Meanings of paid work and its complex consequences
Migrant women’s participation in paid work generally provides financial and emotional fulfilment. As Burgess (2004: 235—36) argues, working outside the home (paid or unpaid) is a process of regaining social capital that was compromised in the process of migration, broadening women’s social networks and their lives in general. Paid work offers migrant women a contact with the host society and a power base from which to reconstruct their self-recognition and negotiate relationships with their husbands and in-laws.
The work available to migrant women initially is largely low-paid, low-skilled and low-status, and often both gendered and labour intensive, such as working in a textile factory or providing elder care in the services sector (Nakamatsu 2003: 192; Tang and Wang 2011: 437). Some women experience de-skilling and racism in the workplace in Japan, and their work fails to deliver the career advancement some hope for: ‘At least I am not [working as] a strip dancer’, a Filipina, a former medical technician with a university degree, remarked; this is one way of coming to terms with a factory job (Nakamatsu 2003: 193).
Remittances to their natal family are particularly important for many whose cultural notion of being a good daughter entails care for their own parents (Faier 2009: 162; Tang and Wang 2011: 434). Belanger and Linh (2011: 65—67) argue that in the provinces ofVietnam, remittances from women married to Taiwanese or South Koreans raise the women’s status at home as well as the economic standing of their natal family in the community. Remittances improve their sisters’ bargaining power in marriage and the status of young women in the region in general (Belanger and Linh 2011: 69). This finding reveals a wider implication of marriage migration: that a woman’s upward socio-economic mobility may or may not be realised by her in the host country, but is achieved by her family in the home country.
Women’s participation in the productive sphere may, however, create domestic tensions. Remittances often become a source of serious domestic dispute. A local custom in some parts of Japan and South Korea of pooling the earnings of all family members, can cause familial tension when migrant women refuse to contribute their income to the household budget (Freeman 2005: 93; Nakamatsu 2011: 28). Such experiences prompt some women to successfully persuade their husbands to live separately from in-laws (Freeman 2005: 93). In Japan, leaving their small children in the care of their mother-in-law while they work increases the sense of alienation for some women and creates ongoing conflict over who has most authority over their children (Nakamatsu 2003: 190).
Women’s workforce participation itself may displease husbands and in-laws when it challenges their perceptions of proper gender norms and power over the migrants. Studies in South Korea and Taiwan find that migrant wives’ employment may challenge local kinship norms which confine the wife’s place and role in the domestic sphere, enhancing the family’s preconceived fear that the wives may run away or introduce bad influences from outside (Freeman 2005: 97—98; Tang and Wang 2011: 436—37). In some extreme cases, Vietnamese women who had independent earnings and a broad social network from paid work endured increased violence from their already abusive husbands and/or in-laws (Tang and Wang 2011: 436). Tang and Wang’s study (2011: 434—38) exposes various forms of constraints and the extent of abuse these women had to endure, while pointing to the significance ofhaving paid work in order to leave an abusive home.
Some women take on employment with the marriage agencies that arranged their own marriages in Japan (Nakamatsu 2005b: 166—71). Unlike other readily available jobs for migrant women, this office work offers stimulus and reasonably good payment, and their ethnicity, bilingual skills and cross-border marriage experiences benefit the women and their employers. The work can, however, put women in ambiguous positions. For example, a Korean woman from Seoul who works with a rural-based broker found her Korean-Chinese female clients were motivated by money and ignorant of the basics of the social system: ‘They had only two meals a day in China, so that they are happy enough if they can eat three meals a day’ (Nakamatsu 2005b: 170). This remark, which may echo a common discourse on Korean-Chinese in South Korea, was of the kind that she herself had to endure from Japanese people. While employment with marriage agencies is part of the struggle to obtain a worthwhile career, the alignment with a hegemonic representation of marriage migrants questions the dichotomous understanding of marriage agents as male exploiters and their female clients as victims, and negates the romanticised view that there are no power relations among marriage migrants who find themselves in the same community.