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November 2019   |   Volume 21 No. 1

Cover Story

Spycams and Snapshots Capture Workers’ Lives

Sample postcards created by migrant workers during the focus group workshops.
Professor Maggy Lee Shuk-yi has been investigating the experiences of Filipina domestic workers, from the surveillance they are subjected to before and after they leave their country to the objects that bring meaning to their lives.

Several million Filipinas work as overseas domestic workers and are an important source of remittances for their families back home. They also contribute to the economy in places like Hong Kong by facilitating dual-career households. But in the process, the migrant workers must navigate constraints and invasive scrutiny both in their home and destination countries, says Professor Maggy Lee Shuk-yi of the Department of Sociology, who has been researching the social impact of migration.

Professor Lee has completed several research projects on Filipina migrant domestic workers, including a recent British Academy-funded project on the surveillance of these workers in Hong Kong, conducted with Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Hull.

“These workers are subject to a highly elaborate and formalised system of pre-departure monitoring that requires them to go to great lengths and bear significant financial costs to produce a wide range of documents and flies before they are able to travel from the Philippines,” she said. The documents range from authenticated birth and marriage certificates, medical certificates, passports and work visas to voter registration cards, National Bureau of Investigation clearance, local police clearance, local government clearance, baptismal certificates, school or college diplomas, attendance certificates from a pre-departure orientation seminar, overseas employer certificates, and more.

The monitoring continues, albeit in a different form, when they reach their destination. Hidden ‘nanny cams’ are particularly intrusive. Professor Lee cited one case where a domestic worker was dancing with her new employer’s young daughter when she received a call from the employer, who was suspicious that the child was being shaken. When the child appeared before the camera laughing and smiling, the employer was assured. But the participant was left feeling uneasy.

“She knew there were cameras in the home but that was the first time the employer had acknowledged their presence. It made her think more carefully about how her actions appeared on camera,” Professor Lee said.


Workers regard this form of watching as counterproductive compared with face-to-face surveillance, she said. “While the use of cameras is often legitimised in terms of preventing harm and ensuring care, it may have precisely the opposite effects in so far as it undermines the trust necessary for care relationships and constrains rather than ensures or enables the attentiveness necessary for good care.”

“This kind of monitoring allows employers to not just monitor at a distance, but to interrupt, direct and interfere with their employees’ work in a continuous and unpredictable manner. The camera is both a focal point of conflict and negotiation, and a device for contesting relations of trust,” she said.

Separately, Professor Lee has also been part of a research team trying to show that domestic migrant workers are not simply ‘maids to order’. In collaboration with Goldsmiths University and various NGOs, she was co-investigator on a project about Filipina domestic workers in London and Hong Kong that sought to get the workers themselves to contribute to the discussion about the social impact of migration.

Sixty subjects participated in the study in which they were interviewed and shared personal stories and photos that reflected their aspirations, investments and everyday concerns. The collected materials were exhibited in Manila, London and Hong Kong in 2018.

One participant who had been working in Hong Kong for 26 years shared laminated wallet photos of her children and husband. “In the photos hidden in people’s pockets, children are always small and partners are always young,” Professor Lee said. “This woman left to work long before the days of smartphones and Skype calls, and she missed the sound of her own children growing up. She said the objects reminded her of her bigger dreams for her children to study and have a better life.”

Canvases painted by Filipina artists who are currently working as domestic workers in Hong Kong and are part of the Guhit Kulay, a Hong Kong-based domestic worker-led art collective.

Contrasting experiences

Others shared photos of meaningful objects such as a manicure set that helps a migrant earn extra money, carpentry tools sent home to a self-employed husband, documents giving title to property in the Philippines, favourite foods from home, and religious mementos.

“Through these images and their narratives, we wanted to raise public awareness about the vital work these migrant workers perform and the relation between migration and development,” she said.

The two projects provide an interesting contrast to earlier work by Professor Lee on female transnational professionals who migrated to Hong Kong from the 1980s to the 2000s for career reasons, personal preference, or to accompany their husbands.

“Unlike migrant domestic workers, these female expatriates are not necessarily compelled to move for economic reasons and their mobility is subject to fewer formal restrictions and less pervasive scrutiny,” she said.

“The two contrasting types of migrants have shown me that we need to rethink our narrow conceptions of migration and how private experiences are shaped by wider patterns and conditions of social life.”

She knew there were cameras in the home but that was the first time the employer had acknowledged their presence. It made her think more carefully about how her actions appeared on camera.