“Not a Real Worker”: Gendering Migrants in Thailand’s Shrimp Farms

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Abstract

Thai shrimp farm-owners and migrant couple workers from Laos, Myanmar, and Northeast Thailand act in concert to create gendered subjects and a sense of “place” among Surat Thani’s shrimp farms. The creation of place by the migration of workers into Surat Thani is layered by employers’ efficiency goals with migrants’ need for a conjugal residence while earning a living. The conjugal workforce is, however, differentiated by the creation of a female worker subject, publicly defined as “not a real worker.” By paying migrants a couple’s wage, employers recreate and solidify discourses on the work and labour capacities that differentiate women and men on shrimp farms. Women workers themselves reproduce this: they invoke the status of “not a real worker” to achieve certain ends, such as exploring supplementary income sources or creating latitude for child care while still being on the farm’s payroll. It is mostly Thai women who are able to find other income sources, whereas Burmese and Laotian workers are largely tied to their husbands and employers. Women workers’ enactments of “not a real worker” in turn reproduce and differentiate migrant national subjects. This paper therefore demonstrates that labour practices and migration processes produce gender and migrant subjects. This puts in question essentialist and reified assumptions about gender and gender differences. Instead, we place social practices that produce gender subjects at the centre of analysis, thereby being attentive to the production of gender as a dynamic process and the diversity of subject positions available to women in a single context.

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