Sunday, 8 March 2015

Indonesian migrant women: Present 'here' and 'there' via ICTs

By Lucia Zerna

Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Xyza Cruz Bacani 
In the image above, the boy on the right has his faced pressed against the glass. While we see his face clearly, the face of the photographer is hidden by the camera. Who is she?
Xyza Cruz Bacani is a Filipina domestic worker in Hong Kong whose passion for photography inspired her to buy a digital single reflex (DSLR) camera and photograph everyday life in the city. Since posting her black and white images online on Facebook, Bacani has gained international recognition. She currently has more than 7,000 likes on her page. Furthermore, she has recently secured a 2015 fellowship on the Magnum Foundation’s prestigious Human Rights programme, under which she will receive a scholarship that will strengthen her skills in visually documenting human rights. Bacani’s success exemplifies the ways in which migrant domestic workers utilize technology in order to pursue aspirations and connect with the outside world. While the majority of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Southeast Asia do not achieve such visibility, many are just as active in using various types of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), such as cellphones.
From the results of the recently completed Migrating out of Poverty study on the ICT use of domestic workers in Singapore, it is apparent that use of such technologies form an integral aspect of the workers’ everyday lives. Handheld computing devices, particularly smartphones, are used by FDWs to establish a presence of both ‘here’ and ‘there’ through phone calls and short message services (SMS) to family members back home. The research found that eighty per cent of respondents in the study relied on SMS and regular phone calls to make contact with their family and friends in Indonesia.
Despite having to care for another woman’s children, FDWs also act as transnational mothers, keeping up with their own children’s wellbeing and education via ICTs. Furthermore, having a sustained line of communication is vital for preserving their mental health in environments that can be exploitive and isolating. As Rosita notes, “if I miss them I can SMS [or] Facebook. I feel happy and in high spirits.”
Additionally, the study shows that through ICTs Indonesian migrant women are able to access information on the global web. For example, Hera, a domestic worker living in Singapore, says: “[I] know more about life here… [About] Indonesian maids or the problems they have. They always upload stuff on Facebook.”
The use of ICTs is one lens through which we can see how power relations are shaped and renegotiated between the employer and domestic worker. As the study found, while ICTs help facilitate vital modes of communication for domestic workers, such devices are not readily accessible to all. Directly related to access are issues of trust, usage restrictions, and surveillance. Many domestic workers only receive a handheld device from their employer after a few years of service. Even then, FDWs are very aware of when and where they use their phones.
Yani, a 42 year-old divorcee, explains: “I know the limitation[s], I know when is the working hours and when is the time to rest. When I am eating or resting, I will call.”
Employers also monitor and curtail FDWs’ access to communication devices. Within the household they hold the password to the Wi-Fi network and may not share it with their FDW. Additionally, FDWs who do not have a phone are dependent on their employer’s devices to contact family back home. In such instances the FDW might limit herself to calling family on specific days and talking for a certain length of time.
It is clear from the research that access to and use of ICTs influence the daily routines of FDWs in Singapore in multifaceted ways. ICTs facilitate new transnational spaces where FDWs can maintain relationships with family back home. Smartphones and similar devices have become vital resources that sustain personal relationships and, in the case of Xyza Cruz Bacani, have been used as platforms for creativity and public recognition. ICTs have provided a site for her and other domestic workers to shape new trajectories and go beyond a singularizing identity of FDW. 
Lucia Zerner is currently an undergraduate spending her spring semester studying abroad in Singapore. She is particularly interested in topics related to labour migration and has most recently conducted an independent study on returned Tamil migrant workers to Madurai, India.