For a good look at the modern face of labor migration, you need only fly into Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. As soon as you land, you’re struck by an overwhelming array of signs and billboards advertising employment overseas. These can be seen everywhere, including the Foreign Labor Desk, the Information Desk of the airport and on the windows of the airport lobby. Adding to the spectacle is the ever-changing sea of faces and people waiting in line, wearing number tags or similar brightly colored t-shirts and company hats. They gather in small circles with their eyes fixed on the departure gate and a sign that reads: “Nepali With Working Visa.”
Most of these people are aspiring migrants seeking to enter the enormous and growing river of workers flowing throughout Asia and the rest of the world. It has become a global phenomenon, and with its rapid growth and increasing commercialization, organizations offering brokerage services have taken on a prominent role.
My research project, “Brokerage, migration infrastructure, and low-wage labor regularization across Asia,” explores how migrants within and across Asia are managed, and in particular the organizations that form the infrastructure of migrant labor production and circulation in the contemporary world.
Brokerage invokes a wide range of intermediary objects, institutions, actors, and social spaces – such as individual recruiters, employment agencies, educational consultancies, bureaucratic documentation and governments – that knit together to facilitate the flow of migrants between Nepal and the rest of Southeast and East Asia.
The recruiters in particular connect people and places, both drawing on existing institutional knowledge and networks, and creating new ones, to do so. They often provide orientation for aspiring migrants, and coordinate with placement agencies and hiring companies that come to the country to interview candidates. Migrant workers’ dependence on these personnel, organizations and services in poorer countries is inherently tied to the global production of regularized low-wage labor migration.
Some of these organizations, particularly recruitment agencies, have been disparaged as exploiters, and they attract a lot of moralizing and dismissive criticism in public discourse and scholarly work. Debates have primarily emphasized types and scales of brokerage and assumptions about who brokers are. Instead, brokerage is best approached as a category of practice; we should focus on what brokerage does and how it has evolved as a set of social practices in a given society at a particular historical moment.
As I conduct my research, I generate comparative ethnographic data on brokerage, and the ways various recruiters act as intermediaries for different types of migration in the region and enable everyday interactions.
I also examine the overlap between state institutions and private recruitment agencies in Nepal that organize low-wage labor migration to Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, and educational consultancies that facilitate student mobility to East Asia, such as Japan. The emphasis on brokerage – with its bureaucratic and administrative technologies – transplanting labor between the two subcontinents suggests not only cross-cultural or comparative projects, but also a methodological shift. A trans-regional framework necessitates a multi-sited methodology beyond conventional frameworks based on nation states and post-colonial societies. While of interest to Nepal, Japan and Malaysia, this project promises to shed light onto intra-Asian migrations, labor regularization, and the unequal mobility of people.
I base my approach on several key questions: What does everyday brokerage look like, as it is embedded in various local contexts and cultural and political processes? How do people engaged in brokerage activities consider their roles, their work, and interactions across Asia? How are these interactions mediated by the state and how do they inform activities in labor migration in the region?
My research has demonstrated that brokerage is not just about business, but about governance as well, with wide-ranging economic and political effects on the ground. It is also about encounters, intensive engagements and structured interactions among various regional actors.
The market for migrant labor is expanding, and the migration brokerage infrastructure is growing fast to meet demand. That is shown by the following data according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 1994, only 3,605 overseas worker permits were issued in Nepal; this number reached 35,000 in 2000 and half a million in 2013. Of the total permits issued in 2014/2015, 44.2% were for workers going to Persian Gulf countries, and 39.6% were for people going to Malaysia. In 2002, only 301 foreign employment agencies were registered in Nepal. By 2010 there were 760, and now there are 1,035 in Kathmandu alone.
For upper and middle class young people, the employment agencies have become a desirable place to work in a competitive job market, and they serve as recruitment staff, coordinators, facilitators and interpreters.
Many of the staffers are themselves aspiring student migrants, and they work in Kathmandu at these recruitment agencies while they’re studying to go abroad. A lot of recruiters I met at these agencies were taking German or Japanese language classes. I often heard people say, “This is my part-time work, but my real job is language classes.”
I have a particular interest in the Nepal experience, since I was born there. My family went to the U.S. when I was 13 and settled in Kentucky. My father had relatives who had migrated to the U.S. long before I was born, so it was sort of a family reunification.
Actually, I never set out to study migration. I’m an anthropologist, and I entered the field because of the opportunities to do field work. Initially, I wanted to go to Nepal to do research, and I hoped someone might pay me to do exactly what I wanted – to go back and study the people there.
That didn’t happen right away, but I got involved in migrant advocacy work in New York City, volunteered at a Nepali grassroots organization named Adhikaar and interpreted for Nepali asylum seekers. I started collecting migration stories, especially relating to U.S. immigration and asylum services. I went to hearings and talked to asylum officers, lawyers, and migrant-advocates, and I became fascinated, not so much in migration itself, but rather in how low-wage migrant workers and asylum seekers are managed inside and outside of U.S. institutional spaces. That was my Ph.D dissertation, and my current project arose from it.
My research in Japan will be a continuation of this work. I’ve begun by making contact with the Nepali community here, mostly in Tokyo, talking to residents and owners of businesses, such as restaurants, who are aware of what’s going on here. There is no new data on the number of Nepalis here, but in 2015 the number was 55,000, according to the ILO, so now I suspect it’s double, 110,000 or so, and includes all kinds of people, including professionals and their families.
I’m also looking into language institutes that recruit Nepali students, and their relationships with educational brokers in Nepal – they work together to keep the process operating smoothly and keep tabs on the students. They have to have a certain level of Japanese proficiency beforehand, including passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test level N5 in Nepal before they come here to further their studies. Their visas allow them to work part-time, for 20 hours a week, and when their visas run out, they can sometimes get a new visa to continue working, so many stay on.
I’m looking forward to exploring this world, as well as the migrant relationships Japan has with other countries, and why they exist – these links are not accidental. It will be fascinating to examine Japan from this new viewpoint.
Interview and Composition:CAMERON, Robert
In cooperation with: Waseda University Graduate School of Political Science J-School