Disposable workers, essential work: migrant farmworkers during the COVID pandemic

By Manoj Dias-Abey.

In July I co-organised a webinar on the situation of migrant farmworkers with Tomaso Ferrando (University of Antwerp) and Brid Brennan (Transnational Institute). We wanted to explore how the working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic merely represented a more acute form of marginalisation experienced in so-called normal times. We also wanted to speculate about how their situation might shift in the near future and what this would mean for labour organising efforts.

Rather than holding a discussion between academic interlocutors, we invited five farmworker advocates to reflect on these issues. We did so, first, because these advocates were likely to have a more accurate appraisal of the situation on the ground. And, second, because, having pioneered insightful analyses of the food system and effective forms of activism, advocates might also be able to explain how farmworkers could organise to raise their plight from the margins to the centre of national consciousness. The webinar featured Alagie Jinkang from IKENGA in Italy, Bridget Henderson from UNITE in the UK, Gerardo Reyes Chavez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, US, Vasanthi Venkatesh from Justice for Migrant Workers in Ontario, Canada, and Carlos Marentes from the North American division of La Via Campesina.

Migrant farmworkers pick cabbages in Ohio, USA (image: Bob Jagendorf)

Despite the different country contexts, the advocates told a depressingly similar tale of overcrowded living conditions, long working hours, little or no safety precautions including safety adaptations for COVID, and barely enough pay to meet basic living costs. Large outbreaks of COVID have been detected in Ontario, Florida and Herefordshire, and these are simply the ones that have been reported. The lockdown measures have, in some cases, made the situation worse for workers, with one advocate describing it as being ‘locked in marginalised spaces’, lacking necessary ‘conveniences’ such as electricity and plumbing. Advocates reported that government agencies responsible for testing the population and implementing public safety measures were rarely seen or entirely invisible. The migrant workers keenly felt that their lives were disposable even as governments were taking unprecedented steps to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens.

Several of the advocates were quick to point out that COVID did not create these conditions, but simply exacerbated existing forms of marginalisation and inequality. In each of the countries surveyed in the webinar, migrant farmworkers are some of the worst paid workers in the labour force. They work under enormously precarious conditions, particularly so in the case of seasonal farmworkers. The work is difficult and dangerous and the hours long and arduous. Supervisors treat workers with contempt and forms of racial discrimination and sexual harassment are rife. The rural setting of farms contributes to workers’ sense of isolation from sympathetic populations and critical services.

The poor working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers are widely recognised as a function of a food system organised along the axes of market distribution and capital accumulation. Several of the advocates highlighted the role of value chains in particular, which have come to dominate agricultural production. Large, global supermarkets sit at the top of these chains, exercising power and control over growers to provide produce that meets strict product specifications at low costs. In addition, successive rounds of trade liberalisation have created a situation in which most countries are now dependent on food imports. During the pandemic, interruption of the passage of agricultural products across borders and the disruption of food value chains have caused foods shortages and price spikes, and raised the prospect of mass hunger as the pandemic inexorably spreads. These dynamics diminish the room available for growers to provide decent working conditions.

Migrant farmworkers harvest sweet potato in Virginia, USA (image: US Department of Agriculture)

In each of the countries considered in the webinar, the farm labour force tends to be predominantly made up of migrants. A variety of legal frameworks are used to mobilise workers across borders and immobilise them in the workplace. In Canada, for instance, guestworker programmes bring in tens of thousands of seasonal farmworkers from Mexico and the Caribbean to work on fruit and vegetable farms. Since they are required to be employed by a particular employer as a condition of their visa, and changing employers is almost impossible, employers wield enormous power over these workers. In the US and Italy, a significant portion of the farmworker population lacks the proper legal authorisation to work. This means that the workers are vulnerable to deportation by state agencies, which inhibits any resistance to exploitative working conditions.

In the UK, a seasonal agricultural programme has been recently launched and expanded to replace the migrant workforce previously provided by free movement under European Union rules. In each of the jurisdictions, de jure and de facto restrictions on collective bargaining along with weak employment standards and poor government enforcement further constrain farmworkers’ capacity to act, adding to their marginalisation.

It is striking that even as countries closed their borders to travel due to the pandemic, migrant farmworkers were allowed entry on the basis of their importance to food production. How do we resolve the apparent paradox between the essentialness of agriculture and farm work, but legal frameworks that treat workers as ‘eminently disposable commodities’? In fact, there is no paradox at all. Whilst many were initially hopeful that the discourse of ‘essential work’ would operate to revalorise occupations such as farm labour, it is increasingly clear that the narrative merely affirms that this work needs to be performed regardless of the consequences for individual workers and their families. If anything, public declarations deeming particular sectors essential have simply reinforced the notion that some workers’ lives are cheap.

The difficult task of revaluing work will require political struggle and the organisations represented at the webinar had a variety of different strategies for achieving this outcome. Bridget Henderson spoke of the challenges faced by traditional trade unions to organise a transient workforce to engage in collective bargaining in the UK. Alagie Jinkang and Vasanthi Venkatesh represent organisations that have taken a different path. By engaging in community building and forms of direct action such as wildcat strikes, these organisations have won very specific gains, although their strategies have not resulted in a broader transformation of the situation faced by farmworkers.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez described the private governance regime established by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in which lead firms such as supermarkets and fast food companies were enlisted to purchase their produce from growers with non-exploitative employment practices. Although this programme has had remarkable success in improving working conditions of tomato harvesters in Florida, and there is some evidence of it being used as model elsewhere, a range of contingent factors will affect whether it can be more broadly replicated. Given the global nature of the food system today, transnational conversations between advocates and farmworkers will be necessary to inspire and coordinate a response.

A recording of the webinar is available here. A podcast is available here.

Manoj Dias-Abey is Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol and co-ordinator of the MMB research challenge Trade, Labour, Capital.

Migrants abandoned – lockdown at the Mexican-Guatemalan border

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Ailsa Winton.

Dear Bridget

I hope you are keeping well and sane. Although working at home is quite normal for me, the anxiety is not. So it was great to read your letter and to be able to share some thoughts!

I feel as if I am writing this from many places at once: from my home in Tapachula, at the southern tip of Mexico; from Guatemala where – until recently – I had been busily working on sabbatical research; and also from the UK, where I am virtually rooted to home and to loved ones. Living this ‘global’ event simultaneously through different places like that is interesting but quite unsettling; experiences, information, decisions and relationships take on an entirely different form in relation to each other.

Being a distant spectator even to things that are close by has been weird. When things happen, as they often do here, not being able to be physically present is odd and frustrating. But much more importantly, the fact that local NGOs can’t do any face-to-face work at the moment means many lifelines are being cut off for those who need them most. For many, economic precarity is becoming critical, especially among migrants.

A fence across and empty street. Two parked pick-ups.
‘Tyre repair shop open’: local business tries to attract customers amidst road closures in a southern Mexican border town (image: author’s own)

In Guatemala, the government was fast to act, moving quite quickly to limit movement both from outside and within its borders. I was midway through some fieldwork on violence-based displacement there when rumours about shutdowns began to circulate in March. People in the rural communities in Huehuetenango where I had been working were worried about how they would be able to meet their basic needs in the face of strict curfews and severe restrictions on movement. I couldn’t help but think apocalyptically about what a major outbreak of COVID-19 would look like in those same places. Thankfully, this has not yet happened, but already high levels of food insecurity are now critical in many parts of the country.

For its part, Mexico’s official response so far in terms of control has been patchy and notably more relaxed than many neighbours to the south. There is definitely a sense that people do not feel protected or reassured in general, and abundant misinformation circulating on social media has stoked fears; there have been many reports of locals blocking roads to stop the intrusion of the infected outsider and, shockingly, many cases of attacks and threats of violence targeting healthcare workers and hospitals. So, as my dad back in the UK pops out to clap the NHS one Thursday evening as we chat on skype, I am reminded in a very crude way of the hugely complex social conditions shaping personal responses to this ‘global’ threat.

Meanwhile, the US-Mexico-Central America migration dystopia continues apace. Just one example: in April, the authorities in Mexico decided to bus hundreds of undocumented Central American migrants from detention centres in northern and central Mexico to the southern border with Guatemala with a view to ‘repatriating’ them. Nothing particularly unusual in that, except that they did this in the full knowledge that Guatemala had sealed its border weeks previously, making crossing to that or any of the other countries of origin impossible. So they left them at the border, hundreds of people with nowhere to go in the midst of a pandemic.

Old tyres lie across the road; men stand in front of vehicles
A temporary roadblock at the approach to the Guatemalan border (image: author’s own)

Some Guatemalans decided to cross the river dividing the two countries, bypassing border controls, and try their luck with the police-enforced curfew on the other side. But most were stuck, left to weigh their barely existent options. Amidst rising tensions with locals, the National Guard was forced to intervene to remove the offending migrants, loading them onto buses again only to dump them in groups outside Tapachula, the nearest large town some 15km away from the border. An atrocious act under any circumstances, but especially now with migrant shelters and other services closed, and even public space cordoned off. But what else to do with these disposable bodies when they can no longer be discarded in the usual receptacles (detention centres, migrant shelters, countries of origin), other than to just toss them on the side of the road?

Like you, I am particularly struck that many people have suddenly become aware of mobility as something that shapes life. I suppose like other types of privilege, that of being able to choose your mobility is invisible to those who benefit from it, until it is challenged. As a migrant who studies human mobility, I have certainly been made aware of my own mobility privilege, and I have also witnessed first-hand over many years the noxious effects of precarious mobility. You are spot on with what you say about ‘precarious migrant time’. I see so clearly now amidst so much uncertainty that one of the privileges of being able to choose your mobility is the degree of certainty it affords.

I look forward to reading your piece on corona-nationalism! This massive systemic rupture is so full of transformative potential, but of course it also brings a real danger of that transformation taking us down dark paths. There is so much to reflect on and learn about collectively. So it is really encouraging to see so much excellent critical thinking already coming out. Notice how flexible academic time can be when it wants! Let’s hope those voices start to talk and pull together.

Keep in touch! There’s another platitude turned genuine.

Warm wishes,

Ailsa

Ailsa Winton is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Society and Culture at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Tapachula, Mexico. Her research currently focuses on processes of mobility, inequality and violence in the context of border regions.

The relevance of luxuries during a global pandemic

By Tamar Hodos 

In these extraordinary times, I have made a contribution to society by providing a timely news story that does not involve the current global pandemic. This is the results of a study that forms part of my ongoing research into the production, distribution and socio-cultural significance of luxuries in past globalising contexts. One might well question the tact of highlighting luxuries at a time when human life and economic stability are at tremendous risk, however. 

Carved ostrich egg with hole in top
Decorated ostrich egg. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

In the interconnected world of the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians and Egyptians, ostrich eggs were turned into highly decorated vessels, and they were coveted by elites across the Mediterranean and Middle East. The project, in collaboration with colleagues at the British Museum and Durham University, has explored where eggs were laid, whether the mother was wild or captive, and how the eggs were worked. The journal publishing the results timed its release to coincide with Easter. The research has received global attention. 

It might seem frivolous to discuss luxury good production methods when everyone is affected by Covid-19. Luxurious objects are the preserve of the wealthiest, who can afford them. When so many people have lost their jobs and rapid economic recovery prospects are bleak, it may even appear crass to emphasise materials beyond reach for so many. 

Luxuries impact upon many more than their elite consumers, however, and in this lies their wider relevance to society, both past and presentOur study has revealed that decorated ostrich egg production in antiquity was a particularly complex affair. We established that the eggs were acquired from wild, rather than captive, birds. As a result, we can suggest that the production process begins with trackers, who had to find nest sites and steal eggs by one means or another.

Ostrich nests are difficult to spot because they are dug into the ground amid grasses such that they are invisible from across the landscape. The female’s colouring further camouflages the site during the day, when she incubates the eggs; the male’s colouring does the same at night, when he keeps the eggs warm. An ostrich will lay its head flat if it senses a predator, which is the origin of the notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. But do not take that as passiveness: the birds can kill with a single kick.  

Faint carving of ram's head on shell
Detail of a ram’s head. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

Acquiring eggs entailed risk to the tracker. Firstly, it could take days to find nest sites, since a male ostrich’s territory may extend up to 20km2, and nest locations seem to have no relation to nest sites from previous seasons within a territory. Secondly, other predators equally dangerous to humans inhabit the same landscapes as ostriches. Even if the tracker chose to kill an ostrich rather than merely steal its eggs, the bird itself was not the only threat. 

Furthermore, it transpires that just because you could source an ostrich egg locally, it does not necessarily mean that you did. In antiquity, ostriches were indigenous to north Africa and today’s Middle East. Using isotope analyses, our study was able to determine different environmental zones across this expanse where the mothers roamed during ovulation. But this raises new questions such as whether fresh eggs themselves were traded as source material, and if eggs from different areas had different perceived values. Who was involved in these exchanges? 

We also learned that an egg needs to dry out naturally for an extended period of time after blowing (emptying) before the shell is suitable for carving. This necessitates safe storage, which has economic implications as storage creates a longterm investment before reaping payment.   

Only once an egg was suitably dried could highly skilled craftsmen undertake their decoration. In this lies a social interpretation complication, for artisans were mobile during this era. For example, Phoenician craftsmen were known to be in the employ of Assyrian kings in Assyria. So, should we consider a product made by such an individual as a Phoenician or Assyrian object 

Furthermore, what does it mean when a deceased Etruscan king in Italy is interred with a decorated ostrich egg? Or a Phoenician residing in Spain? How do those meanings overlap and differ? As the eggs were imports to both regions, what does this tell us about the varieties of connectivities between cultures using ostrich eggs? This line of questioning is valuable to our own era, because our identities cannot necessarily be understood simply from how we style ourselves, especially as our choices are often contextually significant, and when objects, dress, style and people are highly mobile. 

Faint carving of lotus flower on eggshell
Detail of a lotus flower motif. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

The ostrich egg study used the mobility of objects themselves to learn about the variety of people involved in production and exchange in the past, as well as shared and divergent social practices of materials in common, but its relevance does not lie just in learning more about the ancient world for diverting news stories. This approach is applicable to society today because of our own social relationships with the material world. Today, the same object may concurrently have overlapping and different social or symbolic meanings for diverse populations, while its production and distribution connects people in complex ways across time and place. Understanding the relationships between our social lives and material worlds helps us foster better relationships with one another, especially with regard to social and cultural differences. Objects ‘belong’ to many more than just their final consumers. Luxuries extend across the full spectrum of society.   

Unfortunately, so does Covid-19. 

Tamar Hodos is Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Bristol and a unit director on the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies.

 

A moment of opportunity? Britain and the maritime security challenge

By Tim Edmunds and Scott Edwards

On 28 February 2020, SafeSeas hosted an IdeasLab in Bristol on UK maritime security after Brexit, with the kind support of PolicyBristol, Migration Mobilities Bristol, and the Bristol Global Insecurities Centre. Titled ‘Securing Britain’s Seas’, the goal of the day was to ask how maritime insecurities and blue crimes impact on UK interests, explore how current governance arrangements work in response to these, and consider how these may be challenged and transformed both by a rapidly changing security environment and the challenges of Brexit.

The IdeasLab provided an opportunity for policymakers, practitioners, and academics from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including security studies, law, social policy and politics, to engage with one another. Participants from all major UK maritime security agencies, including high level participation, exchanged views and knowledge with leading academics in order to advance understanding of the UK’s maritime security environment.

A battleship rests in harbour, a British flag flying from the bow
HMS Bristol. Photo by Random Acts of Language, licensed under Creative Commons

Panels focused on three core themes of importance for British maritime security. The first covered ‘Threats, risks and opportunities’, chaired by SafeSeas Co-Director Professor Timothy Edmunds, and featured Dan O’Mahoney (Director, Joint Maritime Security Centre), James Driver (Head of Maritime Security and Resilience Division, Department for Transport) and Dr. Sofia Galani (University of Bristol). Discussions revolved around the complexity of maritime security governance in the UK context. This complexity is visible in relation to the diversity of challenges at hand – including the protection of maritime trade routes, the prospect of a terrorist attack at sea, threats to marine critical infrastructure, human trafficking and movement of people, the smuggling of illicit goods, the maintenance of public order at sea, and marine environmental management including fisheries protection – and also to the web of different authorities, departments, agencies and private actors engaged in the UK maritime space.

These challenges are often ‘invisible’ in the sense that the general public and politicians are often less invested in the maritime arena than other areas of public policy. Gaps also exist in the legal framework governing the maritime domain – for example around port management – and more work needs to be done to encourage inter-operability and coordination between agencies. However, the panel also highlighted a moment of opportunity in this area too, with a renewed focus on maritime security issues following the 2019 oil tanker crisis in the Straits of Hormuz, the implications of the Brexit process and the prospect of a new UK Maritime Security Strategy in the near future.

The second panel, chaired by Professor Bridget Anderson (University of Bristol), focused on ‘Boundaries, borders and maritime regions’ and featured Professor Sir Malcolm Evans (University of Bristol), Joe Legg (Maritime desk, Foreign and Commonwealth Office), and Ann Singleton (University of Bristol). The discussion raised interesting questions on what should be considered British seas, and how these boundaries have been, or are being, constructed. Panellists agreed on the fundamentally transnational nature of the UK maritime region, incorporating UK home waters, but also critically important maritime spaces such as the North Sea and Mediterranean as well as overseas territories and the international maritime trade routes.

Above all the panel emphasised the need to manage the UK’s maritime boundaries and borders humanely and with proper regard to safety at sea, particularly in relation to the movement of vulnerable people and migrants. There was also intense discussion over the extent to which security responses are appropriate for such issues and the inter-linkages between maritime security and other areas such as migration policy.

Finally the third panel, chaired by Professor Christian Bueger (University of Copenhagen & SafeSeas co-director), addressed  ‘Governance and coordination’ and featured Caroline Cowan (Fisheries Lead, Scottish Government), and Professor Richard Barnes (University of Hull). The panel and discussion highlighted the need for coordinated and inclusive governance in the maritime domain, and for more work to be done on the inter-connected nature of many maritime security threats and scalable nature of responses across these. The panel also highlighted the potential for localised issues (such as conflicts over fisheries access) to escalate to national or regional level problems (and vice versa).

A large metal boat with radar on top
Hirta (Marine Fisheries Vessel) Arriving Aberdeen Harbour June 2019. Photo by Rab Lawrence, licensed by Creative Commons

Discussions again emphasised the broad and diverse nature of the interest groups engaged in maritime security and the difficulties of ensuring fair and effective governance across these and their various identities and interests. Participants highlighted the importance of Scotland in the UK maritime security picture, with 62 per cent of the UK’s (home) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) located off the Scottish coast, the remote nature of much of this territory, and the devolved nature of many marine environmental management and policing issues. Moreover, and even within government, there is sometimes a lack of understanding over jurisdictional issues between national and devolved authorities engaged in UK maritime security governance.

Overall, the IdeasLab discussions were extremely rich and productive. They highlighted the complexity of the maritime security challenge, the multiple, diverse and sometimes conflicting nature of security governance in this area and the potentially transformative impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on existing practices, arrangements and relationships.  Insights from the ideaslab will be expanded upon and presented in an upcoming policy brief produced by SafeSeas.

Tim Edmunds is Professor of International Security and Director of the Global Insecurities Centre at the University of Bristol. Scott Edwards is an Associate Teacher and Research Associate for the Transnational Organised Crime at Sea project at Bristol.

SafeSeas is a network of academic institutions that studies maritime security governance and efforts to support it through capacity building. This post is republished from the SafeSeas blog.

 

MMB in 2020 – forging new partnerships

Happy New Year from the MMB team!

We have exciting plans for 2020 as MMB continues to develop its dynamic research remit and build an ever-stronger community of scholars. Our four research challenges are running a range of workshops, seminars and networking events in the coming months, which will showcase the breadth of approaches to migration and mobilities studies among our members. We will also be organising a public lecture by a prominent international activist and scholar – identity to be revealed soon. 

New this year is the MMB film group, in motion, which will be screening films about migration and movement on the last Tuesday of each month. We are also starting a regular MMB research seminar for members to share their work and receive critical feedback from colleagues. And one of our PhD students is running a series of workshops on the logistical, ethical and intellectual challenges of fieldwork. Keep an eye on our website for details of these and other events coming up. 

Don’t forget, the website is a place where you can showcase your research. Do contact us if you have any questions or would like help in developing your text and illustrations.

At the end of last year we published the MMB 2018-2019 Annual Report to show our progress in building an interdisciplinary network of scholars and supporting the wide range of migration-related research across the university and city of Bristol. The report outlines the focus of each of our research challenges, which bring people together from diverse disciplines to think about migration and mobility in new ways. The report features many of the research projects of these challenge members as well as highlighting some of the key events organised by MMB in the past year. 

In 2019-2020 we will continue to consolidate and support our internal community while also developing closer partnerships with institutions and organisations outside the UK. These include The New School in New York, the European Public Law Office in Greece and the Universities of Linkoping and Malmo in Sweden. We are also delighted to be liaising with a network of University of Bristol scholars working in Latin America to support their research on movement and migration in the region. 

Do get in touch if you have any news about relevant events, publications or research ideas. We also still have a small amount of funding for networking events and activities, so if you have an idea that will take place between now and the end of July 2020 please complete the application form. We will next review applications at the end of February. 

We look forward to working with you in 2020! 

Bridget, Emma and Emily 

 

 

Cross-border marriage in South Korea

By Minjae Shin

‘Getting married to Vietnamese/China/Philippines/Uzbekistan woman – If for any reason you’re not satisfied with our service, a 100% satisfaction guarantee.’

This eye-catching phrase is from the website of international marriage brokers in South Korea. My research journey started with this advertisement. Until a few decades ago, the segment of marriage migration that was supported by the marriage industry drew little notice in East Asia. As a result of rapid economic development in Asian countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, marriage migration patterns have shifted. This economic growth has turned these countries into new marriage destination countries, largely for women from developing countries also in Asia. Indeed, there has been a steep increase in immigration by way of marriage into Korea since the 1990s, as cross-border marriages between Korean men and migrant women became increasingly prominent in the country. In Korea, the so-called marriage squeeze phenomenon – the imbalanced sex ratio among the marriageable population – has resulted in a shortage of prospective Korean brides. Rural bachelors were the first to face this ‘bride shortage’ problem (Friedman and Mahdavi, 2015). Men who live in the less economically lucrative rural areas often work the land and are considered unmarriageable as Korea’s history of economic development privileges the urban over the rural. As a result, Korean authorities, from the central government to local governments, have begun to encourage cross-border marriages for wife-seeking rural bachelors as a national project, named the ‘Rural Bachelor Marriage Project’, in order to address the problem of shortages in the labour force in rural areas from the early 1990s onwards.

Photographs of women for their profile pages.
Women’s profile pages on a Korean marriage brokerage website (photos edited by the author for privacy purposes)

Most of the marriage migrants in Korea are women, who account for 83% of the country’s total number of marriage migrants (132,391 out of 159,206). In the early 1990s, these migrant wives were predominantly ethnic Koreans from China. The countries of origin of these women have since diversified to include Vietnam, the Philippines and countries in Central Asia and Eastern and Central Europe. Currently, cross-border marriage is prominent even in urban areas, and it has become an important pathway to marriage for Korean men who are of a lower socio-economic status, and not solely for rural men.

At the centre of this marital migration exists international marriage brokers. Cross-border marriage in Korea has become increasingly commoditised and systematised, with the rapid growth of the profit-oriented marriage brokerage industry. In Korea, a high percentage of marriage migrants (84.3%) met their spouses through marriage brokerage agencies, highlighting the prominent role of these agencies in marriage migration to Korea. In contrast to commercially brokered cross-border marriages in other parts of the world, most marriage brokers in Korea do not provide email correspondence services due to the language limitations of their clients who hardly know the language of their potential partners. These agencies must operate as the mediator, serving as the go-between for the two potential spouses. They closely interact with potential spouses both in Korea and overseas who seek cross-border marriages and assist both by providing information on criteria, legal procedures and immigration policies to their clients. The agencies also provide information about the cultural and national background of a potential spouse, the women’s expectations about the marriage (for example, love, or a better life). The agencies then communicate this information to their male clients. Moreover, with the advancement of the Internet, marriage brokers provide their male clients with profiles and photographs of their potential spouses to choose from.

In these processes, the practices of marriage brokers tend to be problematic, specifically with respect to their representation of migrant women. Racialised and gendered representations are readily apparent, in particular in their advertisements and marketing strategies. Marriage brokers claim that they speak for migrant women who are searching for a better life to escape poverty in their countries. Yet, at the same time, they tend to depict migrant women as ‘naïve, pure, innocent, submissive, obedient and thrifty, or non-materialist’. They also tend to emphasise the different appearances of women from different countries by using the phrase ‘the strength of women’. For example, on their websites, they illuminate the strengths of Southeast Asian women by stressing similar appearances with Korean; on the other hand, the strengths of Central Asian women by stressing exotic westernised beauty. The women who migrated to Korea through marriage are thus homogenised, their individuality obliterated by ignoring their uniqueness and differences.

There are gaps or discontinuities within their representations that stem from their status as a stakeholder with economic interests, their socio-political positions or something that is further restructured in today’s neo-liberal globalised system in relation to marriage migration. However, their interests and locations are rarely articulated or are simply ignored because of the complexities of representation (Spivak, 1988) in so far as the marriage brokers are both ‘speaking for’ and ‘depicting’ the women. The two senses of representation are interrelated and, to a large extent, co-exist. But they are also discontinuous and inevitably contradict each other since speaking for someone reflects the actor’s own location and interests.

Photographs of women's faces for their profile pages
Women’s profile pages on a Korean marriage brokerage website (photos edited by the author for privacy purposes)

These representational practices (re)produce nationalistic discourses, reinforce certain ideologies – particularly patriarchy – and legitimise their interests. However, there has been a lack of attention on the representational practices of marriage brokers even though they are key players in Korea’s cross-border marriage processes. Korean government has since regulated marriage broker agencies’ representation and fines or suspends agencies deemed to foster racial or gender discrimination and commodification of women through their advertising. Yet, marriage brokers have closely interacted with the government and in so doing, push and negotiate for their own interests by changing their tactics with respect to representations of marriage migrants.

There are several institutions in Korea, other than marriage brokers, that are closely associated with cross-border marriage, including governmental support centres for marriage migrants and NGOs. These institutions have played prominent roles in maintaining Korea’s cross-border marriage system by providing a wide range of services, and they also tend to represent marriage migrants actively. For the past year, I have been researching certain institutions in Korea including marriage brokers and their representational practices. To the next step, I expect to conduct fieldwork to explore day-to-day representational practices of several institutions in Seoul to understand how these institutions represent marriage migrants in the different senses of representation. Through this fieldwork, I hope to highlight the politics of these representations that legitimise their interests, and discuss how hegemonic ideology is being reproduced, legitimised or challenged in the process.

Minjae Shin is a PhD Researcher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

 

 

Being at sea: a FUTURES event at the SS Great Britain

By Laurence Publicover

At FUTURES, an evening held recently at the SS Great Britain in Bristol as part of a Europe-wide series of events celebrating academic research, I spoke to families about the experience of being at sea. What is it like, we pondered, to spend days – or even weeks – without sight of land? What might happen, in such circumstances, to your sense of personal or national identity? How would you pass the time, and how might you interact with others – often from very different backgrounds – in the same enclosed environment? 

Drawing on my research on shipboard cultures and the cultural practices that help define and redefine them, I set up three activities to help visitors think about what it might mean to enter on a nautical existence. First, I asked them to match up maritime terms to their definitions. Illuminating the extent to which British culture has developed through oceanic ventures, many English terms and expressions (‘fathom’, ‘the bitter end’, ‘aloof’, ‘clean bill of health’) have maritime origins. Over the centuries, and often by borrowing terms from other maritime cultures (Dutch, Indian, Portuguese), a distinct ‘language of the sea’ has developed, informing and informed by ‘landlubber’ language. My activity asked participants to match up three sets of words and definitions, ranging from ‘Apprentice’ level (‘capsize’, ‘convoy’), to Midshipman level (‘ballast’, ‘bowsprit’), to ‘Skipper’ level (‘futtocks’, ‘cats’ paws’).  

A woman and man study captions of maritime terms to match them up to their definitions
Matching up maritime terms at the SS Great Britain

Taking advantage of my surroundings, my second activity asked children to compose diary entries in which they imagined themselves on board the SS Great Britain in the nineteenth century, bound for Australia on a two-month voyage. To help them think themselves into this scenario, I provided excerpts from three diaries composed by passengers who had travelled on the ship: one an Irish nun heading to Australia to teach in a Catholic school; the other two men on the same voyage, but experiencing it very differently from their steerage- and cabin-class accommodation. The children were, for the most part, horrified by the idea that modern entertainment systems would be unavailable. After a look of despondency and resignation, one finally wrote: ‘Day 1: I had food and read for an hour!’ A second, apparently (like me) impressed and unnerved by the warren-like design of the SS Great Britain, wrote: ‘Day 3: I played hide and seek and I got lost. I had to sleep under the coffee table.’ Perhaps sensitive to the tedium and frustration that can easily build up over a long voyage tedium and frustration, which cultural activities, including diary-writing, were designed to alleviate a third participant wrote: ‘Day 50: I threw my homework in the sea.’ (An environmentalist aside: this child also seemed to sense that dangerous predilection humans have to treat the sea as a giant toilet bowl: a repository for all the things we do not want, whether nuclear waste, by-catch, sin, or corpses we would rather did not become pilgrimage sites.) 

The first and second activities overlapped. As my research has indicated, inexperienced seafarers are often struck – and often disoriented – by the ‘salty’ language spoken by sailors, and one indication that they are beginning to ‘get their sea legs’ is their attempt to try out this language in diary entries. One of my participants was obliging enough to do the same, test-driving two terms he had only just taken on board: ‘Day 7: We went into a convoy with other ships and I pretended to be the skipper.’   

A view of the stern of the SS Great Britain
The SS Great Britain, Bristol City Docks

The third activity was knot-tying: a practice that is nautical, but not exclusively so. It is often argued by scholars in oceanic studies that we live in a ‘sea-blind’ culture, neglecting the oceans on which we still rely for our day-to-day existencewith the vast majority of international trade carried by ships, and communications cables tracing the seafloor yet which, due to the mechanisation of shipping and the advent of air travel, no longer feel part of our everyday world. If this is so, then what has happened to this specific skill, knot-tying? The answer appears to be that it has passed on to amateur climbers; there were several of them at the SS Great Britain, and they were able to tie far more knots than me. 

It was this question of the place of the sea in our culture – and our capacity to remain blind to the oceans – that I was trying to draw out during my conversations across the evening. The stall across from me was, rather wonderfully, asking children to think about what was inside their mobile phones, and so I asked those who came over to me afterwards how long they thought their phones might have spent at sea, and who might have been working on the ship that carried them over the oceans. We don’t tend to think of our phones, or clothes, or appliances, as ‘maritime’ objects; it is – to me at least – strange to think of them in mid-ocean, thousands of miles from shore. The strangeness of this thought is an indication of how easy it is to imagine the sea – as it has so often been imagined, in most cultures – as ‘alien’, beyond the human realm, even when our everyday lives – the very words we speak – are in so many ways structured through human relations with the oceans. My aim, in the helpful surroundings of the SS Great Britain, was to ask participants to reflect on some of the implications of sea-blindness. What might it mean, for example, for climate change? How often do we reflect on the labour conditions not only of those who make the objects we consume, but who transport them? If we are going to continue to exploit the ocean (the seabed, the fish, the manganese nodules), then who should get to decide how we do so? And if we fail to look directly at the sea, what does that mean for the migrants trying, in far less secure and well-appointed surroundings than the SS Great Britain, to cross it?  

MMB reflects on the past year

By Bridget Anderson, Emma Newcombe and Emily Walmsley

In the run up to our second MMB AGM we thought we’d take the chance to showcase migration related research in Bristol, reflect on our past year’s work as a Specialist Research Institute and discuss plans for future development by writing an annual report.  At this stage it is just a draft so we are happy to take suggestions for changes and additions. If you would like your work profiled in this report please do get in touch – mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk.

In 2018/19 MMB focused on how we could organise ourselves, in intellectual and practical terms. We discussed the range of research interests across different faculties and as a result set up four cross-faculty teams to develop our ‘Research Challenges’. Our four co-ordinators have done an excellent job in getting these research challenges going, including organising four great kick-off events that brought together a wide range of participants. We are very grateful to Pier, Nariman, Manoj, and Angelo for all their hard work.

We set up a cross-faculty management group to help us fulfil our objectives and are grateful to them too for the ways in which they have engaged and thought through how we can develop our work. We also found funding for a part-time administrator and Emily joined us in November 2018.

In January we launched our website and the new MMB ‘look’ (we even have MMB pens!). The website is a great place for showcasing your research and bringing it to a wider, cross-disciplinary audience. Do let us know if you want to have a listing or contribute a blog.

It’s been an event-full year for MMB. We’ve concentrated on building our internal community and as such have held or supported 25 events – in May we had four running in one week!  One particular highlight was having the privilege of hosting the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants for an event that brought together UoB researchers with activists and community workers from Bristol. A big thanks to Diego Acosta from Law for arranging this. We hope that you’ve found the events stimulating and that you’ve taken the chance to engage with people from across the University.

Finally, remember that MMB is here to support you. In the coming year we will be trialling some ‘drop-in sessions’. If you have an idea you want to think through, a question about impact or are in search of contacts, do come along (details will be on our website). Also, we are keen to promote the wide range of research and publication projects going on in Bristol on migration and mobilities, many of which are described further in this report.

If you would like to add your work to this report and our website, please do get in touch – mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk.

 

‘Stop talking; listen to me first!’ Fieldwork in India

By Pankhuri Agarwal

Fieldwork research has a significant effect on one’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. However, it is astonishing that not much time, space and attention is devoted to exploring, learning and deliberating upon the variety of fieldwork experience that goes undocumented in academic work including on topics such as gender bias and mansplaining; nationality and cultural ethos as a researcher of particular origin; uncertainties, failures and long periods of waiting; emotional and mental harm to the researcher, to name a few.

I realised this more when I recently completed seven months of socio-legal multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Delhi and neighbouring states. The fieldwork broadly comprised of investigating the performance of Article 23 of the Constitution of India, ‘prohibition of traffic in human beings, begar and other similar forms of forced labour’ and its effect on the everyday lived experience of people (begar means non-payment of wages for work done). This entailed accompanying sex workers and bonded/forced labourers in their legal journeys as internal migrants (in various occupations) through various sites such as the courtrooms, police stations, prison, shelter homes, red light area, informal worksites and district and central government offices. I conducted in-depth interviews with sex workers and bonded/forced labourers, besides interviews with related legal stakeholders. These interviews were complemented with courtroom observation, participant observation and a study of legal case files, which captured the entirety of the participant’s long, unpredictable and complex legal journeys.

G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India
G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India

The process of following these movements through various sites meant that I often occupied multiple (assumed) positions and identities simultaneously – that of a researcher, female friend, student, journalist, lawyer, intern and so on. This also implied that I was seen in the light of multiple assumptions in terms of my class, caste, occupation, marital status and age. Whilst the fieldwork was filled with many positive experiences due to the support and encouragement of comrades and activist organisations, in this article I want to focus on the gender bias and emotional burden the fieldwork demanded of me as an ‘Indian female researcher’.

Several researchers before me have taken the responsibility of writing about how their gender, age, caste, nationality, class or their very being were put into question while doing fieldwork (see Ravina Aggarwal, Elizabeth Chacko, Isabelle Kunze and Martina Padmanabhan Erdkunde, Isabella Ng, Nitasha Sharma and Jillian M. Rickly among others). This is because as a female researcher, one can be constantly put off by enquiries and curiosities surrounding one’s marital status, age, race, caste, class or clothing. It is often assumed that the researcher is unaware, innocent or naive. Dressing ‘maturely’ does not help either. When I interviewed some elite male participants, they (ignoring my questions) started by offering me basic definitions of terms and concepts that I did not even ask for. On some occasions, I was stopped with an angry hand gesture (while I was talking) and, in a very aggressive tone, ‘Stop talking; listen to me first’. This was even though I had explained that I had worked on and researched these issues for over six years.

This is not surprising especially when we know that power relations, gender violence and hierarchy are embedded in the soul and spirit of Indian society. We are a society built and sustained on the robust, unshaken and eternal foundation of patriarchy. Amidst this, the intellectual work, emotional labour and the mental health effects of such experiences go unnoticed, let alone compensated for. It is generally accepted and internalised that women, especially feminist women invite such reactions. And you alone are responsible for them. ‘You must have done something’, people say, or, ‘Just ignore it; you think too much’.

Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.
Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.

I also realised that in the field, people (in both personal and professional relationships) were less concerned about my research and well-being than with the roles I should be playing as a woman. I was expected to be ‘back home’. I wondered what for. ‘You should not take up such fieldwork travels while [your partner] is left alone at home.’ These accusations were followed up with solutions. ‘You do not have to travel. How will you travel? We will arrange for a ten-minute phone call and you can write that you interviewed this person. This will make the fieldwork quicker and you can return soon.’

I often pondered upon such encounters and noted them in my reflection journal. Where am I supposed to return? To who and why? Why this rush and pressure? Why was my mobility between fieldwork sites a matter of concern and curiosity to some people? Why was there no interest in my research or the emotional roller coaster I was going through in the field? The mystery of my return concerned and perturbed many people in the field. Due to this, I was constantly called to account for myself, not as a researcher, but because of my position as a woman with a partner. My identity was constantly attached to his as if I did not exist as an individual. This was overwhelming not only for me but also for my partner because, in these conversations, he was made an implicit participant without consent.

Once such distressing encounters had become a usual occurrence, I mastered the poker face. I needed to collect data and could not risk annoying anyone. So, I laughed when they laughed, expressed concern when they did, shook my head often as they did and in rare instances, gave a ‘shy woman-like smile’ when ‘uncomfortable topics’ were discussed, as was expected of a woman from a ‘good family’. If I did not, they stared. So, I did.

During such emotionally troubling times, fortunately, I had some comforting companions. My supervisor shared with me her own fieldwork experience of ‘mansplaining’. This encouraged me to reflect on my experience of fieldwork as a feminist woman with those of the female participants of my research; how different yet similar our lives are in terms of how we all ‘risked lives, homes, relationships, in the struggle for more bearable worlds’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.1). The subaltern resists, speaks and revolts invisibly and powerfully, even in the middle of moving, parting from their land and homes, and often their families and children. How powerful, beautiful and empowering is this!

Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.
Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.

I also found comfort in Maya Angelou’s autobiography where she, through her brilliant and unapologetic writing, stumbles through life from one role to another both personally and professionally, fighting and discovering the multiple ways in which women are not only made to feel small and incompetent but are often treated as second-class citizens. They are expected to fit into many roles and stereotypes and made to feel guilty if they do not follow the norm. Maya Angelou was speaking to me, ‘Onus and guilt were shifting into my lap, where they surely didn’t belong’ (2008, p.246).

Amidst these reflections, Sara Ahmed gave me the reassurance to not ignore, give in and ‘adjust in an unjust world’ (2017, p.84) (emphasis my own). I then realised that the politics of fieldwork research was gradually merging with my feminism(s). The personal was indeed political and the political became personal. This transported with it the (un)comfortable consciousness of my being, beyond that of a researcher and a woman. These musings kept visiting me because of how I was seen and how I was not seen during fieldwork. This is even though I have spent more than 28 years growing up in India, being accustomed to conducting myself in an ‘appropriate manner’ in both public and private spaces, not because I want to but because I need to. I know and have experienced that speaking up does not always help. It often leads to accusations of creating an ‘unnecessary scene’. ‘To disappoint an expectation is to become a disappointment’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.52). So, in a society where people are accepted, rewarded and applauded for being sexist, casteist and misogynistic, bringing out wrong can often make you the reason for the wrong. How shocking is this revelation? Not at all.

I am sure that these experiences resonate with some other researchers and require space, time and attention for ‘revelation’. For this reason, I am organising a series of (three) seminars with the MMB Networking Funds Grant between January and June 2020 at the University of Bristol for PhDs and ECRs. Each seminar will have a specific theme around fieldwork research. These seminars will be followed with a writing workshop where experienced researchers from across disciplines will be invited to mentor PhDs and ECRs to bring this important discussion together in an edited volume, report or podcasts. If you would like more information about the seminars and the writing workshop, please e-mail me at pankhuri.agarwal@bristol.ac.uk.

Pankhuri Agarwal is a PhD Researcher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

 

Memorials to people who have died and to those missing during migration

Reflections on the first WUN-funded workshop

By Martin Preston, University of Bristol

Site of the destroyed memorial at Thermi, looking towards Turkey Photo: Martin Preston

Since 2014, the deaths of more than 32,000 migrants have been recorded globally (IOM, 2019). The true number is certainly far higher. A lack of documentation, other means of identification or the willingness or ability to do so means that many of those recovered may remain nameless. With so many deaths being unknown or unrecorded, the fate of those lost is often uncertain for those they leave behind.

Memorials form one way in which public memory is created and reproduced (Dickinson, et al, 2010). The shores of Lesvos and the water around it serve as the final resting place for many of those lost. Initiated by ‘Welcome to Europe’ a purpose-made physical recognition of the dead and missing of the ongoing migration ‘crisis’, a monument at the shores at Thermi on the East of the island was destroyed by unknown perpetrators. However the spot remains a focal point to remember those who have died, as happens annually since October 2013.  In contrast, monuments to refugees of the Asia Minor Catastrophe a century ago, are prominent and plentiful on the island. Elsewhere memorials to recently deceased migrants, such as communally created quilts in the USA and The Counter of Shame in Barcelona do exist. However, the general absence of memorials to missing migrants, given the scale of recent loss, is perhaps one indication of the marginalisation of the living.

At the end of April 2019 I was fortunate enough to be selected to receive a grant from the MMB to join a multidisciplinary group of scholars, civil society leaders, international organisation representatives and professionals, working in the area of migration and migration policy. Gathered at the University of Aegean on the island of Lesvos, Greece, our purpose was to deliver a workshop to consider how memorials for dead and missing migrants may be internationally recognised.

This workshop was the first event of a Worldwide Universities Network funded research initiative convened by Ann Singleton. This research platform had the initial purpose of developing guidelines and a proposal for UNESCO accreditation of heritage sites for memorials to dead and missing migrants. In the longer term the project aims to support the establishment and formal recognition of a global network of memorials.

The workshop ran over two days and was hosted by Professor Stratos Georgoulas critical criminologist and long-term activist for refugee rights. Day one included important contributions from Julia Black, from the International Organisation for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, on the reality and difficulties of collecting accurate data for the dead and missing. The journalist and author John Max Smith provided an inspirational account of his journey with his father, the political commentator and veteran, Harry Lesley Smith. Harry, who witnessed the human cost of World War Two, became a leading voice in Canada and the UK, fighting for the rights of migrants, up until his death in 2018 at the age of 95. Syd Bolton and Catriona Jarvis of the Last Rights Project gave insights on the role of memory in preserving dignity, the opportunities for learning and the importance of community participation in such projects.

Day two of the workshop provided the opportunity for Tony Bunyan, Director of Statewatch, to give an analysis of the wider European Union approach to migration, the externalisation of its borders and the context for the hazardous way in which migrants are compelled to make such journeys. The workshop was concluded with a design phase for the project led by Professor Elizabeth Brabec, of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), in which the time frame, core goals and ways to achieve them were agreed upon.

The workshop also provided the opportunity to find out first-hand some of the crucial work being delivered by larger international NGOs, as well as that of local NGOs, for the migrants living on Lesvos. Firstly, the group were able to visit Moria Detention Centre. The conditions within the centre were consistent with those condemned as ‘inhumane’ by 19 local and international NGOs in September 2018. A mixture of hyper securitisation, overcrowding and inadequate access to provisions of services such as education, highlighted the consequences of the intensive internment through the EU’s ‘hotspot’ policy.  This visit also facilitated a visit to Médicins Sans Frontières whose work outside of the perimeter of Moria provided crucial healthcare support, as well as educational and therapeutic services within a starkly more humane and dignified environment.

My own interest in the project draws on scholars working in peace education and transitional justice in conflict affected contexts, as well as that of memory studies. Such an approach generates some key question as to the purpose of such memorials. Who, for instance, are such memorials for? What, if any, are the value of memorials beyond that of enshrining memory for those who have lost loved ones? Viewed from an educationalist perspective, what might the pedagogical value of such memorials be? What role might such memorials have in creating discourse between different and disparate communities represented through the creation and destruction of the memorial at Thermi? How might such discourse about the recent events on Lesvos inform understandings of the wider migration ‘crisis’? What challenges do such disparate views present for the such a project? By developing guidelines for memorials sites, this project will inevitably widen the audience of memorials beyond that of just Lesvos or Greece. What opportunities and challenges does such an international dimension present?

The second workshop will take place in Accra, Ghana in October 2019 at the University of Ghana and will be hosted by Dr Delali Badasu.

Martin Preston is a PhD researcher at the School of Education, University of Bristol. His current research focuses on the education of adolescent refugees within Addis Ababa in the context of the actuation of the Global Compact for Refugees.

References

Dickinson, G., Blair, C., & Ott, B. L. (2010). Places of public memory: The rhetoric of museums and memorials. University of Alabama Press.

IOM. (2019). Fatal Journeys 4. Missing Migrant Children