The ‘indentured mobility’ of migrant Filipina hostesses

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The ‘indentured mobility’ of migrant Filipina hostesses

by Natalie Marine-Street on Sunday, September 11, 2011 - 2:30am

In 2004, the U.S. State Department designated the more than 80,000 Filipinas who worked as hostesses in Japan’s legendary nightlife industry as “trafficked persons,” believing these women to be victims of forced prostitution. Sociologist Rhacel Parreñas, an expert on women’s global labor migration who was in Japan attempting to study the workers, disagreed.  She suspected that the labels of ‘victim’ and ‘prostitute’ assigned to the hostesses masked a more complicated reality that policy makers needed to understand if they hoped to make women’s lives better.

After extensive research, which included several months working undercover as a hostess herself, Parreñas arrived at a nuanced understanding of the women’s situation — the migrants, the majority of whom came from extremely poor backgrounds, both benefited from and were subjugated by the work they did.  She illuminates this paradox in her latest book Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, just published by Stanford Press.

An outsider gains access

The author, undercover, with a customer.

How did Parreñas gain access to a group of migrant sex workers whom most researchers believed to be unreachable? Surprisingly, a Catholic nun introduced her to their provocative world.

Parreñas had found the hostesses whom she encountered reticent to talk with an outsider about their work.  Frustrated, she told a Filipina nun who worked in the migrant community of her dilemma, commenting that she would even take a job as a hostess to learn more about their lives. To Parreñas’ surprise, the nun marched her over to a nearby club, knocked on the door, and introduced her to the manager who promptly hired her.  Parreñas recalls the nun telling her, “Working as a hostess is not necessarily bad.  It is what you do with the job that could make it bad.  Most of these women are working here…to help their families.”  By working as a hostess, Parreñas employed a commonly used research strategy called participant observation, in which the researcher assumes a role in the social situation they are observing.

Bridging gender, labor migration, and human trafficking

The nun’s introduction proved to be a fitting entrée to the morally complex world of hostessing detailed in Illicit Flirtations .

The book brings together issues of gender and labor migration with discussions of human trafficking, contributing the theoretical concept of “indentured mobility” to describe the hostesses’ situation.  Parreñas defines indentured mobility as “a middle zone between human trafficking and labor migration” in which participants paradoxically experience both “progress” in the form of occupational mobility and financial opportunity and “subjugation,” including servitude to middleman employment brokers and tight contractual ties to specific nightclubs.

Once Parreñas began working as a hostess herself, co-workers were willing to tell her their stories. She conducted over 50 interviews with migrant hostesses and spoke with club owners, labor brokers, and government officials.  In the process, she developed detailed knowledge of the labor recruitment process for hostesses and the dynamics of their workplaces, as well as a demographic profile of the women – the majority of whom come from conditions of extreme poverty in their home country.

Parreñas notes that women willingly participate in hostess work.  “Migrant Filipina hostesses go to Japan on their own volition,” she says. “This calls into question their identification as trafficked persons. For the most part, no one has forced or coerced them to seek work in Japan. They were not drugged, taken on a plane, and trapped in a hostess club. No one lied to them and explicitly told them that they would only be singing and dancing on stage.”  “They were quite adamant,” Parreñas says, “that they weren’t prostitutes.”  Rather, she describes the work of hostessing as “commercial flirtation” through which women work to “bolster the masculinity” of their customers.  They typically make money for the club owners to whom their labor is contracted by selling men drinks, not sexual acts.

Parreñas is careful not to glamorize hostess work, however.  She describes it as “exhausting” and “belittling” and notes that the accommodations provided by club owners for contract workers are often filthy.  Moreover, she outlines the severe structural pressures, such as the debt that migrants owe to the brokers who arrange their employment and the immigration regulations that tie them to a specific workplace, that make the migrant entertainers “vulnerable to” — but not automatically victims of –forced labor.  She also calls attention to the varied perceptions of the women themselves, noting that their experience of their work depends on the particular moral lens they use to evaluate and make sense of what they do.

Morality and policy

In Illicit Flirtations, Parreñas urges policymakers to acknowledge these differing moralities and target specific structural issues that make workers vulnerable to trafficking. She believes that anti-trafficking policies that fail to recognize complexity can have unanticipated consequences that make women even more vulnerable to human rights violations.  She notes that when Japan tightened visa requirements in the wake of the U. S State Department designating the hostesses as “trafficked persons,” the number of Filipina hostesses migrating to Japan declined dramatically – from 82,741 in 2004 to 8,607 in 2006.  Women who were unable to renew their entertainer visas saw their livelihoods evaporate, and those who managed to do so needed to demonstrate an additional eighteen months of training in the performing arts. These more stringent requirements upped some women’s debts to their labor brokers and encouraged others to enter the country illegally.  In both situations, they saw their autonomy as workers decline.  In short, they became more, not less, vulnerable.

Parreñas also has a challenge for migration scholars; they should pay more attention to issues of subjugation. She says, “Indentured mobility is applicable to most migrant workers today. Most migrant workers are contract workers – not migrants who migrate and have equal rights.  Most are bound to the employer that sponsored them.  They are not free people.”