How sacrifices of migrant labour fuel economic boom

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Many things have changed in the global economy: rapid movement of large amounts of capital, significantly expanded trade in goods and services, and also more cross-border movement of people, especially in the form of short-term economic migration. And yet, as labour markets in the global economy become at once more integrated and more complex, some crucial things about it, unfortunately, remain the same.

One of these undesirable constants is the gender division of labour, and the fact that the responsibility within the household for all the tasks associated with social reproduction is still dominantly with women in all societies. As countries and regions show different rates of economic growth and reach different stages of development, this leads to a complex form of labour movement, as women in different societies try to relegate some of their work load of household maintenance and care provision on to other women coming from poorer regions or households.

As the process of women migrating on their own for work becomes more widely prevalent, even across countries, this can lead to an international transfer of the job of providing care. This is clearly illustrated, for example, by migrant women workers from the Philippines, many of whom end up doing paid domestic work in their destination countries and areas.

Many such women perform domestic tasks — the labour involved in social reproduction — that are still seen as the basic responsibility of women in all countries. This may be in the more developed industrial societies of Europe or North America, or the more dynamic and rapidly growing developing parts of Asia such as Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, or the oil-exporting countries of West Asia and the Gulf.

The migrant women who come in to perform domestic work and care functions thereby potentially free the local female labour for more active participation in the paid labour market and contribute to the economic growth of the receiving country. At the same time, their own "household responsibilities" back home must be fulfilled by other women, since the gender division of labour at both ends of the migratory spectrum still leaves women primarily responsible for domestic work.

This housework back home is often performed by women relatives, such as mothers, sisters and daughters. But the very large wage differentials across sending and receiving countries can allow such migrant workers in turn to relegate their own domestic work by hiring poorer local women to care for their own children and perform necessary household tasks. In turn, such women may even be migrants from rural areas who have come into cities and towns in search of income.

A study by Rhacel Salazar Parrenas (Migrant female domestic workers and the international division of reproductive labour, Gender and Society, August 2000) describes one such woman who is simultaneously a domestic worker of a professional woman in Rome and an employer of a domestic worker in the Philippines. She describes her relationship to each of these two women: "When coming here, I forced my pride away. But I lost a lot of weight. I was not used to the work. You see, I had maids in the Philippines. I have a maid in the Philippines who has worked for me since my daughter was born 24 years ago. She is still with me. I paid her 300 pesos before and now I pay her 1,000 pesos."

Several features of the process are highlighted by this example. First, the gender division of labour permeates and even drives the migration process, creating demand in the receiving society and enabling migration from the sending society. This reflects the fact that in both regions women have not been able to negotiate a more equal division of labour within the household.

Second, this three-tiered involvement of women in the international transfer of domestic labour becomes an important feature of the accumulation process in the host society. Since social reproduction is still not given its due significance in analysis and public recognition, the contribution of such work is typically unnoticed and unappreciated in the host societies. But such work by migrant women also contributes to the growth of the sending economy through the mechanism of remittances.

Third, it leads to the social phenomenon of "diverted mothering", which has been defined as the process in which the time and energy available for mothering are diverted from those who, by kinship or communal ties, are their more rightful recipients.

Historically, this process of diverted mothering has been observed and analysed in several cases, such as among black female domestic workers in the United States, who had to leave their children behind, saw them infrequently, and instead lavished their time, attention and love on the other more privileged children whom they were paid to care for. But this description can now be just as easily valid for women from developing countries who perform paid domestic work and child care functions in rich industrial countries. And, in turn, their own children back home could then be the recipients of diverted mothering from even lower paid domestic workers.

This is not always an easy process. Salazar Parrenas quotes one such Filipina woman working as a care-giver in a developed country, who is herself the mother of a two-year-old and a five-year-old: "Sometimes when I look at the children that I care for, I feel like crying. I always think about how if we did not need the money, we would all be together and I would be raising my children myself."

In the rapid economic transitions that mark our times, the difficult personal choices and efforts made by such uncelebrated women migrants at different levels — in both destination and home regions — are rarely recognised. But it is such processes and sacrifices that have fuelled the global economic boom that is now unravelling


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on 25 November 2008
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