image of eclipse

Commercial bureaucrats: international labour recruiters and the states in East Asia

Xiang Biao

As an anthropologist, my objective is always to tackle large political-economy issues through ethnography. Topically, I am increasingly interested in some of the elusive and unstable subjects of political-economy: flexible labour, venture capital, mobility, and speculation. This interest has brought me to my current project on recruitment agents who facilitate labour migration from China to Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

My basic research question is why the agents exist. The standard economists’ answer would be that agents bridge the information gap between demand and supply, and that once the gap narrows, the agents should disappear to minimise transaction costs. Similarly, the mainstream approach in migration studies suggests that agents are eventually replaced by migrant networks. Governments and NGOs often blame agents for abusing migrant rights and causing policy failures, and have tried hard to regulate or eradicate them. More generally, information technology (IT) is expected to lead to a process of “disintermediation”. In reality, however, business is as good as ever, and IT has in fact facilitated the proliferation instead of the elimination of intermediaries such as headhunters, law firms and consultants.
My research informants offer useful examples of this reality. Mr Chen, an agent specialising in sending low-skilled workers from northeast China to Japan, told me how tedious his business has become. Immediately after lodging visa applications on his clients’ behalf, he takes them to particular factories for a one day visit. Every worker is required to draw a detailed layout of the factory in order to memorise the exact location of each workshop and office, and is asked to pay special attention to the toilets, particularly the number of seats and urinals. This is followed by rehearsals of interviews, with Chen himself acting as the embassy official. The workers are carefully coached on how to knock on the door, walk in, sit down, have eye contact, and move their fingers.

Chen has to undertake this “training” and familiarisation of workplace and work behaviour because the Japanese authorities, despite the acute labour shortage, refuse to admit unskilled foreign workers and instead only accept them as “trainees” who must be employees of registered factories in China. But since a trainee earns only USD 600 a month for the first year and USD 1,100 in the next two, agents can only manage to recruit unemployed youth from the countryside. It is an open secret that agents pay factories to provide false employers’ letters to these “workers”. Recently however, due to increasing domestic pressure, Japanese authorities have started making surprise telephone calls to workers questioning them, amongst other things, about the toilets in the factories they are supposedly registered with.

Chen’s petty, commercially profitable lies help sustain the government’s larger, politically interesting lies. The agents are indeed dogged, but the irregularity is essential for keeping up the appearance that everything is legal and under control. Under the current international migration regime, legal migration means creating “paper migrants”: forms need to be filled, photographs taken, certificates authorised, qualifications demonstrated, and guarantees secured. In other words, legality is not an attribute intrinsic to an action, but is socially manufactured.

“Manufacturing legality” is not the only function that migration agents assume. Agents also actively discipline migrants, thereby helping to further maintain the appearance of legality. Agents in China commonly collect security bonds (about RMB 20,000 for Japan and 30,000 for South Korea in 2006) and housing property certificates from migrants before their departure, which will be confiscated if the migrant violates any rule. It is also compulsory for the migrant to bring one or two civil servants (normally their relatives or family friends) to sign formal agreements with the agent as guarantors; the guarantors would compensate the agent by deducting their salaries for the migrant’s any wrongdoings overseas. This method is regarded as particularly effective because migrants are more concerned about the moral pressure from the guarantors than about monetary loss.

Behind these disciplining actions is a long, transnational chain of liability. Governments of migrant-receiving countries commonly hold employers and recruitment agents responsible for preventing migrants going underground. Employers in turn outsource the tasks of policing and disciplining migrants to their agents. Under these pressures, agents in destination countries in turn oblige their counterparts in China to ensure migrants’ absolute compliance. Thus, agents, although often denounced as an enemy of benevolent states, are in fact indispensable for states’ control of transnational labour migrations in East Asia.

I have focused on the complex interplay between migrants, private agents and states that generate a transnational system governing mobility over three years. I plan to finish the manuscript on this project by mid 2009, to be published by Princeton University Press.

*Xiang Biao. "Commercial Bureaucrats: International Labor Recruiters and the States in East Asia." Special feature for Asia Research Institute Newsletter, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. March 2008: 6

little site banner