Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS)Waseda University


Labor mobility – What is it like to be a migrant? SUNAM, Ramesh, Assistant Professor

Implications for a globalizing world

In our globalizing world, even rural people are becoming highly mobile and working outside their home countries. The rise of this transnational labor migration is having profound effects on societies, both in the sending and the receiving countries.
In my research, I focus on drawing empirical insights from Asian countries, in particular Nepal, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Recent studies have looked at people’s mobility in Asia and the flows of remittances, as well as the impact on development. Building on the existing studies, I concentrate on two fundamental questions: How do Asian workers fit into the labor migration trajectories, and how does labor migration influence their rural livelihoods back home?

Stability and precarity

With all those migrant workers flooding into labor markets in destination countries, I want to see the level of exploitation or positive inclusion in the labor markets. Some workers are exploited, while others enjoy better terms and working conditions, and I want to investigate the degree to which some work assignments lead to exploitation or precarious inclusion in the labor market, while others enjoy better salaries and decent working conditions.
For example, people working in Japan might have families and households in rural Nepal, a focus country of my research. If the migrant workers are enjoying decent working conditions and getting good salaries, how does that impact their livelihoods and their economic and social status back home?
On the other hand, if they are facing exploitation, or are perhaps suffering miserable living conditions here, how does that affect their family and socio-economic status back home? I’ll be tracing this line of inter-connections between migrant communities and destination countries.

Development narratives

People’s expectations and hopes often evolve after they experience working overseas. Many migrants are originally from poorer areas, and initially their aspirations have more to do with simple survival. But later, things change a bit, and they start to want a better house, education for their children, and the like. This evolution continues, because poor people migrate two or three times or more. The first time, they migrate to repay the loans they took out to finance their migration; the next few times, they go to accumulate savings.
When they go home, their cash and aspirations affect a lot of things, including land prices. In urban areas, land prices tend to rise. But in rural areas, because migration can cause labor shortages, rural land prices often sink, because migrants want to buy land in better locations close to roads so they can have access to good education and medical facilities.

Policy implications

With this work I hope to glean insights that can be used to promote safer and more beneficial labor migration and reduce poverty and vulnerabilities in Asia, where over half of the world’s poor live.
In migrant-sending countries like Laos and Nepal, migration has been politically palatable because there are high levels of unemployment and a scarcity of jobs. Sending young people overseas avoids social and political unrest, as well as giving the economy much-needed cash.
In the past, agriculture was a major sector that absorbed the labor force, but now that the sector is declining, and it’s not an attractive sector for most young people, as their aspirations shift.
So the sending countries face a difficult policy paradox. Governments always say they want to control migration, that they want to use their labor force to develop their own economies, but at the same time they also make policies favorable for migration, because they see the benefits, such as maintaining the economy through remittances.

Mixed methodology

I use a mixed sort of methodology, involving both qualitative (interviews) and quantitative (surveys) techniques. But I primarily use a qualitative approach — fieldwork (for gaining fresh insights from the ground) has always been key to collecting data for my research. This helps me to understand the complexity of (and to explain) continuities and changes in the lives of people and landscapes in Asian rural areas.
Initially Japan was not included in my project, but now because I’m here it will be easier for me to do fieldwork and field research with Nepali migrants. Lots of Nepalese migrants are there, so I’ll also include Japan, in addition to my research in Nepal and Laos and Thailand, for a wider comparative study.
People who go to Malaysia or Qatar or Saudi Arabia are different from those who come to Japan. To come here they have to be much wealthier — the migration costs including recruitment fees are higher, for a start — and they have different aspirations, such as buying a patch of land or a house in urban areas, and rising in the upper middle class. So the insights I gather here in Japan will be somewhat different, but valuable nonetheless.


Interview and Composition:Robert Cameron
In cooperation with: Waseda University Graduate School of Political Science J-School


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