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Using wisdom in migration

Professor wins award for interviewing migrants, investigating 'broker wisdom'


Portrait of ASU Assistant Professor Andrew Le.

ASU Assistant Professor Andrew Le

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January 17, 2023

Millions of people around the world migrate to find employment. It’s risky and it’s dangerous, but in some countries it’s the best way to earn a higher wage. 

Vietnam relies heavily on migration, being one of the top countries for remittances year after year. But its migration system works differently than you might expect. Instead of a government-run migration system, the country relies on privatization, meaning citizens need to go through local brokers for migration and employment services. 

Researchers have debated the merits of this system, with some saying that brokers provide opportunities for migrants to find success, and others arguing that brokers have an unfair advantage in this system. Few, however, have personally interviewed migrants and brokers to hear their viewpoints.

Assistant Professor Andrew Le, who teaches sociology courses such as SOC 378: Migration and Society in Arizona State University's T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, spent 15 months in Vietnam and conducted 224 interviews to hear the stories of migrants and brokers. In his paper, which won the Sociological Forum's 35th anniversary Graduate Student Paper Competition, Le describes how migrants use “broker wisdom” to navigate Vietnam’s privatized system. 

What is broker wisdom?

Put simply, broker wisdom is a form of migratory street smarts. According to Le’s research, migrants have developed characteristics that help them regain a sense of control in an environment where they lack the advantage.

These characteristics involve assertive and, in some cases, aggressive behaviors meant to help migrants stand out and show grit. In one case, Le was present for a lunch meeting in which a migrant questioned a broker relentlessly, asking when he could work abroad. The migrant later explained, “I must make (brokers) aware that I am a veteran soldier. ... I cannot be tricked.”

Le also witnessed migrants refusing to follow brokers’ advice, such as declining to take foreign language classes to increase their employability, or blatantly disregarding brokers’ advice when interviewing with a foreign employer. 

During his research, Le witnessed a broker tell a migrant exactly what to say in a job interview, only to have the migrant go off script and ask his own questions. The migrant later explained, “I want to work in Japan on my terms. If I listen to (the broker), I’ll sound like a naive man, that I’ll just ‘yes, yes’ to everything. They might hire me, but they’ll try to take advantage of me.”

Le also observed that migrants traveled together to negotiate with brokers, even bringing their parents along. This is a powerful method because in Vietnam, it’s unacceptable to be rude to elderly family members. One migrant said, “The broker might be rude to ... or try to lie to us (potential migrants), but they can’t be disrespectful to their elders. There are some Vietnamese customs even they cannot break.”

At the end of the day, broker wisdom is a “covert form of resistance” and a sign of distrust, Le says, as migrants expect brokers to be exploitative. One experienced migrant explained, “The big crane (broker) eats the small crane (migrant), so they look for an easy meal. We will inevitably get eaten by a bigger crane, but you must make it difficult for them.”

What about the brokers’ point of view? 

During Le’s research, he spent part of the time living with brokers and shadowing their day-to-day work. He learned that from the brokers’ side, it’s frustrating when migrants don’t listen to or trust them. One veteran broker complained, “When I help, they ignore my advice ... like I’m the ignorant one.”

To avoid wasting time, brokers then learn to prioritize migrants that listen and cooperate, as they are easier to work with. In this way, broker wisdom can be self-sabotaging. Migrants try to stand out from the crowd by negotiating and being hard to cheat, but this has its costs. Le says this is a dilemma — the more migrants try to prove their competence through contentious behavior, the more brokers want to work with naive migrants.

Despite this problem, some migrants still say their tactics were useful in securing a higher-paying job with better conditions. Others say the strong negotiations helped initially, but they faced other problems related to pay and treatment once they began working abroad. 

“These mixed responses point to the complexity of considering broker wisdom’s efficacy,” Le says. “Although it is essential, interactions with brokers are only one of several relationships that migrants must navigate in their quest to work abroad on their own terms.”

Takeaways

Le feels his research helped paint a clearer picture of the effects of privatization and the journeys migrants face in seeking better opportunities. His project shows “how the relationship between states and brokers is deeply enmeshed” as “states have allowed migrant brokers much power in their desire to control borders,” he says. Broker wisdom also shows that migrants want to be active in determining their fates, and they will develop tactics to do so.

“The story I tell hopefully resonates with Americans as the United States is a land of immigrants, with many of us having cherished family stories of such immigrant ingenuity,” Le says. “In some ways, broker wisdom is an extension of such stories.”

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