- Follow the Maid: Domestic Worker Migration in and from Indonesia by Olivia Killias
Follow the Maid is the latest contribution to a solid and steadily growing body of scholarship by anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers on gendered labor migration in Southeast Asia. Much of this work over the past decades has focused on the conditions and experiences of migrant domestic workers in countries where they live and work, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia. To a lesser extent, scholars have also examined migration's appeal and its impact on migrants' villages of origin (e.g., in the Philippines and Indonesia). Scholars have also begun to examine men's contemporary migrations in the region and beyond, as fishermen, construction and plantation workers, and drivers. Olivia Killias's ethnography, based on fourteen months of multi-sited research, conducted mainly between 2006 and 2009, contributes a unique vantage point to the arguably extensively researched phenomenon of domestic-work migration. She "literally follow(s) the paths of migrant domestic workers from one specific village in upland Java through the process of recruitment, training, and placement with families in terraced houses in leafy middle-class Malaysian suburbs—and back" (3). This approach enables the book to illuminate and clarify the roles that various actors play in the facilitation and management of migration from Indonesia—processes that are frequently opaque. Also, by "connecting" the multiple sites that women migrants typically inhabit during the course of their journeys, the ethnographer highlights the important cultural work that intermediaries play in "manufacturing" a maid, an emic term used ubiquitously in the destination countries of Malaysia and Singapore to refer to domestic workers.
Follow the Maid meticulously breaks down and denaturalizes several enduring tropes that justify and encourage the employment, management, and treatment of migrant domestic workers from Southeast Asia's poor countries. Each chapter focuses on a broad "site" or stage in the process of migration from Indonesia to Malaysia to reveal the extensive work and effort put in by state bureaucrats, intermediaries (such as brokers, trainers, and recruitment agents), non-governmental organizations, and employers to produce and maintain a central paradox of this specific migration industry. On the one hand, particular groups of Indonesian women are portrayed and marketed as suited to perform low-paid domestic work: they will be hardworking, cheap, and obedient, ostensibly due to their rural, poor, and "backward" circumstances. On the other hand, it is precisely due to their lack of education and need of "civilizing" that they are vulnerable to abuses abroad, and thus require extensive training and discipline to be prepared for domestic work and life abroad. Over and over, the book emphasizes how problems of exploitation in Indonesian women's labor migrations are rendered by various actors as "technical" problems to be resolved (52), where issues of labor and human rights are easily ignored and [End Page 161] arguably institutionalized as less relevant than contractual and "legal" agreements between states, agents, employers, and workers.
Few ethnographies on this topic have closely examined the link between internal and international migration, and Killias fills this gap by examining in detail the connection, similarities, and differences between Javanese women's national and international migration as domestic workers. Contextualizing the current kinship-network-facilitated domestic worker migration from upland Java to the capital of Jakarta within similar historical arrangements known as ngenger, she shows how international migration for women is often preceded by experiences of internal migration. Contrasting experiences of both types of migration also reveals the importance of women's life cycles in their migration decisions and plans. Single and unmarried women as young as fourteen leave their village with relatives and neighbors to work in Jakarta homes, in search of adventure and experience. In contrast, Killias found that the majority of women embarked on international journeys only after marriage and the birth of their first child. While other scholars on domestic work migration have examined the moral and social ambivalence surrounding the migration of mothers,1 Killias importantly highlights that the birth of a child serves...