POST-EVENT REPORT (January 2019)

 Love’s Labour’s Cost? Asian Migration, Intimate Labour and the Politics of Gender

3-4 December 2018, Asia Research Institute, NUS, Singapore

Convenors: Dr Theodora Lam, Prof Ito Peng, Prof Denise Spitzer, Ms Kellynn Wee


This conference aimed to extend feminist theories about migration, labour, value, gender, and intimacy by returning to the embodied experiences of migrants who constitute undifferentiated circulations of labour worldwide. Contemporary Asian migration is often characterized by the movement of people both within and across nation-state borders for the sake of labour and love. Some migrants move in order to fill the demand for corporeal and intimate labour in sectors that require the work of tending—as nannies, nurses, hospitality workers, caregivers, serving staff, domestic workers, and beauty salon staff. Other migrants seek to pursue romance, enter into marriage, and form, support, and sustain new families. This workshop called for papers that commingle the intimate labour that people enact across the apparent divisions of their public and private lives, instead of analysing migration in terms of separate and hostile domains of work and love, or money and affection. Its goal was to clarify and extend the theory of “intimate labour” in order to offer a sharper lens with which we can understand contemporary migration in Asia.

The first day of the conference focused on two major themes. The first charted the links between care, intimacy, and labour. We heard about the effects of serial migration on care exchange for domestic workers working in the United Arab Emirates (Rachel Silvey, University of Toronto), the experiences of Filipino migrant care workers in caring for Japanese elderly in nursing homes (Katrina Navallo, Kyoto University), and the choreography of intimate labour and affective care relations between familial caregivers, foreign domestic workers, and the elderly in Singapore (Brenda S.A. Yeoh, National University of Singapore). In the afternoon, Andre Laliberte (University of Ottawa) explained how religion shapes intimate labour relationships between migrant workers and their employers in East and Southeast Asia while Julie Ham (University of Hong Kong) analysed the dehumanization of domestic workers in Hong Kong through food deprivation. The second theme focused on economies of intimate labour by studying more visible sites of exchange. We heard about the differentiated intimate economies that form between Filipino sex workers and expatriate men in Hong Kong (Maria Cecilia Hwang, Rice University), the relationships between juvenile refugees and older “aunties” in Indonesia (Danau Tanu, University of Western Australia) and migrant beer sellers’ deployment of intimate labour in urban sites in Asia (Denise Spitzer, University of Ottawa). We also heard papers exploring Indian beauty therapists’ ability to identify and cater to the ‘invisible’ in their day-to-day work (Andrea Wright, Brown University) and how South Korean women utilise motherly love as labour when running boarding houses in the Philippines (Dohye Kim, Asia Culture Centre). The day ended with the premiere of a short film titled “Rising to the Occasion” by Maruja M.B. Asis (Scalabrini Migration Centre), which featured father-carers in transnational families in the Philippines.

The second day had panels focusing on three different themes. The first explored masculinities and gendered relationalities. Kiran Mirchandani (University of Toronto) presented on the masculinization of low-waged service work within large transnational corporations in India; Sallie Yea (La Trobe University) talked about how masculine identities and practices are reconfigured for Bangladeshi and Tamil Indian out-of-work migrant men in Singapore, and Priyanka Jain (Aajeevika Bureau) argued that the intimate labour of the left-behind wife in male migration within India functions to rehabilitate the migrant household by absorbing the violence of an extractive labour market. The second panel discussed mediated intimacies, beginning with Anjeline de Dios’s (Lingnan University) work on the ethics and epistemologies of intimacy through an exploration of the performances of migrant artist Eisa Jocson, continuing with Purnima Mankekar’s (University of California) paper on modes of embodiment and rhythms of capital as experienced by bodies in call centres in Bangalore, and ending with Anu Gupta’s (University of Hyderabad) work on surrogacy in India. The final panel grappled with the question of politicising gender, migration and care work. Ito Peng (University of Toronto) presented on gender, migration, and the work of care, while Theodora Lam (National University of Singapore) discussed the changing subjectivities of care work due to migration. Rianne Mahon (Wilfrid Laurier University) closed the conference with a paper on the role of international organisations in structuring modes of intimate labour.

Together the papers situated intimate labour within broader contexts to understand the structural issues that contour the shape of the everyday. They sought to understand how the body is disciplined and how intimacy is rationalised by larger neoliberal forces. By drawing together empirical work that would otherwise be siloed in various disciplines, this conference highlighted the conceptual innovations that have taken shape around the study of intimate labour and continues to extend its study.

The conference benefited from support from the following external organisations: the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Partnership Grant through the Gender, Migration and the Work of Care Project, the Center for Global Social Policy, University of Toronto, Canada.