Communicative repertoires, place-making, and transnational domestic labor
: Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


One of the hallmarks of Hong Kong’s service economy is the presence of a transnational domestic helper workforce. It is estimated that 370,000 of overseas helpers are employed in Hong Kong homes, of whom 200,000 are Filipino Domestic Workers (FDWs). This linguistic ethnographic study examines FDWs’ positionality and place-making by focusing on their communicative repertoires. The thesis is primarily anchored in the sociolinguistics of transnational labor and globalization and employs analytic frameworks such as content analysis of narrative accounts, spatialization, and sociolinguistic scales. My data, collected in 2017, come from participant and non-participant observation, semi-structured interviews including body silhouette drawings, photographed multilingual and multimodal signage, and other objects displayed in public spaces.
The data reveal that participants mobilize their multilingual repertoires in
a manner that enables them to negotiate their symbolic place within global migration flows and local (domestic work and leisure) affairs. In their narratives, participants thematize communication, transportation, and financial infrastructures linking the Philippines and Hong Kong allowing them to both reflect and reconcile their transnational status and positionality, being ‘at home’ both in Hong Kong and in the Philippines. Participants’ desire for maintaining a home environment is likewise observed in certain spaces of gathering in their time off work, such as those on Sundays and public holidays in Hong Kong’s Central district. It is then that this ‘global’ financial and business district is transformed and re-scaled by their home-making and activism in social, material, and affective ways as ‘Little Philippines’, indexing a global ‘periphery’. This re-ordering enables FDWs to fleetingly own these spaces as places of familiarity, belonging, and preferred futures. However, the analysis of regulatory and commercial signs carrying Tagalog in Central reveals a more contradictory institutional positioning of FDWs. On the one hand, they are construed as economically desirable target consumers, while on the other as low status and marginalized workforce.
Thus, notwithstanding the inequalities and injustices evident in the
‘unskilled,’ ‘Global South-North’ migration labor flows, this study offers a somewhat counter-balancing perspective to the English language-focused view of FDWs as predominantly disempowered victims of globalist forces. While acknowledging the marginalization and abuse experienced by FDWs in Hong Kong, this study demonstrates that multiple symbolic and material resources within the migrant’s repertoire (viz., languages, ‘immobile’ infrastructures, and space) unlock possibilities, however nascent, towards an expanded view of transnational domestic workers. That is, migrants move equipped with the means, ability, and disposition to exercise their agency with which, to some extent, they are capable of challenging, subverting and constraining the conditions of neoliberal capitalism, globalization, and power that frame their transnational existence.
Date of Award1 Jul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAdam Jaworski (Supervisor) & Ben Rampton (Supervisor)

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