Making Possibilities out of the Impossible: Rural Migrant Workers’ Backdoor Economies and the Pitfall in Lao PDR

Kelly Wanjing Chen

KRSEA-Chen-Migrant-Workers

In recent years, rural Lao society has witnessed a fast transition away from traditional land-based livelihood. This tendency is shaped by a collusion between neoliberal Lao state and capital, which actively dispossess population from land and other means of production. 1 A new social norm that attaches livelihood off-land with connotations like modernity and individualistic independency is also enhancing the trend. 2 3 While much analytical attentions have been drawn to the disruptive processes and implications embedded in the rapid diminishing of subsistence/semi-subsistence agricultural economy in rural Laos, experiences in navigating various forms of off-land livelihood remain less discussed. This article is therefore devoted to examining rural migrant workers’ experience as wage-labor in low-skilled sectors in Lao cities, one popular off-land livelihood pursued by rural population in the country today, especially among the younger generation.

The hitherto small body of scholarly and media writings on this topic are dominated by recurring keywords like suppressive wage regimes, micro-level abuses and social discriminations etc. 4 5 They have collectively associated livelihood of rural-urban migrant workers in Laos with a condition of impossibility, which is detrimental to social upward mobility of any form. While the very existence of exploitation is undeniable, these accounts’ underlying assumption of individuals who strive to make such a living as the passive victim is problematic. It is integral to an overarching orientation to victimize Laos in related knowledge production, which has come under increasing criticisms from intellects 6. In reality, the seemingly impossible life of migrant workers contains some possibilities, as is already indicated in stories about how their remittance transforms Lao countryside. 7 8 It is the task of this article to bring light to one particular strategy Lao migrant workers commonly deploy today to survive and thrive in their off-land urban livelihoods.

The strategy of concern here is an act to open up backdoor channels for informal income in everyday work. It can be illustrated by a few snapshots from one individual’s life experience in Vientiane, the most popular domestic destination for Lao migrant workers. 9 The individual is Tou, a 19-old man from rural Savannakhet who often appears on the sidewalk along Dongpalane Road after 9pm to sell gasoline. His inconspicuous night-time business, in the form of a stool by the roadside with a bottle of fuel on top, reflects the character of urban life in Vientiane. In this city where most everyday commuting is done using private vehicles such as motorbikes and cars, flow of life on wheels is faced with a constant threat of disruption in the afterhours of local gas stations. Even the most careful driver could occasionally find himself/herself stuck on the way home in the middle of the night because of a depleted gas tank. While for many, such a scenario is no more than a minor inconvenience to avoid in life, a few entrepreneur-minded people like Tou smell chances for profiting out of it instead. Tou’s gas retailing business does not have a fixed schedule. His irregular appearance at the usual spot by Dongpalane Road is actually depended in large upon one factor—whether he had managed to smuggle out enough gasoline from work. As a minivan driver for a Chinese tourist company in Vientiane, Tou always took an empty 330ml water bottle with him to work. When the opportunity arose, he would fill up the bottle by unscrewing the drain bolt at the bottom of the minivan’s oil tank. Once he siphoned enough from work to fill up a 1.5liter Tigerhead water bottle, his backdoor business at night would go into operation. 

A public bus in Vientiane, Laos. A city with a dearth of public transportation. Photo: meunierd / Shutterstock.com

For rural migrant workers like Tou, the strategy to increase income by devising backdoor economies out of work is underscored with a clear directive for making ends meet. Due to lack of education and training, this social group is generally confined to low-skilled sectors like construction, service, domestic work, and manufacturing, which promise a wage level that is hardly enough to get by in urban areas. 10 In the effort to force down wage, employers tend to turn a blind eye to many basics migrant workers need to sustain social reproduction, like housing, health care, and travel expenditure to visit home. Lao state further institutionalized this tendency by predominantly referring to cost of food and other consumer goods in its calculation for living wage. 11 Consequently, migrant individuals seeking to venture out an off-land livelihood in cities are often made to adopt extremely austere lifestyle with meager income from work. The situation is not only materially inadequate, but also physiologically torturing for them, especially considering seductions of urban consumerism and burdens from family afar. 12 13 Therefore, many are on a constant search for new channels to make money. In the meantime, migrant workers’ limited access to capital, information, and network render resources from work particularly valuable in formulating petty entrepreneurial schemes.

The amount of derivative income one could capture through backdoors from work depends in large upon the nature of the work itself. In Tou’s case, his makeshift gas retailing business can bring about approximately 5 USD in a lucky night. Cash earned from this venue is therefore a supplement to his formal income as driver, which amounts to 150 USD per month. Although other opportunities for small money pop up during work every now and then, Tou is not able to open up another stable backdoor like his fuel scheme. He often mentions his friend Boun with an apparent envious attitude when talking about the art of deriving income from work. This peer of Tou works as a front desk receptionist in a small hotel in Vientiane. As the hotel mostly attracts Thai, Chinese, and Malaysian coming for short-term business trip, Boun is able to secure lucrative income by getting kick-backs through brokering commercial sex deals for guests. His backdoor economy generates cash that is easily two to three times of his wage as receptionist, 130 USD per month. Boun devotes little labor in this process—he just needs to show his guests girls’ photos in his phone and arrange the service. This is the aspect Tou is particularly jealous about, given the fact that himself has to spend hours waiting at night to earn a much less amount of money. As the characteristic of each job fundamentally structures the potential of its extended backdoor economies, it is common for migrant workers today to take this facet into consideration when developing their career plan. Bearing this parameter in mind, jobs that are less supervised and provide more access to easily capitalizable resources (like gasoline and rich foreign guests) are more desirable than others regardless of slight formal wage difference.  

Though trivial and mundane, migrant workers’ backdoor economies are manifestations of their continuous and non-compliant effort to produce their own meaning of ‘work’. The subjects involved in these activities, who are capable of meticulous plotting and systematic implementation, pose a sharp contrast to prototype lazy and incompetent Lao labor in conventional knowledge. Under a closer look, even a seemingly straightforward deed like Tou’s fuel smuggling project at work would reveal surprisingly shrewd and calculating side of him. He has been operating this project steadily for over a year without being caught by his boss primarily through a few intentional tactics. For instance, he controls the amount of gas he drains from the tank every time so that it is proportional to his driving distance that day. This led the boss to blame the slightly increased fuel expenditure on his new driver’s wasteful driving habits. Occasionally when Tou was driving for his boss, he would even purposefully perform the assumed habits such as suddenly stopping/starting and the excessive use of vehicle’s air-conditioner so that his boss’ theory could be reassured. Tou’s other ‘weapons of the weak’ 14 deployed to resist everyday worksite exploitations also make unexpected contributions to cover up the fuel scheme. His employer Zhou, a Cantonese businessman who made it to Laos in the early 1990s, has a habit to arbitrarily expand his staffs’ duty at work, and use abusive Lao language when assigning tasks. Tou has been resisting him non-confrontationally by foot dragging and playing dumb. Once being assigned to re-arrange furniture in Zhou’s office, he deliberately messed up the task by pushing the front side of a bookshelf against the wall. Upon recalling this scene, Zhou commented to me that ‘It is clear this country bumpkin does not have a brain in his head’. Being fooled by Tou’s feigned incompetence, he has lowered his level of vigilance in supervision, thus granting Tou more room to reorient the meanings and practices of everyday work.

While backdoor economies extended out from work provide a breathing space for migrant workers in their off-land livelihood in cities, they simultaneously contain a few pitfalls. An obvious peril lies in that once exposed, they could become excuses for new forms of exploitation. Tou is lucky in this aspect as his fuel scheme remains hitherto invisible from his employer and the mainstream society in general. However, his friend Boun, the front desk receptionist mentioned earlier in the article is not so fortunate. As it is an open secret to all that this type of job comes with abundant opportunities for informal income, his boss had taken that into consideration and offered him a salary disproportionate to his capacity in the first place. Speaking a little English and Chinese, Boun could easily get paid a little more than his current wage if switching to other jobs. What is even worse, as the boss gradually figured out the size of Boun’s derivative income from work, he launched a new policy in the spring of 2018. It stated that Boun had to secure two walk-in customers per time when he was on night shift alone. A roughly 6 USD penalty will be deducted directly from monthly salary every time he fails to meet the task. Following this policy, in one particular month the boss ripped off more than 40 USD from his already meager 130 USD wage. He clearly leveraged Boun’s attachment to lucrative backdoor business in designing this policy.    

Another arguably more dangerous pitfall inherent to backdoor economies is that they inadvertently become integral to the Lao ‘culture of corruption’. 15 It refers to a dominant logic of economic life in this country’ middle to upper social echelon today—exploiting formal systems. A classic example of such is state actors abusing power at hand to benefit themselves and their cronies at the cost of marginalized population. They are able to derive justifications for these activities by flexibly invoking a range of other ideologies to destabilize static western notion of corruption, like traditional Lao phu nyai (big man) patron-client rituals, and chauvinistic nationalism to counter foreign capital. 16 17 Migrant workers, being primarily the victim of Lao elite informality, ironically adopt similar mentalities and tactics in cultivating their backdoor economies. Although labor and gains involved in these two situations are generally incompatible, the fundamental righteousness to play with existing systems resonates. In everyday practices to make their own meaning of work, individuals like Tou and Boun reproduce the cultural logic that pin them in disadvantageous socioeconomic position in the first place. Is there a way for them to survive and thrive in off-land urban livelihoods without reinforcing the culture of corruption?

Kelly Wanjing Chen
PhD candidate, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison
wchen275@wisc.edu

Notes:

  1. Dwyer, M., 2007. Turning land into capital: A review of recent research on land concessions for investment in Lao PDR. Land Issues Working Group, Vientiane, Laos.
  2. Barney, K., 2012. Land, livelihoods, and remittances: A political ecology of youth out-migration across the Lao–Thai Mekong border. Critical Asian Studies, 44(1), pp.57-83.
  3. Portilla, S.G., 2017. Land concessions and rural youth in Southern Laos. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(6), pp.1255-1274.
  4. Phouxay, K. and Tollefsen, A., 2011. Rural–urban migration, economic transition, and status of female industrial workers in Lao PDR. Population, Space and Place, 17(5), pp.421-434.
  5. Phouxay, K., 2010. Patterns of migration and socio-economic change in Lao PDR. Phd Dissertation, Kulturgeografiska Institutionen, Umeå universitet.
  6. Barney, K., 2012.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Rigg, J., 2007. Moving lives: migration and livelihoods in the Lao PDR. Population, Space and Place, 13(3), pp.163-178.
  9. Phouxay, K., 2010.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Vientiane Times. Govt approves minimum wage increase. April 24, 2018. Access by September 30th, 2018. http://www.vientianetimes.org.la/FreeContent/FreeConten_Govt.php
  12. Rigg, J., 2007.
  13. Phouxay, K. and Tollefsen, A., 2011.
  14. Scott, J.C., 1985. Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  15. Scott, J.C., 1985. Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  16. Evans, G., 2002. A Short History of Laos: The Land In Between. Allen & Unwin.
  17. Baird, I.G., 2010. Quotas, powers, patronage, and illegal rent-seeking: the political economy of logging and the timber trade in southern Laos. Forest Trends.

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