On the Term Migrant Worker

Each semester, NYU Paris offers an elective called French and Expatriate Literature. The syllabus includes US American authors such as Hemingway, ...

Apr 11, 2015

Each semester, NYU Paris offers an elective called French and Expatriate Literature. The syllabus includes US American authors such as Hemingway, Kerouac and Stein, who moved to Paris after World War I and prospered from the company of its vibrant literary community. Hemingway, by way of memoir, famously wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Imagine, instead, that the course title was called French and Immigrant Literature. Perhaps – I dare say – even French and Migrant Literature. Cue dark clouds gathering over the Seine and the sound of jazz music screeching to a halt.
For Hemingway and Joyce and Kerouac, regulars at bohemian parties and Parisian cafés, the word expatriates better captures their lifestyle of fulfillment in the moveable feast of Paris than the terms migrant or immigrant, which seem to take on darker, more ominous shades in their usage.
But, the question is: how do these starkly diverse connotations arise in the first place? How are these terms deployed in the context of the UAE, where the split between the terms expatriate and immigrant and migrant and laborer is manifested constantly, sometimes in obvious and sometimes in insidious ways? Who do we talk about when we use the words migrant worker?
Hoping to learn more about the opinions of the NYU Abu Dhabi community and curious to discover whether or not a consensus prevailed, I began to ask people for their thoughts. My question was: what is the first thing that comes to mind when I say the term migrant worker? The responses I received were diverse; they ranged all the way from pithy declarations (“Someone who migrates for the hope of a better job – bye”) to prolonged meditations, from longer conversations over breakfast to quick snatches while standing at the checkout counter at the East Dining Hall.
Some interesting patterns cropped up. Below, I loosely classify these responses under the categories of definition, the importance of context and the role of necessity versus choice — or lack thereof. The range of responses provides insight into various ways of understanding these terms, but troublingly, the responses were inconclusive. Almost everyone responded with an uncomfortable, nervous laugh, and though everyone had an opinion on the term, few people agreed on the use of migrant worker. Others were unsure whether or not students and faculty classified as migrant workers or whether we were expatriates. Inevitably, the context of the kafala system came up, but that lens, too, proved inconclusive when they tried to differentiate between short-term and long-term migrants, immigrants or expatriates.
I present the responses here in their raw form, anonymous and unmediated, to make a larger point. The multiple opinions, scattered as they are, are symptomatic of a deeper and more pervasive issue in the global conversation surrounding transnational migration: the fundamental state of ambiguity over words and terms that we see and use everyday, the fraught ways in which these various terms are sometimes unconsciously applied and the skewed opinions and prejudices that often prevail as a result. Plausibly, clump categories and generalizations may do harm by narrowing perception and inhibiting the possibility of encountering people on their own terms. A question to think about then is: what might the use of the term migrant worker – versus, say, foreign workers or just workers – possibly obscure?

Defining migrant worker versus migrant, immigrant and expat

“Migrant comes with the notion of temporariness, which makes it different from immigrant, which is more permanent. And worker [connotes] service-level jobs.” – senior from the USA.
“The term migrant worker could apply to anyone travelling from their own country to another country to do work, but when I read it in an article or in the media, I usually assume that they mean someone who comes from their country to do construction labor." – junior from the USA.
“Expats is just a white-person term.” – senior.
“When I think about expats, I think about a British woman. Not even a British man. A British woman.” – freshman from the USA.
“I’d rather just call all migrant workers expats.” – senior from the UK.

How context changes the meaning of migrant worker

“Since you're asking me now, I think of the migrant workers here in Abu Dhabi. But if you asked me the question in the US, I might think of the Mexican immigrants who work in the restaurants around the US or the illegal immigrants from other countries.” – senior from the USA.
“In the context of here, it means South Asian. The term is a very recent one for me, because back home, there is no real concept of a migrant worker. I mean, yes, you have some Egyptian people who are deployed in low-paying jobs, but we don't really refer to them as migrant workers as such.” – senior from Jordan.
“When I think about the migrant workers, I think of hope — for a better future. I think of the service workers, like the waiters, garbagemen, delivery guys, construction workers, security guards — wait, maybe not security guards. I’m not sure, actually. But it’s a racialized term, completely. The term migrant worker means something completely different for me back home than it does here.” – junior from Spain.

The role of necessity versus choice in migration

“[Migrant worker] means someone who moves away from home, for better opportunities. But it can’t just be anyone — it kind of carries the connotation of necessity.” – sophomore from Singapore.
“When I think about migrant workers, I don't even think of the security guards, I think of the laborers. Like last night, I was walking outside and I saw three or four Indian or Pakistani people, in their 50s, who were loading water into the water pipes. Those are the people who I think of. I don't think a lot of [the security guards] want to be here for the long run. And if you think about it, these people have to pay a huge lump-sum fee. What do you call it? Recruitment fee, yes. And a lot of people can't even afford that. So these guards are not the poorest of the poor.” – sophomore from India.
“I guess migrant workers are those who migrate for the reason of making a better salary from where they come from, who don't have the luxury of people like us to stay here in Abu Dhabi for two years then go back to the States for four years. But it's an interesting question. I've never thought about it too much before. Isn't [Vice Chancellor] Al Bloom also a migrant worker?” – junior from India.
Mohit Mandal is a contributing writer. Contact him at
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