Interested in societal perceptions of the term “migration,” I conducted a survey of 53 individuals and asked them to candidly state the first few words that came to mind when they heard the term. Most of the respondents told me their personal opinions on the issue in addition to their word association. The predominant opinions were very similar, each casting migrants in a negative light. Migrants are seen as a drain on the economy, as taking advantage of public resources, as illegitimate, and as criminals. These opinions are not surprising, for this is exactly the type of lens under which many are programmed to view migrants. In the first half of the twentieth century, migrants were viewed as “hordes” flooding our nation, while in the 1980s to 1990s the theme of “alien invasions” dominated the public consciousness: “immigration and invasion, in a paranoid register, became synonyms” (Davis 1998). This type of rhetoric has framed and currently frames the discourse on migration. The media, politicians, and pundits automatically vilify migrants and view them as creatures to be suspicious of. The wording of our federal immigration agencies boldly exemplifies this anxious and hostile mentality: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with these agencies as part of the Department of Homeland Security. The word choice in the naming of these bureaus was deliberate. The language is very militaristic and places the government and its citizens at “war” with migration.
The overarching negative public opinion, demonstrated in the survey, towards migrants is not surprising given the vocabulary used in migration rhetoric. However, one aspect of the survey was unexpected. None of the answers displayed a feminine connotation. Some of the responses were indeed gendered, including “Chinaman” and “Kumar.” The mentioned terms obviously refer to men, with the latter referring to the lead Indian-American character from 2004’s raunchy, slap-stick comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The survey indicates disconnect between the perceptions and the realities surrounding migration. Female migration is not on the public’s radar, so to speak. According to Castles and Miller, a strong trend or tendency associated with contemporary migration is its “feminization” (2009). Women have always played a significant role in all regions and in most types of migration. Since the 1960s, women have played a major role in labor migration, with more women migrating relative to men. Economically motivated migration is no longer a male phenomenon; a female dimension is rapidly growing within the international division of labor, especially within the domestic service industry. This paper takes a gendered approach to migration while focusing on the role of migrant women within the global domestic service industry.
Michael Samers notes that the modern feminization of migration involves an increasing “demand for women to work in what might be called the three Cs—caring, cleaning, and catering” (2010). With those three Cs he is describing the general categories women’s labor falls under. Those general categories are embodied in the domestic service industry, which employs the largest percentage of migrant women (ILO 2011). Domestic service is the employment of workers, mainly migrant women, to perform the tasks of personal service and social reproduction. The International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 189 more generally defines domestic service as “work performed in or for a household or households” (2011). This work may include tasks such as cleaning and maintaining the house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children, elderly or sick members of a family, gardening, guarding the house, driving for the family, even taking care of household pets. This social reproductive labor is delivered personally, sometimes intimately, and often emotionally. Any person engaged in this nature of work within an employment relationship is considered a domestic worker. They may work on a full-time or part-time basis, employed by a single household or multiple employers, residing in the household of the employer or may be living in their own residence. The employer of a domestic worker may be a member of the household, for which the work is performed, or an agency or enterprise that employs domestic workers and makes them available to households. A domestic worker may be working in a country of which he or she is not a citizen. They may or may not have state authorization to work. The specifics of each worker’s situation vary, but the overarching characteristics of domestic service remain.
Domestic service performed by migrant women is inherently contingent and informal. Wages are paid in cash and thus not reported and not taxed. Works hours are flexible and no labor, occupational health or safety laws are observed. There are, of course, no benefits, no unions, and no government oversight. Workers toil “off the books” and are paid “under the table.” Domestic work is performed within the privacy of the home, yielding it largely secluded and invisible. These unregulated and informal conditions leave room for employers to use personal preferences and bias to make decisions about hiring, pay, and treatment of employees. The result is “a workforce that is extremely vulnerable, fearful, [and] uninformed of its rights” (Constable 2007). Their vulnerability is further reinforced by immigration policies, designed to recruit migrant women as contract laborers or temporary workers ineligible for the protections and rights afforded to citizens. Even more than other jobs, work in this sector mainly engages migrant women, usually the poorest among them. Undocumented women are particularly inclined to work within this informal economic sector because their legal status restricts them to certain types of jobs (Chang 2000). This dynamic further marginalizes and isolates undocumented migrant women.
Fifty-three million women worldwide are employed in the domestic service industry (ILO 2010). Why do women proliferate within it? Women who migrate into domestic service are motivated by various sets of reasons and circumstances. An acknowledgement of the women’s agency in making the choice to migrate is important. Migration can be viewed as a modernizing impulse (especially for women from rural areas), as a path to economic independence, or as a source of adventure and liberation. It can actually be empowering for women (Harzig 2006). In those instances, domestic service can be perceived as the “open door” of opportunity that could provide a promising future. Also, as Moya recognizes, “groups who become heavily concentrated in [an] occupation may have developed an advantage in it over those who were under-represented” (2007). They have wider connections and social networks and greater cumulative knowledge and information from primary contacts with family, friends, and fellow care workers; many women are already familiar with the occupation, placing domestic work as a preferable occupation for migrant women.
Demand can also be explained by the stereotyping of these jobs as “feminine” or “women’s work.” Care work has become an occupation that is assumed to be somehow naturally or fundamentally more suited for women. That assumption is thrust upon migrant women who are also seen to be docile, patient, and obedient. These stereotypes are justification for the perpetuation of gender inequality in the division of labor. This is often why women’s labor is under-valued and under-paid. Women are disadvantaged, compared to men, because of a range of factors which include: employers’ assumptions that they are not the primary breadwinners, the expectation that women are temporary workers who will leave to get married, women’s need for part-time work due to family commitments, and gender-based discrimination (Castles and Miller 2009). Together, this may channel migrant women to certain types of jobs or “occupational niches” (Moya 2007).
Overwhelmingly, these are women who have emigrated from poorer, developing countries to work in the richer, more developed countries. The arrival of these workers quenches a high demand for care work attributable to: neoliberal governance or the reduced role of government of richer countries in the social welfare services, the greying or aging of the population in wealthy countries, the rise of dual-earner couples and the limits in the number of hours able/willing to spend on domestic responsibilities, few citizen workers available or are willing to provide these services or are deemed too expensive relative to migrant women, the increase in the size of people’s homes over the last two decades and an apparently growing concern about the appearance of homes (Samers 2010).
Political analysis can also aid in explaining today’s migration of women into domestic service. Since the 1980s, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international financial institutions based in the first world have routinely pressured indebted governments to adopt policies which will maximize a country’s ability to repay its outstanding loans. These prescriptions have included cutting government expenditure on social programs, slashing wages, liberalizing imports, opening markets to foreign investment, expanding exports, devaluing local currency, and privatizing state enterprises (Chang 2000). These policies, known as structural adjustment programs (SAPs), are intended to promote efficiency and sustained economic growth in the adjusting country. In reality, they function to open up developing nations’ economies and peoples to imperialist exploitation. At the Fourth World Conference on Women and the NGO forum in China in 1995, poor women from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East spoke of increasing poverty and rapidly deteriorating nutrition, health, and work conditions that have emerged for women in their countries as a result of SAPs. When wages and food subsidies are cut, women as wives and mothers adjust household budgets often at the expense of their own and their own children’s nutrition. As public health care and education vanish, women suffer from lack of prenatal care and become nurses to ill family members at home, while girls are the first to be kept from school to help at home or join the labor force. When export-oriented agriculture is encouraged, indeed coerced, peasant families are evicted from their lands to make room for corporate farms. When women take on these extra burdens and are still unable to sustain their families, many have no other viable option but to leave their families and migrate in search of work. In the third world, women absorb the costs of cuts in food subsidies and health care by going hungry and foregoing proper medical care. Ironically, these same women continue to pick up the slack for vanishing social supports in the first world by nursing the elderly parents and young children of their employers for extremely low wages. Thus, there is a transferal of costs from the governments of both sending and receiving countries to migrant women workers from indebted nations. In both their home and host countries, and for both their own and their employers’ families, these women pay most dearly for “adjustment.”
Whether working as nannies or housekeepers, in child care or elder care, for the sick or the young, as cooks or nurses, third world migrant women providing these services are not just making a living in low-paying, low-status occupational niches that require little English or few professional skills. In a very crucial way, they too are part of the new transnational division of labor, their paid labor replacing the previously unremunerated responsibilities of first world women in the social reproduction of daily and family life. On a daily and intergenerational basis, they relieve professional first world women of much of the burden of the “second shift.” Such social reproductive labor has always been associated with women’s work and continues to be debased and devalued when industrialized or commoditized, that is, performed for payment by third world migrant women for their largely white, first world “sisters” in an exploitative gendered division of labor. Barbara Ehrenreich has very aptly dubbed this kind of work “outsourcing the work of the home” (2003). This restructured division of domestic labor is an outcome of globalization, or a consequence of the denationalization of economies and a renationalization of politics in the new global economy. This was not inevitable outcome, but it is the way the international economy has come to rely on the labor of migrant women in the domestic service industry.
What am I, a man or a resource?
-Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man
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