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The work-life experiences of an invisible workforce: The case of live-in women migrant domestic workers in Malaysia

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Wee Chan Au


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PurposeThe purpose of this paper is to explore the work-life (WL) experiences of live-in women migrant domestic workers (MDWs), who represent a significant proportion of migrant workers globally. MDWs play a key role in enabling the work-life balance (WLB) of others, namely the middle-class households that employ them. Yet, their experiences have largely been invisible in mainstream WL literature. The authors draw on an intersectional approach to frame the WL experiences of this marginalized group of women at the intersection of being secondary labour segment workers, with significant legal and employment restrictions as migrant workers, who work and live in the same place as their employers.Design/methodology/approachQualitative interviews were conducted with 13 women MDWs from Indonesia and the Philippines working in Malaysia. The women talked about the meaning of work as MDWs, how they maintain familial connections whilst working abroad, and how they negotiate their WLB as live-in workers. Thematic analysis of the interviews focused on the intersection of the women’s multiple dimensions of disadvantage, including gender, class and temporary migrant-foreigner status, in shaping their accounts of the WL interface.FindingsThree thematic narratives highlight that any semblance of WLB in the MDWs’ lived experience has given way to the needs of their employers and to the imperative to earn an income for their families back home. The themes are: working as MDWs enables the women and their families back home to have a life; the co-existence of WL boundary segmentation and integration in relation to “real” and “temporary” families; and the notion of WLB being centred around the women’s ability to fulfil their multiple duties as MDWs and absent mothers/sisters/daughters.Research limitations/implicationsThe study is based on a small sample of live-in women MDWs in Malaysia, intended to promote typically excluded voices and not to provide generalizable findings. Accessing potential participants was a considerable challenge, given the vulnerable positions of women MDWs and the invisible nature of their work.Practical implicationsFuture research should adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to studying the WL experiences of women MDWs. In particular, links with non-governmental organizations who work directly with women MDWs should be established as a way of improving future participant access.Social implicationsThe study underscores the existence of policies and regulations that tolerate and uphold social inequalities that benefit primary labour segment workers to the detriment of secondary labour segment workers, including women MDWs.Originality/valueExtant WL literature is dominated by the experiences of “the ideal work-life balancers”, who tend to be white middle-class women, engaged in professional work. This study offers original contribution by giving voice to a taken-for-granted group of women migrant workers who make other people’s WLB possible. Moreover, the study challenges WL research by underscoring the power inequities that shape the participants’ marginal and disadvantaged lived experience of work, life, family and WLB.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Au WC, Chatrakul Na Ayudhya U, Tan YS, Ahmed PK

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal

Year: 2019

Volume: 39

Issue: 5

Pages: 567-583

Print publication date: 11/12/2019

Online publication date: 11/12/2019

Acceptance date: 23/10/2019

ISSN (electronic): 2040-7149

Publisher: Emerald Publishing Limited


DOI: 10.1108/EDI-02-2019-0059


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