Yiran Zhang: “Rethinking the Global Governance of Migrant Domestic Workers: The Heterodox Case of Informal Filipina Workers in China”


Abstract: This Article uses an ethnographic case study to challenge the conventional wisdom in international labor law that formality—including formal contracts and special migration programs—always produces better jobs for transnational migrant workers than informality. Interviews with informal Filipina domestic workers in China –often visa overstayers working outside any legally recognized labor migration program –revealed that they earned higher wages and enjoyed more favorable working relative to other Asian labor markets for migrant domestic workers. National regimes of immigration law, which shape the negotiation, formation, and enforcement of the labor contract between the foreign worker and the domestic employer, explain this paradox. This Article argues for using a comparative-bargaining-power framework to evaluate how contracts and background rules in the global care chain distribute power and risk among the parties. It joins the emerging scholarly critiques of the International Labor Organization’s almost exclusive focus on formalization to advance migrant workers’ conditions.

Yiran Zhang is an S.J.D. Candidate at Harvard Law School, with teaching interests in family law, immigration law and employment law. Her ethnographic dissertation research examines the intersection of care work and the informal economy through three case studies involving:  internal migrant workers in China, Filipina domestic workers in China, and childcare subsidy programs in the U.S. She has published in both the United States and China. Her recent work can can be found in the UCLA Women’s Law Journal and is forthcoming in the Georgetown Immigration law Review. Zhang is a member of the New York State Bar, has worked as a policy consultant for WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), a legal intern for the Zhongze Women’s Legal Aid Center, and a judicial intern for the Shanghai High Court.

William E. Forbath is Associate Dean for Research and Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law, University of Texas at Austin, School of Law. He is a constitutional and labor historian, and is the author of dozens of articles, book chapters, and essays on legal and constitutional history and theory, as well as The Constitution of Opportunity (forthcoming Harvard, with Joseph Fishkin) and  Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement (Harvard, 1991).


  • William E. Forbath Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law & Associate Dean for Research, Texas Law
Event series: Colloquia, Fall 2021 Colloquium