Halfway between the European mainland and the North Pole, a group of islands, Svalbard, has become a Thai diaspora in miniature. Longyearbyen, the only place with permanent settlement, is a tiny city with only 2000 inhabitants. Norwegians are in the majority and make up 85 per cent of the population. But among the 30 other nationalities present, the Thai population is the largest group, numbering about 70 individuals. While migration from Thailand to other Western countries is dominated by single women, both genders migrate to Svalbard and arrive in all family statuses. They come for work. Gender is not decisive for the migration flow but important for life conditions in Svalbard.
An open door to Europe?
Svalbard was a ‘no-man’s land’ for hunting and fishing for centuries until the beginning of the 20th century when coal mining began. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 established the area as Norwegian territory. The Treaty came into force on 14 Auguat 1925 when Norway assumed sovereignty by introducing the Svalbard Law and the Mining Code; the rights to entrance and economic activities are open. Migration regulations to Europe (the Schengen Agreement) do not count. Anyone can come to Svalbard, but it is not an open door to Europe. Residents gain no right to visa no matter the length of stay.
This is the background for the stream of migration from Thailand. In addition, Svalbard is a place where salaries are high and taxes are low. Possibilities for economic gains are extraordinary. However, risks of failure are large and social rights are linked to the migrants’ homeland.
This article is based on the research project ‘Svalbard families’ (with Kari Moxnes) primarily focused on Norwegian families. Thais were involved as the largest minority group (Jensen, 2008). Data were collected in 2006 and included 14 Thai interviews.
The first entrances: marriage migration
To understand the Thai migration to Svalbard we need to go back to 1975, when an all-year airport was opened and isolation from the outside world was broken. Svalbard used to be a society for single men working in the coal mines. The airport, together with family housing and services, attracted families with women and children to the place. Today, 40 per cent of the adult population is female. However, the society is still dominated by men of legal working age. The airport also gave miners the possibility to travel to distant places, such as Thailand. Some miners who travelled there brought wives back. Until the mid-1990s, only a few Thai women, married to Norwegian men, had settled in Svalbard. Over the last decade, these pioneers have become recruiters of fellow countrywomen in a flow of migration.
Recent entrances: labour migration
During hard economic times in Thailand in the late 1990s, migration became a solution for many poor people in the rural areas (Plambech, 2007). During visits to their home areas in Thailand, pioneer migrants from Svalbard were living examples of the gains of migration. They recruited new migrants, as described by Ratana (2006): ‘They begin their transnational migration through following one of their family members, relatives or friends who have already settled overseas. Those people would provide newcomers with initial logistical support including orientations of how to live in a foreign land, visa, air tickets, temporary jobs and housing for the first three months …’ (p. 11). However, migration to Svalbard differs from descriptions of migration to other Western countries, where marriage plays a major role. In contrast to other Western countries, also Norway, where migrants are primarily unmarried women entering through transnational marriage, migrants to Svalbard come for work. At Svalbard labour migration prevails. This has consequences for the gender composition of migration and the marital status of migrants.
While migration from Asia is heavily dominated by women (UNFPA, 2006), about one third of migrants to Svalbard are men. Furthermore, the migrants arrive in all family types. Among the informants interviewed, eight were married to a Thai while six, all women, were single. All but two were parents. Some had children in Svalbard, while others had left them behind in Thailand. The ages of the informants ranged from the early 20s to the mid 50s.
Gender composition and family status may illustrate how global policies impact the ways in which migration is accomplished. If marriage is the key to residence, migrants will be women only. If residence is independent of marriage, both genders can migrate. This distinction has implications for life conditions. In marriage migration women will depend on the Western husband. In contrast to this general trend, Svalbard migrants depend on their Thai network, and latecomers rely upon recruiters’ ability and willingness to provide work and a place to live.
Recruiters help fellow villagers to migrate at the same time, and as Suksomboon (2007) states, such assistance has become ‘… a lucrative business for the pioneer migrants.’ Migrants are often indebted to the recruiters, Plambech (2007) also finds. The recent stream of Thai migration to Svalbard confirms that latecomers had an obligation to work for the recruiters for a certain period of time (such as three years). They spent a long time paying back debts and depended on their network for housing and a social life. At the same time the work conditions could be very difficult with low payment, little control over working hours and strained relationships to the recruiters.
Thai migrants in Svalbard have no residence or work permits. Their status is legal but undocumented. They enter the labour market where their recruiters, women who married Norwegian men, initi
ally had found work: in the cleaning industry. Latecomers, men and women alike, work as cleaners which in mainland Norway is a heavily female occupation. Unlike domestic aides in Europe, Thai migrants in Svalbard do not live with the resident family. They do the cleaning and laundry of private homes, hotels, public buildings and companies on an hourly basis. Thai recruiters are in command of the quantity of work, working conditions and salaries of latecomers. As more Thais enter the labour market, competition for work increases. If latecomers run into problems with the established power structures of the Thai network they have nowhere to turn. The undocumented status submits immigrants to uncertainty even if residence is legal. As noted by Anderson (2000: 179), ‘…being undocumented never serves the workers’ interests.’ Partnering with a Norwegian man is one way of escaping dependence on the recruiters.
Improving life conditions: partnering with a Norwegian
Success and failure of immigrants to Svalbard intersect with the particular legal status of the area. No registers document living conditions and social security is linked to the homeland. Language barriers are profound. Working and living conditions are invisible to society at large. The relationship between Thais and the majority population is similar to what Anderson describes, in that: ‘… their social worlds do not touch’ (2000: 145). Svalbard is a place for people who are able to manage by their own means only.
Partnering with a Norwegian man is a way for women to lessen their dependence on the Thai network. The fieldwork displayed considerable differences in life conditions among Thais living in a transnational partnership, and those who did not. Women who had lived with a Norwegian had improved housing standards and better working conditions. Importantly, for single mothers who had left children in Thailand, a Norwegian man could provide economic guarantees for bringing them to Svalbard. Visits to mainland Norway became an option. All women interviewed who had entered Svalbard as single, had partnered a Norwegian man, or were hoping to. Thus, a Western man remained important for well-being, although not for residence.
Migration on the margins
Svalbard is on the border of human existence, a tiny opening into a Western world. Migration can be lucrative but is not without costs. While borders are open and salaries are high, social security is minimal. Furthermore, without a visa no one can leave for any visa-demanding country. Life is confined to Longyearbyen with only a 50 km long road system, long and very cold winters, polar nights, permafrost, and polar bears restricting outdoors movement. The axis of mobility is between Longyearbyen and Thailand by air.
Recent migration flow from Thailand signifies how a locality at the margins has become a target for a group of people with no other places to go. The visa-less border makes migration possible but migrants are trapped between the undocumented and the legal. Both men and women enter Svalbard and they come for work. But the single women who had married a Norwegian man later on obtained advantages unavailable to Thai couples or single Thai men. Thus, gender remains important to life conditions after migration even if the migration itself is gender neutral.
Anderson, B. (2000): Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour. London: Zed Books.
Jensen, A.-M. (2008): ‘No trees to see: Thai-life in permafrost’, in Jensen and Moxnes (eds.): Life in Longyearbyen, Tapir Academic (in Norwegian)
Plambech, S. (2007): Managing Migration – Risks and Remittances among Migrant Thai Women. Master Thesis, Institute of Social Anthropology, Lund University
Ratana, T. B. (2006): Cross-Cultural Marriages and Transnational Gender Mobility: Experiences of Village Women from Northeastern Thailand. Paper at International Conference on Intermediated Cross-border Marriages in Asia and Europe. Sept. 18-20, 2006, Academia Sinica, Taipei
Suksomboon, P. (2007): Remittances and ‘Social Remittances’: Their impact on Lived Experiences of Thai Women in the Netherlands and Non-Migrants in Thailand. Paper at International migration, multi-local livelihoods and human security: Perspectives from Europe, Asia and Africa. 30 and 31 August 2007, Institute of Social Studies, The Netherlands
UNFPA (2006): A Passage to Hope. Women and International Migration. State of World Population
An-Magritt Jensen, professor in sociology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Areas of research: demography, family, children’s welfare.
‘Mobile Children: small captives of large structures?’ Children & Society, Vol 23, No. 2: 123-135
‘Pluralisation of family forms’. In Qvortrup, Corsaro, Honig and Valentine (eds) Handbook of Childhood Studies, Palgrave (in print)
The challenges from globalization and migrationGlobalization is contested, and the meanings of globalization need to be discussed within different contexts. Trans-nationalism challenges established research paradigms connected to the nation states. One of the challenges of gender research is arguably to focus on diversities among women within and between nation states, for example between women in the North and in the South, East and West. As illustrated by the articles in this issue of Asia Insights, migration is a transnational phenomenon where people, capital, and civil society organisations increasingly move across borders. Research has emphasised the important linkage between the external and internal dimensions of migration. Migration thus illustrates the growing interconnection between the global, national and local arenas, and migration processes can illuminate the linkages between classical social science concepts such as social rights, political practices and belongings. Migration is gendered in a number of ways. One obvious example is that push and pull factors related to migration are different for men and women. Women from the South often come to the North through family unification, marriage or as (sex) workers. Immigrant women are often the victims of globalisation and tend to constitute the most vulnerable groups as undocumented and legal immigrants and refugees.
‘The local-global dialectic’
The German sociologist Ulrick Beck has discussed the implications of the ‘local-global dialectic’ (2002). He defines globalization as” A non-linear dialectical process in which the global and the local do not exist as cultural polarities but as combined and mutually integrating principles. These processes involve not only interconnections across boundaries but transform the quality of the social and political inside nation-states” (Beck 2002, p. 17). Beck has convincingly argued that instead of investigating the global on an entirely abstract general l level, we should organize a ‘historically sensitive empiricism’ to study the ambivalent consequences of globalization in cross-cultural and multi-local research networks.
The local-global dialectic represents one of the crucial dilemmas of cosmopolitan societies due to the diaspora question: how will being at home far away – being at home without being at home – be possible? This is a complex issue which affects people differently and needs to be addressed from the perspectives of male and female migrants, of organizations, networks and companies. The ‘multicultural dilemma’ represents another crucial dilemma, in that multiculturalism fosters an individual who remains dependent on his/her original cultural space. Beck’s notion of internal globalization is one way to integrate the two dilemmas that need to be explored in greater detail with a view to understanding the gendered implications of globalization.
Feminist scholarship has analysed the gendered effects of globalization,; European integration and migration (see Sassen 2001). One approach has addressed the implications of globalization on women’s position in the labour market, and has often emphasised convergent trends and negative effects of neo-liberal policies leading to the marginalization of migrant women workers and the feminization of poverty. Another approach has addressed political globalization and the barriers and potentials of global processes for gender equality, women’s empowerment and trans-national struggles. This approach often focuses on the new transnational sites intended to strengthen gender equality and expand women’s rights across nation states, for example through the EU gender regime and human rights regime (Squires 2007). The new global political reality raises many challenging issues for gender research. One way to address these issues has been through diversity and intersectionality frames (Yuval-Davis 2007, Squires 2007).
The political theorist Judith Squires (2007) has recently analysed the contradictory logic of globalisation from a perspective of gender equality. Her book “The New Politics of Gender Equality” gives an overview of the global gender equality breakthrough by national governments, international organizations like the UN, and transnational structures like the EU. The main argument presented in the book is that there is a new global gender equality agenda, which is spread by three key strategies: gender quotas, women’s policy agencies and gender mainstreaming. The book gives an excellent illustration of the contradictory logic of globalization: it makes visible the paradox that gender equality can on the one hand be threatened by diversity, for example when immigrant groups in Denmark do not have the same rights as ethnic Danish groups. On the other hand, globalization also presents new possibilities for gender equality, and has become part of a new transnational diversity agenda. These new possibilities can for instance present themselves when Western NGOs move to Asia. There is a tension between the diversity approach that focuses on inequalities along multiple axes of inequality, and the approach that focuses on women viewing gender (in)equality as the main problem. This tension has raised new questions and debates about how to create new forms of solidarity between women while acknowledging different experiences and positions, for example according to race/ethnicity, nationality and religion.
The multicultural dilemma
One way to deal with the diversity of religious and cultural groups is through the multicultural paradigm. Will Kymlicka’s work on Multicultural Citizenship (1995) presents a defence of ethno-cultural group rights for indigenous peoples, such as Aboriginals in Australia and Indians in North America, and the poly-ethnic rights of new immigrant groups. The multicultural paradigm was criticised by Susan Moller Okin in the provocative article “Is multiculturalism bad for women?” (1999). She claimed that there is a contradiction between multiculturalism, defined as protection of the cultural rights of minorities, and women’s rights. This provoked an intense debate in the US, which spread to Europe.
In his response to Okin, Kymlicka argued that feminism and multiculturalism are potential allies in a struggle for a more inclusive concept of justice, based upon a combination of individual and collective rights, which takes account of both gender-based and ethnic diversity. Okin was heavily criticised by different scholars, including many feminists, who argued that her approach was based upon an essentialist perception of ‘culture’ and that her analysis forced minority women to chose between ‘my rights and my culture’. Okin has later modified and contextualised her position em
phasising that she is not against collective rights per se and that one of her main points was that women should have a voice in negotiations between the majority and minority cultures about group rights (2005; 88-89).
There has recently been a growing concern in political and gender theory framed as “the paradox of multicultural vulnerability”, i.e. that vulnerable social groups’ needs and interests can be undermined by group rights. The concern has especially been about ensuring that women and other vulnerable groups have a voice and influence in both minority cultures and in society (see for example Eisenberg et. al. 2005). Feminist scholarship agrees that women in minority cultures need to be respected both as culturally different from the national majority and also need to be treated as equals by both the majority and minority cultures. For example, immigrant women from Asia living in the Nordic countries as students, workers or spouses either by marriage or family unification must have their equal and cultural respected.
Rethinking gender justice in times of globalization
It is important to rethink gender justice in times of globalization and to overcome the tensions in gender justice between equality and diversity. All social and cultural groups must be included in negotiations about social justice. One solution to overcoming the tensions is to extend the emphasis on gender inequality to multiple inequalities. Intersectionality has become an influential theoretical approach that has contributed to conceptualizing the intersections of gender with other differences and inequalities such as ethnicity/race, sexuality and religion. Nira Yuval-Davis has conceptualized intersectionality from a trans-national perspective in her analysis of gender and nationality, citizenship and ‘politics of belonging’ (2006) focusing on the intersections of gender, ethnicity and nationality. This approach points to a multilayered framework of citizenship, which is democratic, feminist and able to link the national and trans-national levels in what she defines as ‘a politics of belonging’. This vision needs to be explored further through practical research, for example by looking at migration from Asia to the Nordic countries, focusing on how gender intersects with ethno-national and cultural belongings for women of Asian backgrounds living in different Nordic localities.
Beck, Ulrick (2002).”The cosmopolitan society and its enemies”, Theory, Culture and Society
Eisenberg, Avigail & Jeff Spinner Halev eds. (2005). Minorities within minorities. Equality, Rights and Diversity,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kymlicka, Will (1995). Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kymlicka, Will (1999). “Liberal complacencies”, pp. 31-34 in Okin, Susan Moller with Respondents (1999). Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Okin, Susan Moller with Respondents, ed. By Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard and Martha Nussbaum (1999), Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Okin, Susan Moller (2005).”Multiculturalism and feminism: no simple question, no simple answers” in Eisenberg, Avigail & Jeff Spinner Halev (2005). Minorities within minorities. Equality, Rights and Diversity,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 67-89.
Sassen, Saskia (2001). “The global city: Strategic site/new frontier”.
Squires, Judith (2007). The New Politics of Gender Equality, Palgrave/Macmillan.
Yuval-Davis, Nira (2006). “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics” in European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol 13, 3; 193-209.
Under the Chinese dormitory labour regime the lives of women migrant workers are shaped by the international division of labour. The dormitory labour system is a gendered form of labour use to fuel global production in new industrialized regions, especially in South China. The system also forms the basis for the development of class consciousness and alternative struggles for labour rights.
China is well known as a ‘world factory’, attracting transnational corporations (TNCs) from all over the world, especially from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, USA, and Western Europe. Rapid expansion of export-oriented production has led to a sharp rise in jobs in private, foreign-owned, and joint-venture enterprises that dot the coastal cities of China. The formation of a new working class of internal rural migrant labourers, in contrast to the Maoist working-class, has been taking shape in contemporary China. The Fifth National Population Census of China in 2000, estimated that there were over 120 million internal migrant workers in cities, and today the estimates range from 130 to 200 million persons.
SITUATING WOMEN IN THE WORLD’S FACTORY
Since the early 1990s the development of special economic zones and technology development zones across China, similar to the development in most other developing economies, was based on a massive harnessing of young workers, in particular of unmarried women, who are often the cheapest and most compliant labour (Lee 1998). These women migrant workers – dagongmei – constitute a new gendered labour identity, produced at the particular moment when private and transnational capital emerged in post-socialist China. As a newly coined term, dagongmei embraces multi-layered meanings and denotes a new kind of labour relationship fundamentally different from those of Mao’s period. Da-gong means “working for the boss” or “selling labour”, which connotes commodification and a capitalist exchange of labour for wages (Pun 2005). It is a new concept that stands in contradiction to Chinese socialist history. Labour, especially alienated (wage) labour, supposedly emancipated with the Chinese revolution, is again sold to the capitalists, and this time under the auspices of the state. In contrast to the term gongren, worker, which carried the highest status in the socialist rhetoric of Mao’s day, the new word dagong signifies a lesser identity – that of a hired hand – in a new context shaped by the rise of market factors in labour relations and hierarchy. Mei means younger sister. It denotes not merely gender, but also marital status – mei is unmarried and young, and thus often of a lower status.
These rural migrants are identified as temporary residents who work in a city and who lack a formal urban household registration (hukou). The hukou system, which is still mostly in place, now helps to create exploitative mechanisms of labour appropriation in the cities. The maintenance of the distinction between permanent and temporary residents by the hukou system facilitates the state’s shirking of its obligation to provide housing, job security, and welfare to rural migrant workers. China’s overall economy, while it needs the labour of the rural population, does not need the city-based survival of that population once demand for rural-to-urban migrants’ labour power shifts in either location or emphasis. This newly forming working class is permitted to form no permanent roots and legal identities in the city. Still worse, the hukou system, with its labour controls, constructs the ambiguous identity of rural migrant labour and simultaneously deepens and obscures the economy’s exploitation of this huge population. Hence, this subtle and multi-faceted marginalization of a vast swath of the rural labour supply has created a contested, if not a deformed, citizenship that has disadvantaged Chinese migrant workers attempting to transf
orm themselves into urban workers. The Chinese term mingong (‘peasant-workers’ or temporary workers) blurs the lines of identity between peasant and worker.
GENDER AND THE DORMITORY LABOUR REGIME
Since the set-up of four economic special zones in South China in the early 1980s, the new export-oriented industrialized regions dominated by foreign-invested companies have witnessed a systemic use of the dormitory labour system. The foreign-invested companies, irrespective of their industrial sectors, all have to provide accommodation to their workers in order to keep their laborers. Combining work and residence under the dormitory labour system, production and daily reproduction are hence reconfigured for the sake of global capital use, with daily reproduction of labour entirely controlled by foreign-invested or privately owned companies.
This dormitory labour system regime in China is not a new arrangement under capitalism. The dormitory use for labour has a long history both in a western or eastern context of industrialization (Pun and Smith, 2007). However the Chinese dormitory labour system is unique in the way that dormitories are available to all workers and industries regardless of factory conditions. The widespread availability of industrial dormitories not only constrain the mobility of labour, it also facilitates it. The distinctive nature of the Chinese dormitory labour system is also for short-tenure migrant labour within the factory compound or close to it. In China, the state still plays a very substantial role in shaping labour markets, regulating labour mobility from rural to urban industrial areas and providing housing accommodation to migrant workers. In most of the newly industrial towns, the Chinese state initially provides the dormitories for the factory owners to rent. As housing provision is not for families, there is no interest from capital in the reproduction of the next generation of labourers. The focus is on maximizing the utilization of labour of the temporary, migrant, and contract labourer by controlling the daily reproduction of their labour power.
The political economy of providing accommodation close to the factory is the linkage it supports between state and the capital. Since the migrant working class is deprived of citizenship rights to stay in the city, the state through residency controls allows labour mobility, but workers must have employment to support temporary residence. Dormitories facilitate the temporary attachment or capture of labour by the companies, but also the massive circulation of labour, and hence the holding down of wages and the extensive lengthening of the working day, as working space and living space are integrated by the employer and state. A hybrid, transient workforce is created, circulating between factory and countryside, dominated by employers’ control over housing needs and state controls over residency permits.
One characteristic of China’s foreign-invested manufacturing plants is the housing of migrant workers in dormitories attached to or close to a factory’s enclosed compound. On finishing their labour contracts on average after one to two years, the workers must return to the place of birth or find another temporary employment contract (Solinger 1999), again to be confined in the dormitory labour regime. Factory dormitories thus attach migrant workers for short-term capture, and accommodation does not function for the long-term or protracted relationship between the individual firm and the individual worker, which is the rationale for accommodation in other paternalistic factory forms such as Japan which can be life-long.
Management within the foreign-invested or privately owned companies would appear to have exceptional controls over the workforce under the system. With no access to a home space independent of the enterprise, working days are extended to suit production needs. Compared to the ‘normal’ separation between work and home that usual factory arrangements entail, the dormitory labour regime exerts greater breadth of control into the working and non-working day of the workers.
Gender is central to this specific embodiment of Chinese dormitory labour system and the formation of the transient working class. For the past two decades, among the exodus of internal migrant workers into the industrial cities, young women are among the first to be picked up by the new export-oriented industries. Young women constitute a high proportion of the factory workers, above 70% of the total workforce in garments, toys and electronics industries (Lee, 1998; Pun, 2005). Their gender, in addition to their youth and rural migrant status, is an integral part of China’s export-led industrialism facilitating global production for the world market.
As sites of control and resistance, the dormitory labour system simultaneously provides workers the opportunities to resist management practices and achieve some victories in improving working conditions. Ultimately, the ability of workers to fundamentally challenge the conditions of work and dormitory living is limited by the temporary nature of the employment contracts and their disempowered status as temporary urban residents.
A new working class consciousness
I have argued that employers’ use of dormitory labour, which has linked itself to both labour migration and daily labour reproduction, serves global production by generating hidden and therefore largely invisible costs borne by the migrant women workers. The situation has deteriorated further now that local governments within China compete for foreign investment and thus openly neglect the labour regulations and the social provisions implemented by China’s local, provincial, and national governments. The costs of daily labour reproduction are largely undertaken by the dormitory regime, which subsidizes the living cost of labour in terms of wages, accommodation, and consumption. The labour reproduction of the dormitory regime has sustained cheap labour in China over the past two decades.
Hence, the systemic provision of dormitories for internal migrant labour facilitates the continuous access to fresh labour reserves from the countryside. The dormitory labour regime concentrates labour, nurturing workers’ consciousness in face of acute exploitation by capital; but as high circulation of labour power of a transitory semi-proletarianised class, it also inhibits the workers to stay stable enough within one place or space, to form a continuous working-class community. No doubt the dormitory labour regime in concentrating and yet circulating labour between capitals creates a powerful production regime to spatially contain the formation of a new working class, but dialectically also becomes a bedrock for nurturing acute class consciousness and facilitating class actions in the future.
The battle for this new working class requires both struggles against capital and state. Against state, the migrant workers have to launch an urban citizenship rights struggle in order to gain the right to settle down in the industrial cities and towns and create their own working-class community. Against capital, the workers need to look for alternative way of organizing since traditional trade union struggle is not effective, if not allowed, in a dormitory labour regime in China. Dormitory-based organizing along the line of gender helping generate sisterhood solidarity among workers hopefully will be one of the alternative struggles.