a day off is mandatory. In Singapore, you will find employers that will bypass this labor right by paying their domestic workers 20 Singaporean dollars (14.81 USD) for the day so that on Sunday they keep working. Even though a free day is law in Singapore, they don’t necessarily recognize it, right? In Hong Kong, they recognize it for the most part. If domestic workers go to the Middle East, they are assuming they might not have a day off.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, people often live in tight quarters. You are likely to see your neighbor. You can chat with others when you take out the trash. In the Middle East, the migrant workers live in these huge villas, so they’re really more isolated.

How do domestic workers end up deciding on where to go?

Migration is heavily managed and it’s highly bureaucratized. There’s no such thing as an independent migrant who says, “Okay, I’m going to Hong Kong. I’m going to use my network to get there and find a job.” It’s a much more formal process. Oftentimes there are recruiters who will go to villages and tell them about these job opportunities in the Middle East. The government certifies these recruitment agencies. And the government requires every migrant to go through one of these recruitment agencies. The agencies process the migration and secure employment for the workers.

One of the tasks of the agencies is to ensure that the migrant is going to an actual job situation. That they are not going to get trafficked, or not going to a fake employer, or end up with an employer who has abuse cases against them.

I understand that there are agencies that train the workers regarding the country and culture and the work that they will end up doing, even learn how to cook local dishes.

Yes, that is another agency. Domestic workers are required to complete close to 220 hours of training.

So the migrant workers have no choice of where they will go. They are just presented with available opportunities?

Yes, let’s say, my friend went through an agency and processed to go to Jordan. Then I go to the same agency to follow my friend to Jordan, But by the time I get to the agency, a year later, there are no more job orders for Jordan. The available job orders are for Saudi Arabia. I will end up in Saudi Arabia. I don’t have control on my destination at all. It’s a highly risky process that they enter. Of course, it’s going to cause a lot of stress.

The second stressor is when you are processed to become a foreign domestic worker, you go through a pre-departure program.

All migrant workers have to complete a two-hour pre-departure orientation. For example, when you become a sales clerk in Saudi Arabia, the program will tell you, this is your Embassy, the kind of banking you’ll need, and how to remit money. For domestic workers, it’s a minimum of eight hours [of orientation] for Singapore, but it’s a three days program for Dubai, five days for Taiwan, and six days for Israel.

If you go to the orientations that are geared towards domestic workers bound to the Middle East—a lot of time is spent letting prospective migrants know of the violence that they will likely face.

In these orientations, the domestic migrants are told that they will likely not get a day off; they will not have an access to Internet or a cellular phone. They will be over-worked and isolated. They’re told that they’re probably going to get raped. That there will be moments when they want to jump off a balcony and kill themselves. And so the women are strongly advised not to jump off a balcony. Usually they’re told, “Don’t forget that there are dependents here, your young children. If you kill yourself, your children will no longer have a provider.” I could go on and on about the kinds of things that these women are told before they get on the plane.

Then they are asked, “Is anyone here changing their mind?” In response to this question, one of the things that I heard someone say is, “Everyone has a destiny. It is really important we pray, so our destiny is a positive one.” That’s the orientation for the Middle East. I went to the Singapore orientations. No one’s being told that they will probably get raped. No one’s told that they will work 18 hours a day.

How often have you heard of reverse migration—foreign migrant workers who go back to the Philippines?

I would call migration to the Middle East of domestic workers a survival migration.

People are migrating to get a better life, but in those cases they’re actually migrating just to survive. They’re escaping these dire situations of poverty. They live in these wooden huts made of the coconut leaves. They don’t have electricity, no running water. They often times are in these barter kind of situations where they don’t have access to a wage. Or they do sharecropping. The workers will help harvest rice and not get paid in money, but in rice.

When they leave [the Philippines], they finally receive a wage, so they can have consumer power. Their motivation is the education of the children. A lot of families can’t afford school. It is about $100 per semester to send your child to school. They migrate to have that $100 so that their child can go to school. What ends up happening is that they’re making, let’s say, no more than $400 a month. That’s the minimum wage that the Philippine government has set up for them. With $400 a month, they’re barely surviving. It’s impossible for them to accumulate savings. We found people who have been abroad for more than a decade and still don’t have any savings. If you are going back home to the Philippines, you will not last for more than six months. Every person we interviewed who left Dubai to go back to the Philippines, within six months, they were already trying to leave [home] again.

There’s no way back to the Philippines, right?

No, and so their children, through their education and future jobs, are their only hope.

Let’s say you have four children. One of these children will do well, but two, three, don’t do well. The one that does well is not necessarily going to support the other three. Then these women find themselves through older age still needing to work abroad.

Recently, people in my own community have concerns that the massage parlors in California are places of prostitution. Community members say that workers don’t leave during lunchtime, nobody gets out to go home after closing hours. What would you advise the community to do when they are concerned that workers are being trafficked or in jobs against their will?

Everything is relative. You have to look at it from the perspective of the women. What are they getting out of this? Do they want to be in this situation? Often times, people were smuggled and have a debt that they have to pay off. Most were not handcuffed and forced to be here. It’s very different if you end up somewhere, and you didn’t know you were going to be giving clients happy endings.

In the context of China, there are many people who pay $20,000 to $50,000 to get into those container ships. They get smuggled by snakeheads and become waiters. A lot of these people are in heavy debt. It’s really tricky, because it’s these larger questions of the absence of mobility of where they came from also.

I’ve always been very worker centered when formulating solutions. It’s really important to see where workers are coming from and what they want. For a lot of the domestic workers that I interviewed, they want better working conditions.

There are a lot of people who say that workers in the Middle East are trafficked. They’re all forced laborers. I can actually say that whatever you define as trafficking applies to all of them. Is the solution is to rescue them? But then what? Are you going to take them back to where they came from, which they find worse than being trafficked.

Domestic workers are not necessarily there against their will.

You can make that assumption about the women here as well. A lot of them will say, “Okay, I will get on that container ship, go through Mexico, and know I’m going to be in debt for $50,000. I’ll take that.”

China is going to need migrant workers; Japan is seeing a rise of foreign migrant workers because of an aging demographic. Have you projected out any future trends and the consequences of a rise in migrant workers?

While there’s a demand for their labor, it goes hand in hand with an increase in anti-immigrant sentiments. This increase in anti-immigrant sentiments is one of the biggest reasons they end up being vulnerable.

Because what ends up happening is that we don’t have progressive immigration laws. These are the laws that you need to ease people into the work place. Migrant workers have very restrictive conditions of membership in the U.S.—we don’t want them here. We just want these temporary workers.

Temporary workers are most vulnerable to human trafficking. It’s not necessarily the undocumented workers, but it’s the people who are here on H-2A (Temporary Agricultural Workers) and H-2B (Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers) Visas. These employees are bound to solely work for their employers.

With all you have learned in the field, what would your recommendations be on policy changes?

I’m for more progressive immigration policies.

Give me an example of what that would look like?

In the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it’s giving women flexibility to change their jobs without their employer’s permission. You could actually make the same case for temporary migrant workers in the U.S. In the U.S., there are about 1.1 million temporary workers who must work for the sponsor that holds their [U.S.] visa. Those are the people who are more likely to be taken advantage of. I would say: if you need the labor, you need to have fair labor conditions.

For the interview with professor Rhacel Salazar Parreñas on her stint as bar hostess in Tokyo where women flirt for a living:

impactmania and University of California, Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Human Mind and Migration program asks how migration impacts our minds and cultures. We are exploring people movements—for example, Mexicans in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles; Chinese migrants in South Africa, and Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s main migration matters are Chinese from Mainland China and foreign domestic workers.