Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper examines the complex emotional work that migrant domestic workers who have lived in Singapore over decades experience as they approach ‘retirement’. Domestic workers are on temporary two-year contracts, which can be renewed until the age of 60. As the state denies them long-term residence and citizenship rights on the grounds that they ‘do not contribute to the economy’, they are eventually expected to return ‘home’. This ‘home’ is a place that migrant women have maintained and longed for through transnational practices over the years, but from which many also feel estranged. Among the widely circulating discourses (by the state, employers and domestic workers themselves) is that long-term domestic workers are ‘exceptional’, ‘one of the family’, treated by employers with affection and seen as indispensable. At the same time, their lives are bound by a highly restrictive regime of migrant labour and the everyday intimacies that unfold within the household (and more generally, in the city) are marked by moral ambiguities and underpinned by stark inequalities and power dynamics. It becomes clear that their ‘indispensability’ is time-bound and instrumental: when the labouring body gets older, frail, in need of care itself, it returns to being dispensable, as it once was. Migrant domestic workers find themselves facing uncertain and insecure futures, financially and emotionally. Their narratives reveal the temporal borders of transnational belonging, and the conflictual and uneven intersections between citizenship, home, gender, and care.