On 17 January 2003, Nepal’s government lifted a five-year-old ban on Nepali women going to Persian gulf countries to work following a supreme court ruling that the ban violated the women’s human rights. The ban was imposed in 1998 to ‘safeguard’ Nepali women from the perils of domestic work in Islamic countries, where there have been some highly publicised instances of the physical and sexual abuse of foreign maids, even though women were a source of valuable remittances – approximately USD 450 million, or 50 percent of all foreign exchange earnings, 13 percent of Nepal’s GDP. The gulf countries were deemed unsafe as women there ‘have few rights anyway’, and where Nepali women, locked behind the high walls of wealthy Arab households and speaking no Arabic, have little recourse to social support networks. For employment agencies, individual women and activists, the rights argument was the legal expression of what is, for most of the millions of domestic workers in Nepal and elsewhere, a decision driven fundamentally by economic concerns.
Home and Hegemony: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia presents ethnographic sketches of domestic service in south India, Nepal, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and Java and Sulawesi in Indonesia. Although the editors, Kathleen M Adams and Sara Dickey, accept that it is impossible to estimate the numbers engaged in domestic service because of the unorganised nature of such employment, and because migrant domestic workers are often unregistered, they cite studies to assert that far from decreasing with the spreading use of time- and labour-saving technologies, as was widely assumed would happen, the number of domestic workers and people who employ them is only going up.
There are two types of essays in Home and Hegemony – those that focus on domestic workers employed in their own country, and those that deal with migrant domestic workers. Dickey writes about how workers and employers, when talking about each other in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, south India, construct different identities with reference to class, character, and the luxury of choice as opposed to necessity. Rachel Tolen’s essay deals with the rather fashionable cultural studies subject of the contestation surrounding the transfer of class-based knowledge, such as the ability to speak English, in the context of the rather cosmopolitan railway colony in Madras where the servants are close to being government employees, but are not quite. Saubhagya Shah writes about the construction of class and urban-rural identities, focusing on the fictive kinship and schooling that children who move from Nepal’s hinterland to be live-in servants in Kathmandu experience. Jean-Paul Dumont also focuses on language, examining the use of the terms ‘domestic workers’, ‘helper’ and ‘nursemaid’ in the Philippines, the deep meanings they convey and their transitory nature. GG Weix also writes about fictive kinship, and “betwixt and between” identities in Java where domestics are adopted into their masters’ homes. In particular, she delineates how the logic of gift-giving regularly and ritually sabotages the illusions of family bonds. Editor Adams discusses the role of humour, especially joking references to kinship terms, in maintaining and subverting hierarchies in homes with long-term live-in domestics.
Four essays deal with a different kind of domestic service. Michele Gamburd analyses how the contested changes in ideas about motherhood, gendered divisions of labour, and personal identity are played out when Sri Lankan women migrate to be nannies and housemaids in West Asia ‘for the sake of their own children’. Louise Kidder’s contribution discusses how relations between British expatriates in Bangalore and their Indian domestic workers show that hierarchies of skill, knowledge and dependence can be not quite linear – expats may have the money, but they cannot function without the skills and local knowledge of their employees. Nicole Constable presents the case of domestic workers from all parts of the Philippines who in Hong Kong, as much in response to local stereotypes about them as exhortations from their own government to be ‘model workers’, start to articulate a single Filipina identity. Constable illustrates how the official as well as defensive ‘Filipina’ identity is regularly complicated by differences in class and sexuality. Kathryn Robinson analyses the position of Indonesian women. They were initially encouraged to work in Saudi Arabia because it is also ‘Islamic’, but incidents of abuse led to a long-drawn debate on whether it is acceptable for Indonesian Muslim women to work overseas, as well as to a diplomatic impasse between the two countries. Robinson demonstrates that while gender, religion, and the ‘new order’ Indonesian rhetoric of the ‘family principle’ constructed a national identity that appeared to provide opportunity, when these same principles were deployed to manage economic and diplomatic relations, the results for women were often less than progressive.
Hegemony at home
As is evident, Home and Hegemony is mainly concerned with how the negotiation of the politics of identity is central to maintaining ‘hegemony’ – the relations of domination and submission that determine consensus on meanings, values, and ways of doing things. Guided by Raymond Williams’ assertion that these constantly interrogated relations, which entail both coercion and consent, “saturate the whole process of living”, contributors take as their basic premise that the home is the preeminent site where hegemony is reproduced, and that domestic service presents a uniquely powerful and concentrated set of negotiations, because domestic service is widely understood as more than just a form of labour where household duties are performed for remuneration. Domestic workers render personal, sometimes intimate services in homes they are not members of, creating a forced intimacy constantly at odds with the actual social and economic, if not always emotional, distance between them and their employers. The tension between domestics and their employers throws into sharp relief the differences between the two sides, in terms of class or status, gender, ethnicity, nationality or age, among others. Understanding how these differences play out is a way of further understanding larger social processes.
The essays do a fine job of delineating the multiple identities domestic workers can and often need to take on, ‘servant’ now, ‘domestic worker’ at another time, to outsiders a privileged individual in their employer’s household when entrusted with certain tasks, ‘model worker’ sometimes, but ‘boisterous’ during time off. Equally well described is how different kinds of domestic service (eg working at home or abroad) will influence the place of an individual in society. Though few of the essays touch explicitly on gender – the real-life equation of domestic work with women – this is one of the most illuminating strands through the volume. You see that domestic work can allow women more opportunities, whether in going abroad to work instead of the husband, or being aware enough of the ways of the world to demand a raise as women in Dickey’s Madurai can do, in terms of labour law and unions. The flipside is exploitation, whether in another country or their own. For some Filipinas in Hong Kong sexuality, butch lesbianism in particular, is a position from which they challenge the docile, feminine identity that the Philippine government prefers for them.
Such concerns place Home and Hegemony squarely in the tradition of the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in anthropology, the move from class-oriented analysis to interpretive formulations revolving around issues of identity and subjectivity and told through representations, meanings, memory. The quotidian home as the site of producing and negotiating hegemony is fertile ground for such work.
There are dangers in such an approach, for sure. The concept of hegemony itself can be obscuring when used in a purely symptomatic, rather than instrumental sense, as often happens in ‘cultural studies’. Although even the more typically cultural studies essays, such as Dickey’s on the creation and contestation of hegemonic identities through narrative, and Adam on small acts of subversion through humour and the limiting of certain practices, mercifully stay away from the twin clichéd spectres of Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau, they are not terribly successful in their attempt at relating the specifics of the circumstances they analyse to larger social and economic processes. They are self-contained discursive fields and remain ethnographic snippets, but not much more.
Cultural anthropologists working on identity and hegemony can sometimes get too caught up in the inchoate business that negotiating identity can be and brush off structural forces in a manner similar to how classic structuralists sometimes forgot about individual agency. Showing how domestic workers inhabit multiple subjectivities and how this can assist in small everyday acts of rebellion makes for interesting ethnographic vignettes, but when you zoom out from an individual worker and an individual employer to their respective classes it becomes clear that the weapons of the weak are just that, weak, and that, as anthropologist Judith Rollins says, “The ‘inferiority’ of the houseworker justifies paying lower wages and suggests that entire categories of people can be inferior, and that a social structure that maintains such people at a disadvantage may be a justifiable and legitimate structure”.
Two essays, however, are notable for their understanding of the class character of hegemony as Gramsci described it. Saubhagya Shah’s contribution on young domestic workers in Kathmandu, while not heavy on ethnographic description, does a remarkable job in explaining the specifics of their world – how their class position is complicated by displacement, by being called kam garne (worker) while the possibility of being deemed naukar (servant) lingers, by being described as ‘just like family’, and by being sent to school as compensation for their labour. That, and living in a world far more prosperous than that of their families, displaces them from one class without placing them entirely in the other. GG Weix presents a rich ethnographic description of a large domestic retinue and the woman responsible for them in a small Javanese town. Like Shah, she too touches on the euphemising effect of kinship terms and gifts. Neither essay dwells explicitly on the notion of hegemony, or on generalities about identity, but the ‘thickness’ of the descriptions and a fine-tuned grasp of distinctions of rank even within the same class make clear the processes that are elsewhere described only theoretically or over-analysed and weighed down by jargon. Shah and Weix show how the negotiations of hegemony and identity link domestic workers and their employers with larger historical, social and economic processes and structures.
Keep it professional
The essays in Home and Hegemony are ethnographies of change more than anything else. Robinson writes how the ‘new order’ government in Indonesia redefined women’s role in a modern Islamic context, but suspended state protection in certain others. In Dickey’s unpacking of narratives, an important trope is one that many readers will recognise – the employer insisting that things were better ‘in the old days’ when there was an emotional bond with the servants and that they ‘take care’ of their help. “Now all they are interested in is money”. Weix’s employer-informant says more or less the same thing, and in Constable’s essay, Hong Kong women compare ruefully the old amahs from mainland China with the ‘brash’ Filipinas they must now employ.
As many employers are becoming increasingly nostalgic for a more feudal past, for domestic workers it is becoming increasingly acceptable to ‘aspire’. Domestic work may have been ‘lowly’, and might still for many be the only immediate option. But now it is also being viewed for what it is – a choice made out of economic necessity, and an exchange of labour like any other. From ‘servant’ to ‘domestic worker’. Like other professions, this too holds the possibility of advancement, if not through savings, then through the networks of patronage that a ‘good servant’ can have access to. So people work in a railway colony in Madras, putting up with slights about wanting ‘the lifestyle without understanding the life’, because it might help a family member get a government position. Young children will be sent from the far hills to work in a house in distant Kathmandu for the schooling they will be provided, with the tacit understanding of the employer that domestic work does not have to be forever. Sri Lankan women work in West Asia not simply to support their families (usually, their husbands were already doing that), but to give their children more opportunity. Indonesian nurses and teachers work as housemaids when the economy collapses. For many Filipinas, also with similar qualifications, the aspiration is sometimes more than economic, such as a desire to see the world. Domestic workers are thus taken out of the box they tend to be left in even when studied. The contributions here acknowledge that they too are creatures of desire and that their situation too, like that of their more privileged employers, could conceivably change.
Change of all manner is more obviously signposted in the essays that deal with migrant domestic workers. In the 1970s, the Philippines was faced with large-scale unemployment, rising inflation, massive international debt and little foreign currency with which to service it. But a way out was found quite easily. The OPEC oil price increase in 1973 fuelled a construction boom and massive industrial development in oil-rich countries, especially in the gulf. The problem was manpower. The Philippines may not have had much at that point, but it did have cheap labour, and so a labour export policy was formalised in the mid-1970s. Today the Philippines is one of the largest remittance economies in the world, with overseas workers sending home USD 6 billion annually. Thailand and Pakistan followed, and though Indonesia missed out on the initial boom, by the early 1980s there was a new demand for housemaids, which it decided it could fill in places such as Saudi Arabia. The 1973 OPEC oil price rise and the more recent Asian economic boom and meltdown helped foster new intersections of different locales. Today, labour is exported to all the relatively prosperous Asian countries, where residents simply refuse to take on work like the so-called 3K jobs in Japan – kitsui (hard), kitanai (dirty), kiken (dangerous).
Enough horror stories have emerged in recent years from migrant workers from and in many different parts of Asia, whether Malaysian maids in Saudi Arabia or Bangladeshi construction workers in Malaysia, that the phenomenon and its attendant perils have come to the attention of most who live in this region. Migrations such as these as well as more advantageous ones are different from the migrations of the early and post-second world war migrations. Collectively termed ‘new migration’ by sociologists, the phenomenon has certain key features that set it apart: globalisation (more countries are involved), acceleration (the volume is constantly increasing), differentiation (there are different categories of migrants from the same country), and feminisation (more and more migrants are women).
Missing some connections
The editors and Karen Hansen mention that industrialisation and global movements of capital have accelerated the expansion of the domestic worker phenomenon, but they neglect to see that the kind of hegemony constituted by domestic service relationships in these times allows for the reproduction of labour. Shah points out that a number of middle-class Kathmandu women explained that employing domestic help enabled them in turn to go out and work to provide more for their families. Constable writes that the Hong Kong government encouraged Filipinas to enter the country as domestic workers to lure their employers – middle-class Hong Kong Chinese women – into the workforce. The remittances that the Filipina domestic workers send back home support the local economy, which allows for other exchanges of labour.
Home and Hegemony misses certain other connections too. The editors write that the contributions are concerned not just with identity politics and its relation to the maintenance of hegemony, but also with unpacking who ‘masters’ and ‘servants’ are, because once you know that, you can know who has what rights and what responsibilities. The somewhat simplistic statement is informed by civil society and a rights understanding of labour, but it is curious that although the entire volume is concerned with identity and hegemony, none of the essays, bar Robinson’s, touch on how some of the obvious sites where identity is negotiated and authority is exercised – gender, sexuality, age – can be not just contested, but deeply fraught with violence. Some of the most common and wrenching stories that seep into public consciousness about ‘servants’ concern gross physical and sexual abuse, and overwork, especially of children. Not one makes it into this collection, even theoretically.
Possibly, it is not the place of ethnographers to take a moral stand, but that does not preclude articulating a moral position on the language of rights and international and domestic labour law. Or interrogating, rather than simply giving examples of, the place of domestic service in the new international division of labour; once you accept, for instance, that domestic work makes other kinds of labour possible, how does this change the assessment of its actual value? After all, the reproduction of labour that domestic service makes possible in today’s context helps reproduce the very hegemony that calls for greater help at home in the first place – the shifts in production and capital worldwide that, with developments in communications technology and greater ease of transportation, make possible the movement of commodities and people and ideas. And the role of domestic workers in transforming social, economic and cultural narratives about national and transnational expressions of identity.
The contributors on occasion draw on notions of domestic workers from the public domain. Only a couple observe that the images of domestic workers that circulate in the media are very contentious politically. The examples are telling – the beating to death of an Indian domestic worker by two Kuwaiti princesses in London, Bill Clinton’s 1993 nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, who withdrew when it came to light that she had employed in her home illegal Latin American workers. These instances are interesting because they deal with two closely related matters: the poor implementation or lack of adequate legislation protecting domestic workers in most countries, and the many ways that immigration laws are circumvented to serve a market that wants help in homes but wants it cheap.
In a way, these examples point to systemic reasons that allow such things to keep happening despite the hue and cry about illegal immigration in the US, and the growing concern at the government level in many Asian countries about the safety of migrant domestic workers. It makes sense to not pay too close attention to manpower agencies that smuggle in migrant workers or even to individual employers who violate basic rights. If recipient countries which have a history of encouraging cheap foreign labour were to keep accurate records and track the employment history of every foreign worker, and ensure that they all are briefed on their status, rights and duties, there will be far fewer grey areas and instances of abuse will come to light. The migrant domestic worker’s complaint will be harder to dismiss if she is legal and if she knows the most basic, efficient way to file a complaint, or at least the few words in the local language needed to do so. The recipient government will be forced to ensure at least to some degree, even if only on paper, that migrant workers enjoy internationally acceptable labour and human rights, and have access to legal redress, all of which would drive up the cost of ‘cheap labour’.
If there is an incident abroad, especially involving the citizen of a country that relies heavily on remittances, this is of course a matter of national interest in more ways than one, and a way for nations to make a play in the global contestation of hegemony. More realistically, though, there is also the distinct possibility of diplomatic pressure to back down from the host country, so its image is not too tarnished in the eyes of prospective migrant workers, often the backbone of considerable sectors of the economy. Recent years have seen some host countries such as Malaysia and Oman react to concerns voiced by migrant workers’ governments by signing with them labour agreements that stipulate conditions such as basic wage, a minimum level of skill, fluency in language, but most provisions are aimed at protecting migrant workers from devious manpower agencies, and implementation on both sides leaves something to be desired.
It is easier to point to solutions where migrant domestic workers are concerned, because the stakes are perceived differently, and because this segment of the domestic labour force is closer to other, less intimate, kinds of work. At best, it is professionalised, contractual, and dignified; at the very least, it is accepted that it should or could be so. For domestic workers who labour in their own country, there is often much cultural baggage to do with class or kinship or rank or rusticity that goes with the job. There is first the matter of legislation – Nepal, for instance, until recently had barely adequate laws for women, still does not for children. Labour law has a strong history in Nepal, although mostly unions rather than individuals have invoked it. Domestic workers who spend all day in their employers’ houses have little opportunity to form pressure groups. Interventions by civil society institutions dealing with women or children or both appeal to an assumed morality in employers and society at large, but there are few rehabilitation facilities for child domestic workers, for instance, such as there are for sex workers.
When employers in Madurai or a small Java town or Kathmandu say that their servant can have a purely contractual relationship if they want, a change that domestic workers tend to frame in terms of professionalisation, exchanging labour for wages, they also add ominously that ‘it will not be like before; there will be no emotional bond’. Which might be just as well, because once a servant is elevated to the status of ‘like family’, she or he cannot go out, join a union and strike against the employers whose own need for support in the home has been reified into an expression of magnanimity towards an almost-poor relative. As for the woman who told Dickey, “This is not an officer-employee relationship. It’s something different. Because that sort of relationship won’t work here [in the house]”, she may find in the near future that good help really is hard to find.
Karen Hansen writes that “the problematic of domestic service is not found where it is most obviously looked for, in the private household, but in the inequalities deeply embedded in processes of state formation and nationalism in South and Southeast Asia”. And indeed, the transnational movements of products, capital and labour that fuel the demand for migrant domestic workers also have impacts in countries and on groups that traditionally send out, rather than receive, migrant, domestic labour.
One does not need to buy the enthusiastic belief that devotees of globalisation have in the various kinds of ‘progressive’ values that these processes use to justify themselves and to ‘manufacture consent’. But the language of equal opportunity and universal rights is slowly seeping into common parlance, and for domestic workers at home and abroad, that might be a good place to start, whether to assert the right to work as recently happened in Nepal or whether to demand the same level of protection as other workers. First, though, one thing would have to change – the mystification of the home as the domain of employment. It is a job, and knowing what a slob the boss can be in private, or doing his laundry, does not oblige worker or employer to be emotionally involved.