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Special issue: The making and unmaking of precarious, ideal subjects – migration brokerage in the Global South


This special issue draws on research on the migration industry conducted by the Migrating out of Poverty Consortium and draws in other important authors.

In these papers, migrants are not frameed as individuals without agency but instead workers existing in a situation of precarity who draw on social networks and relationships with brokers in the hope of a better life. It draws on 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 provides insights into the internal workings of brokerage networks and the role of other actors in areas such as recruiting, training, obtaining official documents and visas, organising journeys and placements at destination. It explores the profit-making impetus of brokerage but also pays attention to the overlapping moral motives of brokers.

The Special Issue provides examples of migration brokerage from a range of cultural and social contexts and how the process of using brokers is shaped by power dynamics related to nationality, race, gender and ethnicity. The process by which brokers appeal to employers in destination countries by positioning migrants as ideally suited to opportunities in the labour market is explored.

The research highlights how brokers can support migrant agency by assisting with the process of moving to a new destination, negotiating with potential employers and helping migrants in fitting the worker profile that is expected of them. It also draws out the negative relationships of power that shape the migrant-broker interaction.

While brokerage is often assumed to be a one-off process, the papers show how migrants view the process from a long-term perspective where deprivations in the present are endured in the hope of future gains, for example when migrants want to switch jobs or bargain to improve their working conditions, brokers play a critical role.

We believe that the Special Issue is an important addition to the literature on migration and poverty and hope that it will prompt further dialogue about brokerage and the migration industry more broadly.


The Papers:

The making and unmaking of precarious, ideal subjects – migration brokerage in the Global South

Priya Deshingkar

This article is the introduction to the Special Issue. It explains how the issue investigates the role that migration brokers play in the subjectivation and precarisation of migrant men and women from marginalised classes and ethnicities in the Global South. It shows how these processes are critical for them to become a part of contemporary economic and political systems of international and internal labour circulation. It responds to the call of labour geographers for a deeper understanding of the ways in which diverse economic and social contexts result in complex forms of precarity and adds to the evidence on the role of actors beyond the workplace in co-creating precarity.

The author highlights the need to draw a conceptual distinction between two different intersections of migration and agency: the first relates to the very act of migration that can be conceptualised as a form of agency allowing migrants to transcend local power inequalities. The second, which is much less explored in the literature, reflects the notion of brokering practices themselves creating room for migrants to exercise resistance and bargaining power although as we also discuss in the SI, brokerage also constricts, channels and shapes agency. In other words, subjectivation/precarisation and agency should not be examined as two opposing poles but rather as an inherent part of the migration process where one cannot be separated from the other.

Please, thank you and sorry – brokering migration and constructing identities for domestic work in Ghana

Mariama Awumbila, Priya Deshingkar, Leander Kandilige, Jospeh Kofi Teye, and Mary Setrana

Drawing on interviews with migrant domestic workers and brokers in Accra-Tema, the capital city of Ghana, this paper throws light on the everyday practices of brokers in producing ideal workers for urban middle class and expatriate families as well as overseas employment. The authors map the different kinds of brokers who are involved in the selection and placement of domestic workers and show how they filter and represent workers to potential employers. Women and girls from the poorer north and Volta regions are positioned into precarious employment with an ever-present risk of abuse, non-payment and sexual exploitation. In the absence of effective state protection these workers depend heavily on brokers for negotiating better working conditions and switching jobs if they are in a difficult position. By examining such dynamics the authors demonstrate how the process of brokerage itself offers these workers opportunities for exercising agency that have the potential of setting them on an upward path. The authors conclude with calls for a more nuanced and differentiated understanding of the role and the practices of brokers to better inform Ghana’s efforts to minimise exploitation of domestic workers.

Chutes-and-ladders: the migration industry, conditionality, and the production of precarity among migrant domestic workers in Singapore

Kellynn Wee, Charmian Goh, and Brenda S.A. Yeoh

In order to understand how precarity is created for and experienced by labour migrants, we apply the concept of conditionality – which proposes 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 – to our study of how employment agents in Singapore and Indonesia recruit and place migrant workers. We develop this concept by arguing that viewing conditionality as not merely additive, but as compounding, sharpens our understanding of precarious work. We use the model of chutes and-ladders to understand how migrant domestic workers in and out of varying degrees of precarity over time. Based on qualitative interviews with migration intermediaries, we suggest 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, creative agency models 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.

What is a legitimate mobility manager? Juxtaposing migration brokers with the EU

L. Akesson and J. Alpes

This article juxtaposes two types of actors who offer migration services: a state-managed EU programme in Cape Verde and two Cameroonian development NGOs run by businessmen. By framing both as managers of mobility, the article contributes to debates on migration management and the migration industry. The article takes the paradox between official narratives and migrant experiences as a starting point to ask why and how both types of mobility managers can mobilise legitimacy. Staying clear of normative evaluations of the respective legitimacy and success of market and state actors, the article shows that both types of migration managers are involved in producing ‘the legal migrant’ in different ways. On the basis of ethnographic material from Cameroon (2007–2014) and Cape Verde (2010–2012), the article discusses the functioning of the two kinds of mobility managers, their relations with aspiring migrants and respective modes of self-representation. In conclusion, the article shows that despite apparent differences between migration brokers and the EU, the article’s mobility managers share the use of ‘development’ as a trope for legitimising their activities.

Labour migration brokerage and Dalit politics in Andhra Pradesh: a Dalit fabric of labour circulation

David Picherit

Why and how do labour migrant brokers engage with henchmen of bosses, small-time criminals and violent politicians? What significance do labour brokers’ political relations have in the fabric of labour circulation? This article argues for migration brokerage to be examined along a broad continuum of brokerage to explore the local fabric of labour circulation in the Indian construction sector. Considering migration brokerage as part of a broader landscape of brokerage firstly allows look at how migration brokers concretely navigate the worlds of labour and politics to pursue their activities and to further their own agendas. It secondly offers insight into how the everyday relations between migrant brokers and henchmen of bosses shape the lives of migrant labourers in the urban construction sector. Based on a detailed ethnography of the relation between a Dalit labour maistri and a Dalit henchman of a boss in a context of violent criminal political economy, this article explores the roles of Dalit politics in shaping the Dalit fabric of labour circulation and labour broker’s trajectories in South India. It further looks at the ambivalent production and mobilisation of Dalit identities in the making of an ideal Dalit migrant labourer.

Producing ideal Bangladeshi migrants for precarious construction work in Qatar

Priya Deshingkar, C.R. Abrar, Mirza Taslima Sultana, Kazi Nurmohammad Hossainul Haque and Md Selim Reza

The paper analyses the mediation of Bangladeshi construction worker migration to the Gulf and how multiple and unpredictable risks and opportunities are co-created by brokers, employers and the state. It examines how migrants navigate these to achieve imagined futures and their own role in co-creating precarity. The authors employ a relational lens to examine why aspiring migrants choose informal brokers over formal migration managers. The everyday practices of brokers in producing ideal Bangladeshi workers for the Qatari labour market and how this precarises migrant labour are unpacked. Migrant and broker interviews provide insights into the degrees of precarity experienced at different stages of the migration process. Entangled with these processes of precarisation are the strategies employed by migrant workers to resist precarity and transform their social and economic positions in the long term. The rich accounts presented in the paper provide evidence on the dialectical relationship between migrants and migration intermediaries which contrasts with popular discourses about brokers as exploiters and migrants as victims without agency.

By: Sarah Blake
Last updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2018