An Archipelago of Care: Q&A with Deirdre McKay

In her new book, An Archipelago of Care: Filipino Migrants and Global Networks, Deirdre McKay focuses on the experience of Filipino caregivers in London, some of whom are living and working illegally in their host country. She considers what migrant workers must do to navigate their way in a global marketplace. She draws on interviews and participant observations, her own long-term fieldwork in communities in the Philippines, and digital ethnography to present an intricate consideration of how these caregivers create stability in potentially precarious living situations. McKay argues that these workers gain resilience from the bonding networks they construct for themselves through social media, faith groups, and community centers. These networks generate an elaborate “archipelago of care” through which migrants create their sense of self.

Deirdre McKay is a Senior Lecturer in Social Geography and Environmental Politics at Keele University in the UK. Her research draws on both social/cultural geography and social anthropology to explore people’s place-based experiences of globalization and development. She does fieldwork in the global South and also with migrant communities from developing areas who have moved into the world’s global cities. McKay is the author of Global Filipinos: Migrants’ Lives in the Virtual Village, published by IU Press.

Zach Vaughn: This idea of nation branding—a Filipino culture known for care—seems to be mixed with personal identity. How does this interplay between the two work for the migrants?

Deirdre McKay: ‘Nation branding’ is very interesting for Filipinos. Filipinos have a networked sense of personhood, and there is a huge apparatus in the Philippines that builds migrants into “good” Filipino migrants. State institutions support and train migrants, inculcating them with a set of national characteristics: ‘being Filipino’. The government agencies overseeing migration run mandatory orientation programs that ready people to migrate, telling them Filipinos are naturally caring and instilling in them the concepts of care and a belief in their abilities to care for others. When people migrate, the dynamics of their migration then challenge their instilled self-concept. As migrants, people are on their own; they don’t really have their close family or people in their intimate networks looking at what they’re doing day to day. Migrants are very much dependent on sustaining local and long-distance networks and on pleasing people around them. These relationships keep migrants going. So, they find this dependency exposes an internal contradiction in their situation. Filipino migrants quickly realize that migration is only viable for them if they remain networked with other Filipino migrants in their host countries and back home. As migrants, they become more Filipino outside the Philippines because they need to sustain these extended networks, not necessarily because their government training told them to.

ZV: Speaking of irregular migrants and informal workers, how do you see the tension between this group and those who are regular, formal migrant workers?

DM: There seems to be a generational divide here. Many of the older migrants subscribe to properly regulated migration—they believe migrants should always have proper papers, formal permission to work etc.— and all Filipinos should be ‘regular’ migrants. But there is a lot of irregularity among the younger generation of migrants. Part of the reason for irregularity in the UK is that there is a sizeable informal economy here. It’s not just migrant domestic workers who operate in this informal economy, of course. Informality sustains lots of UK nationals, too. For instance, tradesmen sometimes fall into this informal economy and will offer two kinds of work. One kind of work comes with a receipt that lists the services provided for tax related purposes. The other kind is work that is a cash-in-hand transaction that isn’t tracked for taxes. A plumber in this scenario, for example, doesn’t want to issue a formal receipt because he then must report that part of his income to be taxed. In the UK, people describe the un-receipted, off-the-books work as part of a “white van” economy (because of the vans driven by tradespeople). This economy is very big in London. The workers in this informal economy are skilled laborers, but much of their work is done off the books. Filipino irregular migrants can find a space to work in this economy, too. UK employers are already familiar with paying workers cash-in-hand to avoid taxes and other regulations.

ZV: In what ways does affect mitigate this uneasy, precarious position of migrants to care for not only others, but also themselves?

“An Archipelago of Care” is currently available for purchase from IU Press.

DM: Affect and care fascinated me. Migrants were recycling the positive affect that they exchanged with home and with each other back into the care they
delivered in their employment relations. Even where migrants’ employment relation was exploitative, they could keep working and be understanding of the strain and stress their employers were under. The networks that sustained Filipinos migrants enabled them to keep themselves going. But these migrant networks required a lot of investment! Weekly gatherings celebrated what migrants were accomplishing, both at home and in the UK. These migrants didn’t depend on employers or broader UK society for recognition and support. Instead, they received acclaim from other migrants. Of course, they very much appreciated positive recognition from employers and the public when it was there, but migrants were largely self-sustaining.

ZV: How do the informal economy and the apparatuses of government interact?

DM: In the UK, there are many spaces in the economy that take advantage of temporary migration to access cheap labor and a tractable workforce. In a low-tax, low-wage economy, the migrant workers become disposable and replaceable. Migrants often work outside or beyond effective government regulation. Migrants here live in a space that’s like a frontier – it is an internal ‘wild west’ of labor, but in London. To describe this space, I use Jim Scott’s idea of a “shatter zone.” Instead of being a space that is outside the state, on the frontier where the state hasn’t extended, this shatter zone emerges in the inner city. In the shatter zone, things happen beyond the reach of government regulations. It’s a global kind of space, where events are connected to happenings far away, in other countries. When government regulations do touch down, it is very much an exercise of sovereign power: the immigration officers show up and raid a business, take away irregular migrants, then disappear for months. Seeing this kind of raid from inside the shatter zone, it looks like an apparently arbitrary exercise. Why that business? Those workers? Why now? Migrant irregularity is fundamentally enmeshed with the smooth running of the city. I met irregular migrants who had worked for government ministers or civil servants or doctors employed by the National Health Service. When, in 2013, the UK government had vans circling predominantly migrant neighborhoods in London, promising to send irregular migrants back to their countries of origin, people were nonplussed. In the shatter zone, the rules only occasionally apply. The informal economy and irregular migrants are always there – they are necessary. But that fact is only formally acknowledged when the state wants to police it, for show.

ZV: Media plays a big part in the migrants’ lives. In what ways do social media offer connection to migrants’ friends and family back home and as a tool that limits personal expression due to concern of being surveilled by others?

DM: Filipino society has intense interpersonal surveillance. If you don’t open yourself up to that surveillance, then you have something to hide. Filipinos also value having what looks like an open and transparent persona. So, they quickly grasped that Facebook was a way to curate their self-presentation to manipulate surveillance. On Facebook, there the ‘front-channel’: what people post and what others can see. Then there’s the back-channel. That’s where what people say- in private chats and emails – is much more personal, critical, and vulnerable. Someone’s self-presentation in their public profile can be very different from their private chats. The public side of social media – where you have been and what you’ve been doing – will be noticed by others, both family and other migrants. This enables strategic self-curation. Irregular migrants, for example, will take pictures of themselves at monuments, cultural events, pro-migration rallies, etc. because the pictures show them being ‘good citizens’. They present themselves ‘as if’ they were regular migrants with ‘papers’ that enable them to work. They expect that the Home Office (UK immigration authorities, equivalent to the US ICE) will be watching their social media. Even if the Home Office isn’t tracking their status updates, their neighbors, family, and friends are.

ZV: The idea of materiality, and gift-giving, seems to attenuate this care and affect. How does this expectation play into the affective lives of the migrants?

Piccadilly Circus, London. (Photo by Pedro Szekely. Flikcr Creattive Commons.)

DM: Sending ‘stuff’ home as gifts didn’t attenuate care. Instead, it expressed migrants’ care by making it material. For Filipino migrants in the UK, one of the big social activities was going to the car boot sale. A carboot is like a swap meet or flea market, held outdoors. Here, migrants would stock up on items that they would later ship back to the Philippines. Part of the expression of care was the ritual of selecting, curating, and packing a box. Migrants used this ritual of handling the things they send home to think about their families. The huge boxes of gifts they accumulated often cluttered their living spaces, making it difficult to navigate throughout their UK houses. But these boxes of goods were one way for migrants to accumulate value, because there is no tax on used goods being shipped back to the Philippines. Filipino families expected these boxes to arrive, and hoped for something wonderful and distinctive that would make them look elite. Families didn’t necessarily recognize the value that had been put into the box. Much of the stuff in the boxes would be sturdy, practical, everyday items, not prestige goods. So, the message sent by the boxes of used goods was often one that families back home didn’t want to hear — ‘we can have a comfortable middle-peasant life in the Philippines, but we’ll never have things like silk sheets and name brand, designer clothing.’ In the Philippines, people hope migration will lead to limitless social mobility, but this is rarely the case. Migrants’ gifts are then about limits that cannot be transcended by care.

ZV: Could you explain what you mean by the migrants’ “global orientation remained more neotribal than neoliberal”?

DM: I worked with indigenous Filipino migrants who spoke Kankanaey. And the way they see the world revolves around kinship, ritual, and exchange. Their indigenous world view sustains them in London. They don’t really think as neoliberal, individuated subjects. As migrants, they succeeded by reinforcing their tribal identities, exchange and cooperation. Performing a new version of ‘being tribal’ created intimate networks, built by dancing traditional dances and singing in Kankanaey every weekend. Migrants’ access to work, accommodation and advice all depended on these cultural performances. People here explained their migration trajectories in terms of inayan – a Kankanaey version of karma. Inayan explained retribution, comeuppance, and reciprocity and governed exchange and mutual obligation. Even people who were ambivalent about indigenous traditions back in the Philippines became steadfast practitioners in London. Their ‘tribal’ ethos became their global competitive advantage.

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