Rachel Smith: The “hidden abodes” of temporary migration programs

Organizations such as the World Bank have repeated what has been called the “migration development mantra.” In this, remittances appear as a panacea—or “wonder drug” (Green 2015)—for economic development, while in real world interactions “social remittances” import liberal ideals such as “work ethic,” “financial literacy,” and democracy. Thus, this “mantra” reflects a neoliberal revival of 1960s modernization narratives (Glick Schiller and Faist 2010; Wise and Covarrubias 2009) with which it promotes temporary worker programs in particular, as they facilitate the return of the migrant and remittances and thus (it is assumed) greater economic development in the area of origin.

Here, I argue that we must look behind the current developmentalist focus on remittances as a generator of foreign exchange earnings, for that focus takes us into a global “realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” (Marx 1990: 280). Instead, a perspective that begins with a broad notion of the articulation of different modes of production can help reveal how temporary foreign workers are subject to structural “over-exploitation” and subordination in the “hidden abode” of production (279).

Ethnographic analyses of articulation with capitalism through circular migration in the global “periphery” have revealed how domestic productive and reproductive activities, and not just labor time expended in the workplace, have been harnessed for the circuits of capital accumulation. Such critiques echo socialist feminist arguments that capitalism benefits from the “house-work” disproportionately performed by women (cf. Lem 2014), which point to the fact that a form of articulation with the domestic economy takes place even in the capitalist “cores.” In solidarity with these perspectives, I will discuss the need for an expanded notion of “modes of (re)production” to account for the production of people and social relations in transnational migration.

I do so with reference to New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) program, which, as part of the migration development mantra, has been widely reported as a “best practice” example for other countries to follow. It is espoused for bringing “triple-win” benefits for employers, sending states, and migrants themselves (Gibson and McKenzie 2013), effectively absolving the program of accusations of class conflict and exploitation. This essay considers the position of seasonal migrants from a rural community in Vanuatu that participates in New Zealand’s RSE program, drawing on insights from wider Melanesian anthropology. In so doing, I will go beyond the migration-development nexus to reveal the “hidden” and “still more hidden” abodes that underpin these state-endorsed labor mobility programs.

Articulating circular migration
One of the greatest contributions of French structural Marxist anthropologists was in drawing attention to how the articulation of capitalist and noncapitalist modes of production could benefit capitalist accumulation. Meillassoux (1972; 1982) usefully employed the concept of the articulation of modes of production to reveal how African circular migrants from populations also engaged in subsistence production were nevertheless “super-exploited” by colonial regimes to obtain cheap labor without incurring the costs of reproduction of the labor force, which were borne by the migrant’s domestic community.

However, the modes of production paradigm’s dominance in economic anthropology was over almost as soon as it began. Even among Marxists, the question of articulation was increasingly abandoned in favor of “dependency” and “world systems” theories that drew all ends of the globe into one capitalist system and focused on the workings of a global division of labor between core, semi-periphery, and periphery. For the system’s theorists, capitalism did not emerge with proletarianization and wage labor but with worldwide trading systems, and this shifted the emphasis from production to distribution and exchange (Graeber 2006: 75; Roseberry 1991: 153), in which labor is figured as another means for producing export commodities (even labor itself).

However, by complementing macroscale arguments about a global capitalist system that exploits the periphery, the concept of the articulation of modes of production helps to reveal how exploitation emerges and is reproduced at the local level, where actors make a living in circumstances not of their choosing. Arguably, this attention to the microlevel is particularly important for “kin-ordered” communities, where socioeconomic and political relations are interpersonal and shaped by mutual obligations (Asad 1987: 603).

From production to reproduction
Many anthropologists have argued for an expanded notion of the “mode of production” that is conceived not of material production narrowly defined but also of the production of people and social relations (e.g., Friedman 1976; Graeber 2006; Meillassoux 1972; Turner 1986). This is compatible with feminist critiques of capitalist ideology, which they say ignores reproductive work, often performed by women. Therefore, an expanded concept of the mode of (re)production is employed in the following, which accounts for the production of people and noncommoditized social relationships, as well as how people access and use material resources.

Feminists have long argued that an exclusive focus on production of commodities obscures the important work of family reproduction and care. Nancy Fraser (2014) recently wrote that this reproductive work takes place in one of the “abodes that are still more hidden” from a capitalist perspective: that is, accumulation regimes are sustained by arenas that exist beyond the factory walls. To insist on the conceptual separation of the workplace and the home, and to privilege the creation and realization of surplus value through industrial production and commodity exchange, is to reiterate the economistic and alienating divisions and values that underpin the logic of capitalism: the alienation of workers from their noncommoditized relationships to people and things (Carrier 1992: 541).

For Graeber (2006), to focus only on material production is to reflect the capitalist rationale that thrives off the separation of the domestic and economic spheres, which affects the abstraction of labor power from kinship and social relations. Graeber argues that the concept of modes of production should be reformulated to give primacy to the production of people, reminding us that Marx (1993: 487–488) himself recognized that in precapitalist social formations, the production of material things was seen as just a moment in the fashioning of human beings. I would add that Marx understood that even at the core of the capitalist mode of production, the process of the production of material things must be understood as inseparable from the total system of social reproduction (i.e., the production of people and social relations):

When we consider bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole, then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e., the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has a fixed form, such as the product, etc., appears as merely a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct production process itself here appears only as a moment. The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it, and its only subjects are the individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce and produce anew. The constant process of their own movement, in which they renew themselves even as they renew the world of wealth they create. (712)

In a critique of then-popular Althusserian approaches, Friedman (1976: 3–4) argued that a complete analysis must begin with the object of a total system of reproduction, that is the production of individuals within socially determined relations. The fact that distribution appears to be determined by relations of production is historically specific to capitalism, in which the two moments are both structured according to the same categories. And recently, Narotzky and Besnier (2015: S5) argued that anthropologists should combine analyses of production, exchange, and circulation in an approach based on social reproduction, broadly defined. That includes attention on how people “make a living” through working to achieve the creation and maintenance of persons and social relations, as well as their struggle over access to material resources required to sustain their livelihoods. And, as Neveling (2015) suggests, recognizing wage laborers not as victims but as actors who make decisions in an attempt to attain well-being and maintain a household does not entail a denial of their structural exploitation in the workplace, but rather reveals how engagement in the labor market has become an inevitable domain of social reproduction.

The domestic economy: Material abodes
So how do we begin to understand such an articulation in Melanesia, and Ni-Vanuatu seasonal work in particular? Attempts to apply analyses based on the exploitation of the producing class through the appropriation of labor power to the internal dynamics of social reproduction in Melanesian formations have been criticized for uncritically employing “Western” bourgeois and Marxist concepts (Gewertz and Errington 1999: 151n17; Jolly 1987; Strathern 1988: 137–145).

Gregory (1982) argued that whereas commodity logic organizes self-replacement through production and requires a quantitative value relationship between things (i.e., prices), the gift logic common in Melanesian ceremonial exchange social reproduction is based on methods of consumption and requires the classification of people through kinship relations. This conceptual distinction was not intended to classify societies into opposed “types” but rather to address the paradox of why articulation with capitalism as the dominant mode of production had resulted in the flourishing of Melanesian ceremonial exchange systems rather than their destruction (Gregory 1982: 115; 1997: 50).

Drawing on Meillassoux, Gregory (1982: 115–116) further suggested that throughout the periods of indentured and “agreement” labor in Papua New Guinea, wages were calculated in such a way as to discourage the resettlement of families and the formation of a permanent population, all for the benefit of the colonial regime. These low wages were enabled by the fact that land was not commoditized, and the worker’s clan continued to bear the costs of reproduction. Carrier and Carrier (1989: 224) argued that we also ought to look more closely at the effect of this articulation on household and village life, which is “dominated by the social conditions of the reproduction of people.” They suggested that in Manus Province, urban migration had created a “bizarre sort of division of labor,” whereby migrants delivered much of the material resources required for village life while the villagers provided the ceremonial wealth required for the production of social identity and kinship relations.

For 150 years, the people of my field site in rural Vanuatu have been engaging in subsistence production, supplemented with intermittent cash cropping and labor migration, subject to external demand. However, the social structure remains organized around the relations of production of people—that is, by exogamous land-holding clans. The current seasonal work programs reflect the types of circular contractual agreement of labor common across pre-independence Melanesia, in that they entail circular forms of migration, and much of the costs of reproduction are borne by kin in the home village.

What, then, is happening as these long-standing albeit historically dynamic agreements engage with present patterns of transnational migration? Due to the conditions of temporary foreign worker programs, in which workers are typically tied to particular employers on short-term contracts regulated by the migrant-receiving state, typically seasonal workers are likely to accept low wages, perform unpleasant work, or work long hours, and are unlikely to leave, protest, or unionize (e.g., Basok 2002; Binford 2013). This was true of the Ni-Vanuatu migrants I spoke to in New Zealand, who often found the work hard and exhausting, and in some cases they accused the employers of exploiting them through lowering pay, pushing for excessive work rates, and overcharging for deductions such as rent and transport.

Ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers in a New Zealand packhouse, March 2012 (Photo: Rachel Smith)

Ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers in a New Zealand packhouse, March 2012 (Photo: Rachel Smith)

While migrants spoke of the hardships of their separation from kin and community, predominantly female family members bore the brunt of the work at home, including subsistence and petty commodity production to support the family, in addition to childcare and domestic tasks. Nevertheless, people valued the opportunity to migrate in a situation where they had few options to find the cash now necessary for living expenses and their children’s education. One migrant said, “Sometimes we feel like slaves, but we believe there is a Judge God that will turn these hardships into a blessing in many of our children’s lives, if this scheme continues.”

As Glick Schiller (2012: 92) points out, “migrants, most of whom are overworked, underpaid and work in increasingly difficult conditions, often are primarily concerned with the subsistence and social reproduction of family members ‘left behind.’” This concern for social reproduction is evident of a desire both to overcome global material inequalities and to nurture, protect, and ensure a good future for one’s kin and offspring.

In addition to a house constructed from permanent materials and school fees for their children, migrants I spoke to during my research in New Zealand and Vanuatu spent much of their savings on contributions to life cycle rituals, which ensure the reproduction of kin and community relations, and I was told such ceremonies have escalated in cost. These ritual costs, often seen as irrational “consumption” by development economists, allow migrants and their families to invest in the web of kinship relations that binds them to the wider community and to retain their customary rights to land, ensuring them a continued means of subsistence and for simple commodity production if they withdraw from wage work. This determination to maintain customary land tenure also reflects the value they place on maintaining their clan and community identities and the conditions required for their social reproduction.

In the introduction to this essay, I argue that the current ideological emphasis on foreign exchange, in the form of migrant remittances (and hence emphasizing the gain on the migrants’ side), obscures how migration programs benefit state capital by providing a source of reliable labor in the “hidden abode” of production without incurring the full costs of the reproduction of the migrants. Rather than preordaining an idealist and economistic emphasis on production and capitalist valorization, we should depart from an expansive and open notion of “modes of reproduction,” including the production of noncommoditized social relations.

This entails attention to the perspective of the concrete “material abode” in which people make decisions to meet family expectations and kin obligations, striving to make a living in situations where engagement in market production, householding, and ceremonial exchange are intertwined. So then, following Nancy Fraser (2014)I have returned from the “hidden abode of production” to “abodes that are still more hidden.” Adopting the perspective of actors navigating between these different sites of social reproduction (Lem 2007: 378)can offer the grounds for a critique of neoliberal development paradigms and the assumed role of migration within these.

Rachel E. Smith is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at University of Manchester. She conducted sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork focused on kinship and economic change among Ni-Vanuatu seasonal migrants from the island of Epi, Vanuatu. Her research is part of the comparative research project Domestic Moral Economy: An ethnographic study of value in the Asia-Pacific region,” funded by Economic and Social Research Council (UK).


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Cite as: Smith, Rachel. 2015. “The ‘hidden abodes’ of temporary migration programs.” FocaalBlog, 12 November. www.focaalblog.com/2015/11/12/rachel-smith-the-hidden-abodes-of-temporary-migration-programs.