Interviewed via E-Mail
July 7, 2013
Matthew Andrews, CA+T Interviewer
Claudia Liebelt, Scholar
Matthew Andrews: How did you become interested in the study of gender and transnational labor, specifically in global care and domestic work?
Claudia Liebelt: I became interested in transnational migration and labor through political activism. First of all by being involved in the No Border network that formed in Germany in the late 1990s and secondly as a feminist. Feminists in the 1970s have written much about care and domestic work as devalued and typically feminized. What startled me as a student of sociology in the late 1990s and got me interested in the topic was that, in spite of the feminist critique and certain changes in gender relations in Western Europe since the 1970s, little seemed to have changed when it came to the division of household tasks and the taking care of children or the elderly. Instead, this gendered division of labor has gone global. Thus, middle class women in Western Europe have come to delegate “their” reproductive tasks to women of the global South.
MA: How did you get started studying the lives and experiences of Filipina domestic workers around the world?
CL: In 2003 I started working in a Tel Aviv-based workers’ center (www.kavlaoved.org.il) that informed Filipino and other migrant workers about their rights towards employers and supported them in their legal struggles. Earlier that year, a new [Israeli] police unit had been established to arrest and deport “illegal” migrant workers, and while I was there, dozens of undocumented Filipinos came to the center every day to seek practical help but also to tell their stories. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know, and this eventually led me to the Philippines, a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology, and an ongoing fascination with and admiration for Filipina migrant women’s will to change their lives and their energy and sense of humor in spite of often dire circumstances.
MA: What drew you to Israel as a site for your research on Filipina domestic workers?
CL: Israel is a fascinating place when it comes to studying migration. As a nation-state where, until recently, more than two-thirds of the population consisted of migrants and the children of migrants, Israel is almost a classic country of immigration when it comes to Jewish migration. However, according to state law and the hegemonic discourse, it is nothing of the sort when it comes to non-Jewish migrants. The so-called “foreign workers” in Israel are excluded from citizenship and belonging, very much like the “guest workers” in the 1960s and ‘70s in Western Europe were. Nevertheless, like in Western Europe, migrants to Israel today have stayed on, established families and created homes for themselves. They are beginning to challenge and change what it means to be and look Jewish and Israeli, and I find this an extremely interesting process.
MA: Your work is informed by extensive ethnographic field research. What do you see as some advantages to using ethnography in the study of global care and domestic work?
CL: There is now an extensive research literature on migrant domestic workers in all parts of the world. Most of this research is based on interviews, often informed by sociological debates and conducted in cooperation with NGOs [nongovernment organizations]. Accordingly, this literature emphasizes aspects of exploitation and maltreatment of migrant domestic workers. While I do not want to belittle the exploitative aspects of care and domestic work, I felt that something was missing from the picture. Spending time at domestic workers’ workplaces, hanging out in their shared weekend flats, churches or karaoke bars at night, and visiting research partners or their families in the Philippines gave me a broader understanding of migrant workers’ hopes, dreams, and even their predicaments. For example, I learned that migrants, who almost always feel ambivalent about their decision to leave home, tell the story of their migration differently in different contexts. They would describe themselves as travelers while sightseeing on weekends, as Holy Land pilgrims while in church, or as modern slaves when they outlined their stories in the workers’ center. These are rather diverse forms of subjectivation, and it is important to take each of them seriously and not to focus on just one of them. Also, I came to better understand why “resistance,” which so many studies discuss, is so hard to come by for care and domestic workers. Taking care of an elderly person or a child is not only demanding and embodied labor but emotionally complex and affective. In such a situation, it is often smarter to use the so-called “weapons of the weak”—that is defiance, persuasion or patience—rather than open “resistance” in order to better one’s working conditions.
MA: What was your most memorable experience while conducting your ethnographic field research in Israel?
CL: There is not the one experience that stands out from all the others, but there are many unforgettable ones. I remember a sad night when I visited a Filipina friend who, in order not to lose her visa, had just sent away her three-week old baby to the Philippines with her sister-in-law. Or visiting another friend after her beloved employer of many years had just passed away. I also remember an afternoon full of joy and excitement spent shopping and sightseeing in Tel Aviv with a Filipina friend who had just decided to return home after five years of illegality in Israel. After having hidden from the migration police in the back room of an Internet cafe for almost two years, for her this was a kind of return to life after a time that had seemed endless. Then there were unforgettable pilgrimages and beauty contests and celebrations—including a Christmas party by the Igorot regional association, where I was made to dance a local wedding dance. Doing research on the Filipino diaspora was an extremely intensive time that taught me many things, and most of all, I continue to feel deeply grateful and indebted to all the migrant women who offered me a glimpse into their everyday lives and for generally teaching me a great deal.