Friday, October 7, 2011

Touching the circle.

Earlier this week I presented my findings to some classmates and my supervisors, getting some really useful feedback afterwards. I find that it really helps me to talk about my research to others, daydream about it on the beach, and cycle through some forests to get a better visualisation of my findings.

I got a wealth of interview data from my respondents -- they told me so much about their previous and current work experiences, their relationships with their employers, and what they expect to achieve when they go home. Now is the time to pick out interesting themes, contradictions and try to summarise everything meaningfully.

I had 3 research sub-questions, 1) to analyse how my respondents gained domestic skills during the 5 to 12 years they have been in Singapore, 2) to analyse how they use these skills to bargain with their employers for 'off' days, salary increases and distance learning for their undergraduate degree, and 3) what discourses surround this process and how they react to them.


Almost all of my respondents had planned to go to university in Indonesia after completing high school, but because of the Asian Financial Crisis (1997-8), unemployment, corruption or lack of funds, they migrated to Singapore to work as domestic workers. They had planned to work for 2 years, save up, and then go back to Indonesia to study in university.

However, after those 2 years they found out that they could not save as much money as envisioned. At the same time, they were 'subjectivated' (taken from French as used by Foucault, referring to how a subject forms herself in a structure) to become domestic workers by learning domestic skills: cooking, cleaning, and child-minding among other things.

They became really good at their work; in fact, so good that their employers wanted them to stay for more than the 2-year probation period, for various reasons. They could then use their domestic skills to bargain for benefits that were due to them (e.g. working only in one household) or extra benefits (e.g. salary increase, part-time study).

Domestic workers, and especially Indonesian ones, are represented by the state, the media (arguably still the state, haha), and employers as either deviant criminals or naive, helpless victims. One of my respondents brought up something really interesting: she said she chooses to ignore and not comment on these discursive representations because her her relationship with her employer is the most important.

That really struck me, and led me to a (preliminary) conclusion that no matter how optimistic I was in the beginning in imagining their ability to act independently to resist these restrictive structures they've found themselves in, they can only act within a circle.

A bigger circle is still a circle.

This circle is set by their employers. A small circle represents restrictive employers who may not give their workers their minimum rights (e.g. adequate rest, food, salary, 'off' days). A larger circle represents 'compassionate' or 'good' employers. Domestic workers can enlarge this circle when they bargain with their domestic skills, and try to touch the circle when they seek to achieve maximum possibilities, but they are still in the circle.

One has to concede that employers have far more power than their workers. It may be quite a pessimistic conclusion, but I think that the ability to enlarge the circle, when seen in the context of the unpredictable and potentially exploitative conditions of their work, is a kind of agency that  gives hope.

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