Sex/Work for Filipina Migrant Women in South Korea: Explaining Differences in the Practice of Rights for Factory Workers and Club Hostesses

             Last Thursday, Professor Hae Yeon Choo gave a talk titled “Sex/Work for Filipina Migrant Women in South Korea: Explaining Differences in the Practice of Rights for Factory Workers and Club Hostesses,” in which she shared the findings of her most recent ethnographic research in South Korea. The main purpose of her research was to find the reasons for the discrepancy in “substantive citizenship” (a term that emphasizes the citizens’ enjoyment of rights and benefits as a citizen of a community) experienced by Filipina migrant women in two sectors of the South Korean labor market—manufacturing and club hostessing. While a large percentage of those working in factories were undocumented, most of them were active in the Filipino community on which they could rely when faced with problems, and had relatively easy access to labor rights. In contrast, the club hostesses who were on a legal working visa often experienced mistreatment by their employers and were occasionally sent back to Philippines involuntarily.
In the end, she concluded that this difference was due to how gender shaped the organization of work for migrant factory workers and club workers, and how this gendered labor process affected the ways in which the South Korean state and civil society interacted with migrant women: Filipina migrant women were recognized as “women workers” with valuable skills in the manufacturing sector but as feminized and infantilized “working girls” in the camptown clubs.
             My first point of criticism rises from the question of whether we can actuall apply the term “substantive citizenship” to the migrant workers, even if the term is used quite differently from formal citizenship. In her talk she defined substantive citizenship as “citizenship as an interactive process that involves both the host society and migrants as active agents in creating inclusion and exclusion within the structures of law and policy.” In the context of her research, we can see that the “host society” here refers to the Korean civil society. I felt that when she was describing the situation of the migrant women working in factory towns, she mostly mentioned about how they interacted with other members in the Filipino migrant community, and did not explain enough about their interaction with the Korean civil society. She did bring up the Korean government (state), the employers, and some migrant advocacy NGOs, but in my opinion these people and institutions do not necessarily represent the Korean civil society as a whole. I felt that she should have elaborated on how the commoners in the Korean society perceive of them and relate to them.
In addition, I would like to point out that under certain circumstances the term “substantive citizenship” can be a dangerous term to use. The word itself implies that the borderline that separates citizens from non-citizens is not fixed, and this idea could justify the illegal migrants’ arguing for rights in the host society. We cannot ignore the possible social consequences that may follow the undocumented workers’ overuse or misuse of this type of citizenship, which may be especially risky regarding the fact that they are undocumented and therefore unable to be traced by the government.
             On the whole, I was impressed by her findings and the extent to which she herself got deeply involved in the Filipino migrant communities to conduct her research. However, I thought that if had she been more careful about borrowing certain concepts from the literature on her field (the idea of “substantive citizenship”) and incorporating them into her research, she could have made a more sound argument.

Minh Joo Yi, SAS'13