Skip to content

Service Workers or Servile Workers? Migrant Reproductive Labor and Contemporary Global Racial Capitalism


Robyn Magalit Rodriguez is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

This post is part of a series on Care Work. Read the rest of the series here

Grassroots migrant worker activists, particularly those working as domestic workers or care workers, have characterized their labor experiences as “servitude,” “modern-day slavery,” and “bondage.” They use these terms to describe both their workplace conditions and the power dynamics that exist in their relationships with employers. A case study of the experiences of Filipino migrant workers, former U.S. colonial subjects, illustrates two key dynamics of contemporary global racial capitalism: first, that migrants’ reproductive labor entrenches social relations of servility—dually defined as “having or showing an excessive willingness to serve or please others” or “of or characteristic of a slave or slaves”; and second, that recent migration trends are intensifying the servile status of migrant workers from the third world. If we expand existing analyses of care and reproductive labor by migrants to account for service work more broadly, we are better able to grasp the enduring significance of relations of racialized servility in the 21st century.

The Philippines has one of the largest labor diasporas in the world. Based on the Philippine government’s latest estimates, the number of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs)—most of whom work on temporary employment contracts—who were employed abroad at any time between April and September 2018 was estimated at 2.3 million. This translates to about 6,300 people leaving the country every day for destinations around the planet. As I argue elsewhere, the Philippines has become a labor brokerage state whose promotion of labor export is a neoliberal economic developmental strategy.

International organizations such as the United Nations and the International Labor Organization laud the Philippines as a model for “migration management.” These institutions praise the Philippines for its ability to deploy migrant workers globally under a “rights-based” framework that builds in multilateral, bilateral, legal and contractual mechanisms to assure that migrants’ rights are protected. The Philippines’ ratification of the United Nations’ International Migration Convention, negotiations with host governments, and passage of domestic laws on labor standards seemingly affirm the state’s commitment to upholding its overseas citizens’ rights.

Yet the Philippine state’s consistent inaction toward the abuse and exploitation of OFWs belies this “rights-based” framework. Filipino migrant activists frequently use the term “modern-day slavery” to describe their workplace experiences. Migrant workers themselves recognize the racialized dynamic of global forms of labor, which international organizations and even mainstream social scientists studying international migration have not given due attention. While various international organizations and governments have attempted to better regulate labor migration through employment contracts, these contracts do not guarantee labor rights as much as they codify employment relations characterized by a great degree of “unfreedom.”

Current statistical analyses from the International Labor Organization (ILO) note that the “vast majority of migrants are in high income countries,” especially those in North America, various regions of Europe, and the Arab States. These analyses, however, do not consider that many of those countries are characterized by colonial (including settler colonial) histories with established colonial labor systems. Not coincidently, today’s migrants continue to migrate along the same colonial labor routes.

Also notable about international organizations’ official statistics on contemporary labor migration is the nature of the work in which migrants find themselves employed. The ILO reports that the bulk of migrants (71.1%) in the world were engaged in services (7.7% in domestic service and 63.4% in other services). Beyond simply being in-demand in the world economy, this form of labor reproduces social relations of servility. It reproduces racial orders in those countries that are deeply structured by white supremacist and anti-black logics.

Like the reports of international organizations like the ILO, much of the social scientific scholarship on international migration fails to adequately address questions of racialization. While scholars have focused on the gendered aspects of contemporary labor migration flows—particularly with respect to those of migrant domestic workers and other care workers—they often stop short of fully situating this migration within global racial capitalism. For instance, in her original articulation of the “global care chain,” sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes it as “a series of personal links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring. A typical global care chain might work something like this: An older daughter from a poor family in a third world country cares for her siblings (the first link in the chain) while her mother works as a nanny caring for the children of a nanny migrating to a first world country (the second link) who, in turn, cares for the child of a family in a rich country (the final link). Each kind of chain expresses an invisible human ecology of care, one care worker depending on another and so on.” That Hochschild describes the global care chain as a set of “personal links” obscures the broader context of global political economic relations—relations that are deeply racialized—that ultimately structure these “personal links.”

What is useful about the “global care chain” framework is its attention to what Hochschild calls “a ‘transfer’ of feeling from one link in a chain to another”—that is, the labor of care is far more complex than other kinds of commodities that are traded across national borders. “[L]ove,” Hochschild suggests, “is not a resource . . . the same way oil or currency supply is.” Previous scholarship on the international migration of domestic workers goes further to say that care labor involves not only the transfer of care or love, but also the reproduction of social relations of power between migrants (who are foreign others in their countries of destination) and their citizen-employers. We must expand this understanding of care and reproductive labor beyond domestic work to examine service labor more broadly

Reproductive labor as performed by migrants includes not just the maintenance of homes (including cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly), but also the making of babies by so-called “marriage migrants,” the teaching of children by migrant teachers, and the physical and mental care of people in hospitals by migrant nurses. Moreover, the wide range of jobs categorized as “service work” (waitresses in restaurants, front desk and maintenance workers in hotels, and others) are in fact different varieties of reproductive labor—they are all necessary to the reproduction of modern humans.

Service work can be thought of as a continuum of specific kinds of economic and social activities: migrants who are professionally trained as nurses or educators often find themselves for a host of reasons working as nannies, caregivers, and domestic workers, as well as restaurant workers, hotel, and hospitality workers. Tending to the care of people in the privacy of their own homes, in sites of leisure, and in institutionalized settings, are interconnected and interrelated forms of labor. Service workers—broadly defined—are necessary to the reproduction of racialized (and gendered) social relations crucial to global capitalism.

Expanding the frame of reproductive labor in this way helps illuminate the dynamics of contemporary global racialized capitalism. The global economy has seen a tremendous expansion of international migration in the categories of service labor.  By combining racial capitalism and social reproduction analyses, I argue that this trend should be understood as an intensification of colonial, racialized and “unfree” labor relations across the globe.