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:
Please, thank you and sorry – brokering migration and constructing identities for domestic work in Ghana
A game of chutes-and-ladders: How maid agents and domestic workers navigate the migration industry in Singapore