Unfree: Migrant Domestic Work in Arab States

February 10, 2023 | 3:00PM - 5:00PM
Asian Institute, Harney Program, Human rights & justice, Migration & borders, Middle East, Southeast Asia

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This event will take place in the Campbell Conference Facility, Munk School, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto.
Unfree: Migrant Domestic Work in Arab States (Stanford University Press, 2021)
About the book:
In the United Arab Emirates, there is an employment sponsorship system known as the kafala. Migrant domestic workers within it must solely work for their employer, secure their approval to leave the country, and obtain their consent to terminate a job. In Unfree, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas examines the labor of women from the Philippines, who represent the largest domestic workforce in the country. She challenges presiding ideas about the kafala, arguing that its reduction to human trafficking is, at best, unproductive, and at worst damaging to genuine efforts to regulate this system that impacts tens of millions of domestic workers across the globe.
The kafala system technically renders migrant workers unfree as they are made subject to the arbitrary authority of their employer. Not surprisingly, it has been the focus of intense scrutiny and criticism from human rights advocates and scholars. Yet, contrary to their claims, Parreñas argues that most employers do not abuse domestic workers or maximize the extraction of their labor. Still, the outrage elicited by this possibility dominates much of public discourse and overshadows the more mundane reality of domestic work in the region. Drawing on unparalleled data collected over 4 years,this book diverges from previous studies as it establishes that the kafala system does not necessarily result in abuse, but instead leads to the absence of labor standards. This absence is reflected in the diversity of work conditions across households, ranging from dehumanizing treatment, infantilization, to respect and recognition of domestic workers.
Unfree shows how various stakeholders, including sending and receiving states, NGOs, inter-governmental organizations, employers and domestic workers, project moral standards to guide the unregulated labor of domestic work. They can mitigate or aggravate the arbitrary authority of employers. Parreñas offers a deft and rich portrait of how morals mediate work on the ground, warning against the dangers of reducing unfreedom to structural violence.
About the author:
Rhacel Salazar Parreñas is Florence Everline Professor of Sociology and Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Southern California. Her areas of research include labor, gender, international migration and human trafficking, the family and economic sociology. She is an ethnographer who has conducted field work in Denmark, Italy, Japan, Philippines, Singapore and United Arab Emirates.
Professor Parreñas 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.
Sponsored by the Asian Institute at the Munk School and co-sponsored by the Harney Program in Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies, Munk School, University of Toronto.
Asian Institute, Harney Program, Human rights & justice, Migration & borders, Middle East, Southeast Asia


Rhacel Parrenas
Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (author)

Florence Everline Professor of Sociology and Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, University of Southern California

Headshot of Ayelet Shachar
Ayelet Shachar (discussant)

R. F. Harney Professor and Director of the Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies Program at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy; Professor of Law, Political Science and Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Anna Triandafyllidou headshot
Anna Triandafyllidou (discussant)

Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration and Professor of Sociology, Toronto Metropolitan University

Headshot of Rachel Silvey
Rachel Silvey (chair)

Richard Charles Lee Director of the Asian Institute, Munk School and Professor in the Department of Geography & Planning, University of Toronto