The Visible Invisibles: Book Review

The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban ki-Moon, once said, “Migration is an expression of the human aspirations for dignity, safety, and a better future. It is part of the social fabric and our very make-up as a human family.” Unfortunately, these aspirations are complex, rarely understood, and often ignored. While migration of labour has become one of the most defining characteristics in the era of globalisation, a need for better visibility of the fundamental necessities and the development of humane policies for migrant workers is more required today than ever before.  

The authors—Shivaji Das and Yolanda Yu—set the premise for the book by asking why we know so little about this highly visible group of people who are building our houses and roads or taking care of our children and elders. Aiming to bring greater understanding which could, in turn, bring structural changes to the conditions of migrant workers, the book presents a collection of life journeys of forty-five current and former migrant workers, narrated in their own words. The experiences span geographies, from Barangays (neighbourhood units)in the Philippines, Kampongs (villages) in Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka to cosmopolitan cities in Singapore, UAE, and Malaysia, across sectors like manufacturing, plantations, security services, retail, and sexual services.

By presenting the life stories of migrant workers, the authors explore and underline many vital questions. While some journeys highlight if becoming a migrant worker is a matter of choice or a lack thereof, others explain how political conditions in one’s home country force one to take the migration route to sustenance. In addition, the book explores the lives of these workers in a foreign environment, how cultural misunderstandings lead to unfavourable work outcomes, and how the migration process affects the personality and outlook of a person in the short and long terms.

Through the life stories of these workers, the book explores, on one side, the themes of love, friendship, and family dynamics and, on the other, the realities of power imbalances, alienation, discrimination, and digital inequality. It attempts to understand how migrant workers cope with the guilt arising from separation from their most beloved ones and whether planning for the future is too much of a luxury for a migrant worker. The authors thread together multiple journeys to reflect how different societies are perceived from the eyes of an outsider and how communication is not just about language but culture too.   

As the world stood disrupted with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, these journeys also reflect the hardships faced by those without their own government’s support and how they managed to survive in the face of exploitation, trauma, and bad luck.  For some, ‘dreams are expensive,’ making them scared to dream, and others caution against painting a rosy picture of life as a migrant worker.

However, beyond all gloom, the journeys presented in the book shine a bright light on the tales of hope and ambition. For some, helping the next generation finish their studies means fulfilling their life goals; for others, owning a place to house orphans is a sincere ambition. These journeys also glimpse the various aspects of Asian societies and their political systems. While some systems have done appreciable work to instil a sense of pride in migrant workers, the book highlights the worries and fears of those without a country, bereft of any retirement pensions, which ultimately forces them to work till the last breath.

This book is a prized resource for anyone aspiring to understand the range of circumstances that make working in a foreign setting an unintentional reality and the motivations, fears, and ambitions of the ‘visible invisibles’ to continue or escape life as a migrant worker.

The Visible Invisibles, Authors: Shivaji Das and Yolanda Yu, Publisher: Penguin Random House SEA

Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal is a Researcher on Geopolitics & Tech at NatStrat, India.