Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Rhacel Salazar Parreñas's "Unfree"

Rhacel Salazar Parreñas is Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Southern California. She is the author of numerous books, including Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, and Children of Global Migration: Transnational Families and Gendered Woes. She is the recipient of the 2019 Jessie Bernard Award from the American Sociological Association.

Parreñas applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Unfree: Migrant Domestic Work in Arab States, and reported the following:
Unfree is a book about the labor and migration of domestic workers in the United Arab States. Page 99 somewhat captures the essence of the book. In the middle of the page is a quote from a research participant, who describes her struggles over food. She shares:
"I told her, “Madam, if you don’t want to give me food just send me back to the agency, my agency told me I have free food.” She called the agency and said your housemaid is asking for viand [dish of food], she was told then give her even just Indomie, egg or tuna, but said she doesn’t want to. No, because when her children eat and I ask for food, she gets mad. She says the food budget is for the children and that doesn’t include me, that I can only have rice. Exactly what I did is I would mix, just ask for, coffee and put it in my rice. She said that is the way of eating in the Philippines, put coffee on rice. I told her how can I possibly eat rice without viand."
This quote establishes that domestic workers are indeed mistreated and perceived as subhuman. It reveals the dehumanization of domestic workers, which I wish to note is only one of the three cultures of employment I identified across households in the region. As I discuss at the end of the page - which summarizes the findings - domestic workers are also treated humanely (given adequate food of their choice) or infantilized (given adequate food but without consideration of their preference). Along with the day off, food consumption is one of the conditions I use to measure the labor of domestic workers. This quote is also revealing, as it establishes that domestic workers do not passively accept their mistreatment. Instead, they attempt to reason with employers. This research participant, for example, lets her employer know that what she is being fed is not enough. In doing so, she is attempting to "mobilize the morality" of her employer.

From this page, one gets a sense how labor conditions for domestic workers vary greatly across households in the region. This lack of standard is one of the main points in the book, one which disagrees with most other studies as they tend to give a more monolithic picture that insists that domestic work there is nothing but oppressive or violent. The discussion also clearly establishes the agency of domestic workers and reveals how they proactively negotiate for improving their labor conditions.
Visit Rhacel Salazar Parreñas's website.

--Marshal Zeringue