Thursday, 11 July 2019

The intricacies of the complex world of migration brokerage

by Priya Deshingkar

There is an increasingly broader and deeper realization that there are many players in the migration industry, a loose and changing conglomeration of individuals and institutions that work together to facilitate mobility. The incentives for brokerage are often large, and there are many people in sending and receiving communities who have a stake in ensuring that irregular migration and smuggling succeeds.

A recent webinar from the Migrating out of Poverty consortium presented cutting-edge analysis on migration brokerage in Africa and Asia. Presenters from the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, the Centre for Migration Studies in Ghana and the University of Sussex in the UK explored how brokers are part of the system of creating and producing precarity through their role in facilitating journeys and connecting workers with employment. Migrant workers live and work in precarious conditions, not just because of the way they’ve been employed, but because of the restrictions placed on them by the immigration and government systems that control their rights from the country of destination.
In policy terms, the migration industry is usually framed as an evil and highly exploitative system that perpetuates forced and unfree labour. However, case studies from the webinar demonstrated that migrants can, and do, exercise agency even in highly constrained and unfree situations.

Traditionally scholars have considered worker agency in relation to collective forms of protest mainly in industrial work settings. However, more academic attention is now being given to individual forms of agency. There is now greater recognition of migrants’ strategies of accepting precarious work in the short term in order to build a better future in the longer term. But the role of brokers in achieving long term aspirations, and how they are integral to migrant agency, is an under-researched area. This framing better reflects migrant’s own views and experiences of brokerage, which can often be at odds with the way that brokerage is viewed in migration policy and international development more broadly.

The research presented in the webinar provides insights into the internal workings of brokerage networks and their role in recruiting, training, obtaining official documents and visas, organising journeys and ensuring placements at destination. It explores the profit-making impetus of brokerage but also pays attention to the overlapping moral motives of brokers and relations of reciprocity between migrants and brokers.

In Ghana, for example, internal migration (mainly rural to urban) is very common, with girls and women migrating to urban areas to find employment in low-paid and insecure places particularly in domestic work. Here brokers are embedded in the system of exploitation by moulding the migrants’ behavior and appearance to be “good” and fit the expectations of their employers who are looking for docile and subservient women and girls.

However, the studies from the webinar also conceptualized brokers as an important part of migrant risk management strategies in enabling them to fulfil their own migration agendas. While brokerage is often viewed in a “here and now” way, the studies show how brokers work with migrants to realise their future goals. For example, when migrants want to switch jobs or bargain to improve their working conditions, brokers can play a critical role.

A study of how employment agents in Singapore and Indonesia recruit and place migrant workers introduces the concept of conditionality. That is, the proposition that a migrant worker’s experience of precarity is contingent on a set of formal and informal conditions, the actions of institutional actors, and migrants’ own resources and strategies. Viewing conditionality as not merely additive, but as compounding, sharpens our understanding of precarious work. For example, remember the childhood game ‘Snakes and Ladders’? (NB: Snakes and Ladders, originating from India and commercialised as a family board game in the UK, and again commercially reincarnated as ‘Chutes and Ladders’ in the USA). In this game, ‘Snakes/Chutes’ or vices (poor decisions) set one back and ‘Ladders’ or virtues (good decisions) pushes one forward.

The researchers in Singapore use this model of ‘Chutes and Ladders’ to help demonstrate how migrant domestic workers move in and out of varying degrees of precarity over time. Based on qualitative interviews with migration intermediaries, the study suggested that these ‘chutes’ and ‘ladders’ are not static, pre-existing, or inherent; instead, they are dynamically produced by migration brokers, who actively produce, shore up, or mitigate situations of precarity for workers by ‘patching’ chutes, leaving them, or opening up new ones. Conversely, brokers and employers redraw the boundaries of conditionality through the creation of ladders. Workers’ access to security is hence not merely conditional, but conditionally compounded, based on the necessity of simultaneously meeting multiple mutually reinforcing and interwoven conditions.

The webinar does not try to downplay the inequality in most migrant–broker relations. However, it provides a multi-layered view whereby brokers and migrants, both, should be understood as co-creators of complex pathways of migrant circulation. Migration brokerage crafts and supports structures that produce ‘good migrants’ and precarities, however, over time, migrants may successfully maneuver and challenge these structures with the potential for social and economic change. Furthermore, the research shows that brokers can also play a role in lessening precarity and increasing protection for migrants from abuse.

Listen to the recorded webinar here: Connection Men, Dalals, Maid Agents - traffickers or not?

See the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies special issue articles here:

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Senegalese migrant women in Spain: between the weight of tradition and empowerment strategies

By Benoît Tine and Dorte Thorsen

Through their status as heads of households, men take the lead in the Kolda region of southern Senegal. They are the ones taking care of everything in the public sphere. The weight of culture is so heavy and so deeply rooted in everyday habits that women have difficulty making their voices heard. Often they are relegated to the private sphere, occupied with reproductive work, child rearing and household chores. Empowerment in such a context is difficult for most women, even for the few who take up transnational migrant work.

It is in this socio-cultural context, contrary to the norm, that Mr. Baldé, a married man with three children, arranged for his wife to migrate to Spain to work in 2008. She was one of 700 Senegalese women who migrated under a bilateral framework agreement between Senegal and Spain that, according to Tandian and Bergh, aimed to fill a gap in the Spanish labour market and to foster development in the country of origin. 

From a policy perspective, the recruitment of Senegalese women into the global labour force of temporary farm workers seemed well within this aim. However, the recruitment was underpinned by assumptions about women’s automatic empowerment through waged work, the benefit of women’s nimble fingers, and female migrants being more compliant with the rules of temporary contracts. It was assumed that women would be more likely than male migrants to return home once the contract ended.

Mr. Baldé was oblivious to those aims. The registration of his wife for migration was not about her individual empowerment but about the betterment of their nuclear household. Just how rare this step was, was reflected in the resentment that his parents, relatives and neighbours harboured for a long time. They were irked by the fact that he had not followed the usual pattern of favouring his lineage by registering his sisters or cousins, and they told him that he would lose his wife. 

In the face of their critique, he was relieved that his wife sent most of her earnings to him - of the 600,000 CFA francs (approx. £800) she earned, she sent 500,000 CFA francs (approx. £675), which amounted to ten times his salary. At the end of her first contract, he persuaded her to stay in Spain even though her life became much harder, as she no longer had papers. Eventually, she obtained residence papers in Spain and Mr. Baldé was pleased that his wife returned for a three-month holiday in 2016. She did him proud. He described how she behaved as if she had never travelled, surprising people by taking a motorcycle taxi to the market like everyone else and informing him about her activities. “As before her migration”, Mr. Baldé said, “it was my orders that were followed at home. My wife returned to being the submissive wife, the mother who educates and takes care of her household as if nothing had happened”.

The question of women’s empowerment remains. It is indeed debatable whether migrant work empowers women when, as soon as they are home, they are required to abide by restrictive patriarchal norms. Considering the affective sentiments that migrants may harbour for particular relatives and more generally for their home community, they may choose to emphasise one side of themselves during a visit and conceal other identities they have appropriated as migrants. In the realm of empowerment, it raises the question of whether women’s public behaviour reflect what actually goes on behind closed doors in the home. Moreover, the conditions under which temporary farm labour and irregular migrants work and live do not necessarily nurture a sense of empowerment. Thus, it is important to explore how, and under what circumstances, temporary migration can lead to women’s empowerment.

Read about Migrating out of Poverty's work on Gender and Generation here.

Dr. Benoît Tine, Department of Sociology, Université Assane Seck de Ziguinchor, BP 523, Ziguinchor. Email
Dr. Dorte Thorsen, Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QN. Email:

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Webinar: Connection Men, Dalals, Maid Agents – traffickers or not?

10.00-11.00 GMT, 29 March 2019

In this webinar, researchers from the University of Ghana, the University of Sussex and the National University of Singapore will present findings from their research on migration brokerage.

The research focuses on migration for domestic work and construction which are usually carried out by migrants from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Learn more about:
  • Northern Ghana and the capital city of Accra which are important origin and destination points for women and girls recruited for domestic work;
  • The Chapainawabganj area of Bangladesh where men are routed to Qatar for construction work; and
  • Singapore, which has a highly developed network of brokers and agents for selecting, hiring and placing female domestic workers from Indonesia and other poorer countries in the region.

The speakers will provide an overview of the structure of brokerage networks and how they work with other individuals and organisations in government and civil society to facilitate migration. While brokers are clearly exploitative and involved in perpetuating forced labour they also create avenues for employment and provide opportunities for change that would otherwise not be available.

These studies have much to offer to ongoing debates about trafficking.

Speakers and presentations

Please, thank you and sorry – brokering migration and constructing identities for domestic work in Ghana - Mariama Awumbila

A game of chutes-and-ladders: How maid agents and domestic workers navigate the migration industry in Singapore - Kellynn Wee

The recruitment of Bangladeshi migrants for construction work in Qatar -
Priya Deshingkar

To register for the webinar please click on this link and follow the instructions: 

You can read more about our work on migration brokers in our recent Special Issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.