Invisible Labor: A History of Female Migrant Domestics in Postcolonial Europe


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color photo of Rita Chin
Professor Rita Chin
color photo of Rita Chin
Professor Rita Chin

written by Spencer Garrison, PhD Candidate in Sociology, U-M

For the bulk of her academic career, Dr. Rita Chin has focused her attention on the social consequences of immigration and migration – in particular, the mass labor migrations initiated across Europe in the wake of the second World War. As European states sought to rebuild workforces decimated by years of combat, non-native workers – in many cases, workers of color – were solicited to fill in the gaps. Yet, as the societies hosting these workers became increasingly multicultural, economic considerations continued to supersede engagement with the social and political effects of these transformations: an oversight that continues to shape the European political landscape today.

Dr. Chin’s previous projects have helped to elaborate the contemporary implications of these mid-20th-century transitions. For example, her 2017 book (The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History) explores how these migratory patterns laid the foundation for  the current rise of anti-Islamic sentiment throughout Western Europe. Many of the migrant workers that sought employment in France, Great Britain, and West Germany following World War II were from majority-Muslim nations, such as Pakistan, Algeria, and Turkey. Yet, a confluence of factors in 1989 – chief among them, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (which helped to frame Muslims as fanatical, fundamentalist, and unwilling to compromise), and the first of the French head-scarf debates (which presented Islam as misogynistic and anti-feminist) – consolidated public perceptions of Muslim workers as particularly incompatible with European values.  

“Many critics suggested that there needed to be a kind of emancipation from Islam,” Chin explains. “That was the moment when attention to Muslims and Islam begins to crystallize. And it was then reinjected with a new sense of urgency around 9/11, and we are still seeing echoes of it – in Charlie Hebdo, the Paris Bataclan, the bridge attacks in London – even today.”

Her latest project brings an even richer intersectional lens to some of these same patterns, focusing on the experiences of women who migrated to Western Europe to participate in the more informal economies of domestic and care-taking work.  As white women across Western Europe began to establish careers and cultivate professional identities outside of the home, a similar pattern of labor migration unfolded: women of color were solicited from other countries (often, former French and British colonies) to take up domestic tasks that working white women could no longer accommodate.

However, where the working men recruited to Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II were typically put to work in predictable, state-sponsored professions like mining and manufacturing, the domestic positions that migrant women often assumed were comparatively unregulated, subject to little formal oversight. This ambiguity introduced new dangers, leaving women disproportionately susceptible to victimization or neglect by their employers (and making such abuses more difficult to document). “In the domestic sphere, there’s a lot less oversight,” Dr. Chin notes. “If something goes wrong with the arrangement made with an employer, they really have no recourse – they can’t go to the state, because it’s an unregulated industry. They often don’t have legal standing. And so they’re very vulnerable.”

Dr. Chin’s new project centers the voices and experiences of the women that participated in this migration. Coupling archival research with the collection of in-depth interviews, she aims to “put a face” on the anonymous, archetypal immigrants demonized on the nightly news – both in Europe, and here in the United States – making the precariousness of migrant women’s lives harder for the public to dismiss.

“So much of the political rhetoric…is that immigrants are murderers, they’re rapists, they’re banging at the border trying to get in and take our jobs,” she explained. “But these are not people, right? They are ciphers, invoked to produce a certain emotional reaction: fear. And I think drawing our attention to a group of immigrants that privileged Europeans or Americans have let into our most intimate spaces makes it harder for us to think of ‘the immigrant’ as this kind of monolithic, faceless stranger: it becomes the person who is taking care of your child, whom you let into your house to clean your bedroom.”

In an era of anti-immigration sentiment run rampant, the cultural and political implications of the project are tremendous. Yet, for Dr. Chin, the political is also deeply personal. In the mid-1960s, two aunts – her father’s sisters – migrated from the newly-independent Malaysia to Great Britain after receiving invitations to work as nannies. Unfortunately, neither sister returned.  “One of them supposedly died in a horseback riding accident; the other one contracted septicemia,” Chin remembers. “My grandparents got these telegrams…you know, ‘your daughter’s died…we’re sending her belongings.’ That’s it. And so this was a kind of mystery in my family… A couple of years ago, I realized that [my aunts] went to Britain at precisely the moment that I study, and they, too, were part of the broader labor migration I’ve written about.  But their informal labor was not really recognized as labor. In some ways, they too were foreign workers, but we don’t see them that way.”

This year, Dr. Chin’s IRWG seed grant will take her to a series of archives in southern England – not far from where her aunts passed away.  She is hopeful that her research will shed further light on the mystery that’s followed her family for so many years. “For my father...[it’s] more emotional,” she observed, smiling.  “When I was talking to [him] a couple of days ago and telling [him] that, you know, I have death certificates now, I have these leads that I’m going to be following up in England…I think he’s dying to see this stuff.”

To learn more about Dr. Chin’s work, click here.  The IRWG Faculty Seed Grant program, established in 1996, supports innovative and emergent faculty research projects related to women, gender, and sexuality. To learn more about the IRWG Faculty Seed Grant program, click here.

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