Love Gain: The Transformation of Intimacy among Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore

By Ueno, Kayoko | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Love Gain: The Transformation of Intimacy among Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore


Ueno, Kayoko, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Previous research has brought the discussion of love and sex into studies of migration. That research has focused largely on settled migrant communities, for instance Mexicans in America (Hirsch 2003) and Filipinos in Japan (Faier 2007; 2009), or on topics such as "mail order brides" (Constable 2003; Piller 2011) and online romance (Constable 2003; Saroca 2012). (1) Migration studies concerning the feminization of labour migration have thus begun to address issues of intimacy and the lives of women as sexual beings. However, these concerns have rarely been applied to the foreign domestic workers who are a vital part of feminized migration streams (Chammartin 2004, pp. 41-44). Although classic studies by Constable (1997) in Hong Kong and Lan (2006) in Taiwan have considered the holiday activities of domestic workers, intimacy and the intimate relationships of female domestic workers have not been adequately explored.

Intimacy or intimate relationships as discussed here follow Constable (2009, p. 50): "social relationships that are--or give the impression of being--physically and/or emotionally close, personal, sexually intimate, private, caring, or loving". Previous landmark studies on the transformation of intimacy among foreign domestic workers have focused overwhelmingly on the relationship between a foreign domestic worker and her children in her country of origin (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997; Horton 2009; Parrenas 200la, 2001b, 2004, 2005a, 2005b). Those studies dwell on the ways in which a mother who is expected to be a breadwinner struggles to maintain the gendered relationship of caring for children. They use such terms as "transnational parenting" (Parrenas 200la) and "transitional motherhood" (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997). These studies have been linked to the idea of a global care chain, a term that refers to a "drain" in care from countries that are sources of female migration (Hochschild 2000; Isaksen et al. 2008). The argument for a care drain derives from an understanding of care or love as a precious resource, heavily exploited by the First World, which otherwise could have been utilized by kin and community members in domestic workers' countries of origin.

An explicit hypothesis behind the care/love drain argument is that it is grounded in structural oppression caused by the global economy of the First World. Third World women are, the hypothesis goes, pushed out of their own countries because of structural adjustment policies introduced by the World Bank and IMF, the devaluation of their countries' currencies, and the closure of local industries. The structural oppression characteristic of the global economy thus distorts their intimate sphere (Chang 2000; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2004; Lindio-McGovern 2003, pp. 517-19; Parrenas 2001a). This line of argument, which reveals "the hidden price of global inequality" (Isaksen et al. 2008, p. 414), remains valuable. A focus on the mother-child relationship has revealed negative aspects of the international division of labour (Parrenas 2001a).

While scholarship on the love/care drain has made important contributions to the study of women working outside their countries of origin, such approaches associate those women's work abroad with the destruction of their intimate sphere or commons in their home countries (Hochschild 2000; Isaksen et al. 2008). They therefore undervalue the efforts and struggles of women to secure intimacy in destination countries. The intimate relationships of women working abroad are transformed not only in their home countries, but also in their destination countries. The care drain argument also takes for granted that conventional relationships in women's home countries are benign. Studies have, however, already pointed out that women may leave their countries of origin not only to seek economic gain for their families but also to escape domestic violence (Dannecker 2005; Oishi 2005, pp. 120-22), unhappy marriages (Tacoli 1996, p. …

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