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  • Women in Motion: Globalization, State Policies, and Labor Migration in Asia
  • Heather Dell (bio)
Women in Motion: Globalization, State Policies, and Labor Migration in Asia by Nana Oishi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005, 238 pp., $57.95 hardcover, $22.95 paper.

At the very moment when struggling families are working longer hours to make ends meet and need more access to affordable child care and elder care, medium- and high-income nations have reduced funding and cut programs. For some middle-class families, domestic-worker migration has emerged as a difficult but key solution. At the top of the class spectrum, the newly wealthy see employing migrant domestic workers as symbols of conspicuous consumption. In a welcome study of migrant domestic workers, Nana Oishi offers us a rare contextual integration of analysis at the international, state, society, and individual level, not only of the sending and receiving countries, but also of those that resist allowing women workers to labor overseas, regardless of need.

Oishi conducted fieldwork in nine Asian countries, with supplemental data from other locations, a breathtaking endeavor. The book mainly focuses on the guest worker-receiving countries of Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Gulf States of Kuwait and United Arab Emirates; the sending countries of Sri Lanka and the Philippines; and the comparatively nonsending Bangladesh. Oishi demonstrates that male migrants tend to come from low-income countries, while women originate from somewhat better-off countries that have a history of paid female labor and education. Due to economic destabilization under neoliberal globalization, women may find that they can earn more as domestic workers abroad and send money back to their families than they can as nurses at home. Oishi states that "[i]n terms of trade values, monetary remittances constitute the largest flow in the world … exceed[ing] the international trade [End Page 195] in crude oil and coffee" and serve as a major source of foreign exchange needed to improve a nation's balance of payments (58).

Oishi demonstrates that the internal movement of rural women to urban export-processing zones—where companies receive government subsidies and reduced tariffs and workers receive low pay for long hours assembling imported components for export—is not a first step toward their international migration; instead, they have merely tended to strengthen support for women's paid work and rural–urban migratory employment within the country because the zones are valued as industrialization.

Oishi challenges the household strategy approach, which assumes that households collectively make decisions about actions such as migration; instead, women individually make the decision to migrate, even when motivated by household need. The author argues that "women have much more autonomy than migration theorists have assumed," particularly if they are married rather than being unattached and living with extended family (128). At the same time, Oishi notes that the "re-emergence of traditional gender ideology" means that women are often blamed for family difficulties arising from employment (73).

Migrants themselves often pay recruitment agencies a placement fee. North American locations command some of the highest fees, followed by Hong Kong, with West Asia (the Middle East) demanding the lowest fees—for work with longer hours and lower pay. In Hong Kong in 1999, Filipina domestic workers were paid the monthly equivalent of US$470, Indonesian workers were paid US$300, and Sri Lankans only US$270. Oishi notes that "[t]hese rates are not related to individual qualifications; rather, they reflect stereotypes and prejudices relating to the overall qualifications of particular nationalities … reinforced by the media, recruitment agencies, and employers' personal networks" (51). For instance, because many Filipinas bring English skills they are viewed as college educated, although many have not gone beyond high school. Most sending countries' emigration policies in Asia let men exit with relative impunity, but may set significant restrictions on women. While Sri Lanka is fairly open, Oishi argues that the comparatively nonsending country of Bangladesh does not encourage women to emigrate, because it sees women as less mature than men or as symbols of national honor, requiring protection. Bangladesh has instituted higher age barriers for women than men—(18 years of age for men, 21 for semi-skilled women...


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pp. 195-197
Launched on MUSE
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