Debt-financed migration in South-East Asia is often criticised as a model that yokes migrant domestic workers to employers with onerous salary deductions. However, more recent conceptualisations of debt-financed migration have recognised how debt can both enable and constrain migratory trajectories, while also acknowledging that brokers are not simply ‘merchants of labour’ who seek to maximise profit at the expense of the worker.
Based on the authors’ research on Singapore’s placement and recruitment agencies for migrant domestic workers, they argue that debt is not the sole provenance of the worker; instead, brokers distribute the liability for a defaulted debt to various parties within the migration industry, most often between employers and brokers themselves. Secondly, by paying attention to the temporality of debt, they avoid freeze-framing the distribution of debt at a point in time and consider the varied meanings and effects of debt across the repayment period, and the implications these have for the worker, the agent and the employer. Finally, they argue that the relationship between migrant workers and debt is not always absolutely oppressive. While debt-financed migration can compound the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers, the imbrication of employers, agents and other institutions in debt repayment also provides a measure of leverage for the worker.
This paper is published under the Migrating out of Poverty programme, which is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
Charmian Goh, Kellynn Wee and Brenda S.A. Yeoh Who’s holding the bomb? Debt-financed migration in Singapore’s domestic work industry Migrating out of Poverty RPC Working Paper No. 38. Migrating out of Poverty Consortium, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK (2016) 34p