Refugee labor and capitalist frontier-making in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Authors: Shae Frydenlund*, University of Pennsylvania
Topics: Economic Geography, Urban Geography, Gender
Keywords: labor, frontiers, refugees, surplus populations, Myanmar, Malaysia
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 42
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


An estimated 4 million undocumented workers, including 100,000 Rohingya and Myanmar Muslim refugees, feed, build, and clean Kuala Lumpur as precarious, flexibilized, and low-wage produce distribution, construction, and waste workers. Yet refugees' participation in city-making work also depends on the vast quantities of unpaid work performed by refugee women who care for their loved ones. This paper analyzes the relationship between precarious wage work, unpaid refugee women's labor and city-making in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork and data from a suite of qualitative feminist methods, this research details how securitization, discipline, and abandonment enable Malaysian capital to download rising costs of production and devaluation onto refugees themselves. I argue that, in a combination of “serendipity and strategy,” (Moore 2015) Rohingyas’ expulsion from Myanmar and their securitization as “illegal” immigrants and “bogus refugees” (Mountz 2010) articulate with the imperatives of Malaysian capital to create conditions suitable for a cheap labor frontier that - rather than expanding outward geographically - turns inward toward radicalized and gendered bodies.


Works cited

Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Brooklyn: Verso.
Mountz, Alison. 2010. Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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