Blog | December 2018

Ageing Bodies: Retiring from Temporary Lives

von Megha Amrith

In 1975, John Berger and Jean Mohr, in their book A Seventh Man on the lives of migrant workers in Europe, wrote that migrant workers ‘do not age; they do not get tired; they do not die. They have a single function: to work’ (Berger and Mohr, 1975: 68). This statement made me think of Ruby, a Filipina woman I got to know in Barcelona in 2015 while researching a project on migrant women in the city. She migrated to Barcelona in the early 1980s to find a job in domestic work, a sector in which she has been employed for the past decades. Now well into her sixties, she continues to care for an older Catalan man, whose wife has moved into a residential care institution. Ruby explained: ‘I am tired, my back hurts when I bend down to clean nowadays, I am getting old. But still, I must keep doing something, even just a few hours a day’. Though she is past the official retirement age in Barcelona, Ruby contends that she must keep working to support her own family in the Philippines, and this older couple she has known since her early days in Barcelona. She is now involved within the Filipino community to support those who are contemplating return to the Philippines in older age. When I asked her what she thought about return, though, she said to me:

I would rather die here than in the Philippines, you know why? The relatives kill us, they ask so much, they think we are rich. They are demanding and take and take. So if I go back, everyone will take from me until I have no more…then what? When I have nothing left, they will forget about me. That is why, I would rather die here than face that, just live my last days peacefully.

The ambivalence of return is not necessarily a new story in studies of migration, if we think back to Stuart Hall’s words that ‘migration is a one-way trip, there is no “home” to go back to’ (1987: 44). Nonetheless, Ruby’s words remained in my mind and pushed me to think further about how these hesitations about return intersect with experiences of ageing across borders. In my upcoming fieldwork, I consider the experiences of migrant workers employed in domestic and construction sectors who age abroad on temporary working contracts, and where eventual return is even less of a choice. Since the 1970s and 1980s, there have been large-scale movements of contract migrant labour from countries such as the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, within the Asian region and to the Gulf. This is a generation of migrant labour that is now ageing, but little is known about the later-life implications of long years of working abroad in precarious and low-wage labour conditions.

I will focus specifically on those who migrated to Singapore and Hong Kong, places where migrants are seen as temporary presences, and as such, are denied citizenship, long-term residence and family reunification rights. Workers live in conditions of restricted mobilities: in migrant workers’ hostels or employers’ homes. While a number of migrants from that generation are likely to have moved on to other countries, or returned home at a younger age, there are also those who stay on for decades, renewing their temporary contracts, or going home and returning numerous times (up until the mandatory retirement age for migrants, if there is one - in Singapore, this is 60). The reasons are often economic – to use earnings abroad to support family livelihoods, health needs and children’s education, while also paying off debts that they might have incurred to finance their migrant journeys. Many, like Ruby, stay to both fulfil and escape familial expectations of financial and material contributions.

Yet, there are also other reasons to stay abroad. Even as the states in which they are employed see migrant workers as having ‘a single function: to work’, their lives abroad far transcend this characterisation. They build their lives in the interstices: on days off in religious spaces, at educational centres, in public spaces, and on WhatsApp. They develop friendships and intimacies, cultivate new subjectivities, forms of activism and experience new freedoms. In earlier fieldwork, I recall meeting a Filipina migrant who spent Sundays alternately going to church, learning about Islam and experimenting with wearing with hijab; and another who always spoke of her creative number combinations for lottery tickets that might one day allow her to retire early. This space of ‘temporary life’ holds within it, on the one hand, stark inequalities and exploitative labour practices (something that migrants together with local activists and NGOs are jointly addressing in these specific local contexts) - but it is, on the other hand, not empty time. Growing up in Singapore, and experiencing the vibrancy of Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road and Little India on Sundays, where migrants gather, has long inspired my academic interests in migration, care and labour. A recent documentary, Sunday Beauty Queen, illuminated similar socialites in Hong Kong. It followed the lives of domestic workers and their everyday hardships in the confined spaces of their employers’ homes, but also their aspirations and forms of self-expression at beauty pageants on Sundays. The organiser of the pageants has been working in Hong Kong for 35 years, and uses them also as a platform for fundraising and community organising. Long-term migrants living and working in Hong Kong have also raised legal cases to obtain residence rights, but without success as yet.

In the first stage of my project, I ask: how do migrants construct their ‘temporary’ lives abroad over decades in conditions of precarity? How do they imagine and plan for the future with regard to matters of health, intergenerational care, older-age and death? In the second phase, I will follow the stories of those who returned ‘home’. What are the affective experiences of return? What does retirement mean in the absence of secure pensions and who cares for the ageing bodies of those who have laboured for familial futures? Through the narratives of ageing migrant workers, and those who have since returned, I am curious to learn more about the intersections between migration and inequality over time; how restrictive citizenship and social protection regimes affect the lives of those who have been in supposedly temporary situations; and the kinds of futures that lifelong migration projects generate.


Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1975) A Seventh Man, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Hall, S. (1987) ‘Minimal Selves’ in L. Appignanesa (ed.) The Real Me: Post-Modernism and the Question of Identity, ICA Documents 6. London: The Institute of Contemporary Arts, p. 44-46.


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