Dream and reality of free mobility in asian labor migration regimes

Kazue Takamura


This chapter aims to examine the intricate interactions between global markets, labor mobility, and the costs of migration. While the increased transnational labor mobility, especially in low-skilled forms, is seen as an integral seed of socio-economic freedoms for the poor, scholars and human rights advocacy groups have also documented myriad risks and costs that are structured in the contemporary labor migration regimes (Xiang and Lindquist 2014; Lan 2006; Rodriguez 2010; Geiger 2013). The assumed positive externalities of international labor migration have been increasingly debated in the literature of migration and development. The costs of migration are evident in terms of long-term family separation, health hazards associated to migrants’ work environments, human trafficking, exploitative employers, and highly abusive agencies that charge excessive pre-departure fees (The World Bank 2016, p. 15). By engaging with the critical literature of migrant mobility and control, I will examine the ways in which Asian labor migration regimes are characterized by their highly contradictory policies. I argue that Asian migration regimes embrace both liberal labor migration that allows more unskilled workers’ transnational labor mobility and illiberal migrant surveillance that ensures migrant workers’ disposability, exploitability, and unprotection. Asian intraregional labor migration merits a serious analytical attention given its profound heterogeneity. This is apparent in its roles (labor-sending, labor-receiving, and both), labor-import policies (official, side-door, and back-door), migratory flows (legal temporary foreign worker programs, irregular channels, non-worker student, and marriage visas), labor market demands (agricultural, seafood, industrial, construction, education, health, care, and service sectors), and skills (professionals, medium-skills, and low-skills) (Baas 2016; Liu-Farrer and Yeoh 2018; Asis and Piper 2008). A critical lens of Asian intraregional migration unpacks the growing imbalances between the free movement of capital and the barriers against labor mobility in the age of the global free market.

The chapter will be divided into three sections. In the first section, I will interrogate the promotion of labor migration as triple wins in the literature of international development. In the second section, the chapter will examine the intricate interconnection between neoliberal free markets and migrant surveillance. I will also highlight the particularities of Asian intraregional labor migration. In the third section, I will examine the effects of neoliberalism in terms of normalizing migrants’ perpetual immobility. In particular, I will engage with the recent critical studies of Asian labor migration and mobility surveillance. I will provide an empirical analysis of Asian labor migration regimes based on Japan’s labor import policies (foreign technical interns) as well as on the Philippine’s labor-export (labor brokerage) system. This chapter will exhibit the ways in which labor-receivers, labor-senders, and non-state actors collectively contribute to the normalization of migrant immobility while promoting increased and flexible labor mobility.

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