Unskilled Chinese workers pay an average of US$8,000 (including US$ 3,000 “security bond” that would be confiscated if they violate any rules) in 2010 to secure a job in Japan, Singapore and South Korea, their top three choices. The high costs of international labor migration worldwide, but especially in Asia, have recently attracted high-level policy attention. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stressed that “there are enormous gains to be made by lowering costs related to migration” during the General Assembly High‐level Dialogue on International Migration and Development 2013. At the same forum Asia Pacific countries identified addressing recruitment costs as one of five policy priorities.
Why do migrants have to pay so much? A strong consensus among international organizations and national governments is: private labor recruitment intermediaries are to blame. International Labour Organization launched a high-profile “Fair Recruitment Initiative” in 2014 aimed at better regulating recruiters. The U.S. Department of State and a number of intergovernmental agencies make explicit links between fee-charging labor recruiters and human trafficking, arguing that the two should be addressed together. Concerns about the costs of migration became a policy anxiety fixated at recruitment intermediaries.
Surely it is intermediaries who take the money, but should we explain the fact that domestic job search normally cost the worker nothing, and most international recruiters charge employers in the beginning, and only at a later stage do they prey on migrants? Furthermore, the fees went up sharply over the last two decades, in China as well as in many other Asian countries, at the same time as communication and travel became unprecedentedly affordable, and as the number of recruiters increased that should have encouraged competition and reduced the cost. The rise in recruitment fees also took place in tandem with the tightening of migration regulation and heightening of emphasis on migrant rights protection. Only detailed field research can make sense of these paradoxical developments. A veteran in the recruitment business in Beijing told me about changes in Chinese labor migration to the Middle East in the 1990s:
In the early nineties, when I talked to the foreigners [recruiters], they told me what workers they wanted, I told them the number of our foreign currency account. The commission must be paid to the account within ten days, otherwise forget it! Or, for some countries, you pay me the commission every month [after the migrant starts working]. But now the international society talks about human rights more and more. Foreign employers and intermediaries are not allowed to deduct workers’ wages. They must meet this criteria, that criteria. The employer doesn’t want to pay commissions anymore. Nowadays, we have to get our profit from the migrants here. […] And we have to get the profits for the foreigners here too!
What happened across countries was repeated within China. First of all, despite the government’s suspicion about recruitment companies, in practice it relies on them for achieving orderly migration and protecting migrants’ rights. This is because recruitment companies, by following through increasingly complex bureaucratic procedures and fulfilling paperwork requirements, are indispensable to make migration legible and therefore governable. Migrants are not “protectable” unless they are first bureaucratically documented. Licensed recruitment companies in big cities in turn rely on subagents in the countryside to find workers. The subagents are important also because they effectively discipline workers who are working overseas by pressuring the migrants’ families, making the licensed companies attractive partners for overseas employers without tarnishing the companies’ formal image. Once such a multilevel recruitment chains are in place, every intermediary makes its cut.
Thus, the costs of migration are high not only because private agents are greedy, but also because state regulation is complex and the pressure on rights protection is high. Rather than matching demand and supply, the intermediaries’ main function seems to be manufacturing migrant legality on the surface while hiding the irregular means that create and sustain the legality (such as the subagents’ withholding migrants’ property certificates in rural China to force them to comply with border control and employer requirements). The intermediaries are not working outside of laws as usually assumed, but are firmly embedded in the operation of regulations. How the intermediaries make money is how the state make order of migration.
My ethnographic research in China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea since 2004 makes it clear that, what mediate international labor migration is not recruitment intermediaries alone, but are many actors who are intricately inter-related. Without realizing that they are in the same space of mediation as commercial intermediaries, policy makers and NGOs have taken initiatives that make migration more instead of less costly. Recruitment fees in China are particularly high not because its regulation is ineffective, but precisely because the state capacity is strong.
The mediation processes are not ephemeral or transient, passively bridging pre-defined demands of other actors and then disappear once others’ demand are satisfied; they have developed their own structure and quasi- autonomous dynamics, and actively shaped all the actors involved. The structure of the space of mediation is probably more important in effecting actual migration processes than market demand, state policy or migrant decision alone. It should be foregrounded and studied in its own right. Beyond migration, the notion of space of mediation may also provide a tool for investigating ethnographically more general social transformations that take place on multiple fronts that often appear contradictory, like what we witness in China today.
Biao XIANG teaches anthropology and migration at the University of Oxford