Migration: ‘Without us, the world would not turn’

By María Ximena Dávila April 17, 2019

Understanding the concept of a global care chain allows us to understand the impact of migrant caregivers and domestic workers worldwide.

Elizabeth migrated from Bolivia to Spain to work, leaving her family in La Paz. She works in domestic labor. Source: Overseas Development Institute, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Eulalia is Ecuadorian and has lived in Spain for three years. She does live-in domestic work and cares for an elderly couple. She migrated out of a need to support her parents and granddaughter, however after she left, she only saw her mother once before she passed away. Eulalia says she’s been gone long enough and wants to return to Ecuador.

Norma is from Paraguay and has been working for nine years as a domestic worker in Spain. She sees herself as an “eternal migrant,” as she has worked for the last 20 years outside of her country, always in some kind of caregiving role. Like Eulalia, she travelled in search of new work opportunities to support her family.

Martha is 48 years old and has spent six years living on the outskirts of Madrid. She cares for the children of a Spanish family. She has worked as a domestic employee, always live-in, in Germany and Spain. She says that not long ago her visa expired, so her migration status is now irregular. That’s why she hasn’t returned to Colombia, where she was born. According to her, European families “see us as very caring people,” and for that reason, they prefer to have Latina women care for their children.

These three stories are the centrepiece of a documentary produced by the Network of Latin American and Caribbean Women in Spain (la Red de Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe en España). The documentary depicts, through the life paths of Eulalia, Norma and Martha, the common conditions that affect domestic migrant workers. The three protagonists travelled from Latin American countries to Europe. All three left their families in their home countries. All three are live-in workers, which means they live in the same space as their employers. All three want to return to their countries.

How can we explain these shared experiences? What factors are behind these three journeys? The complicated relationship between migration flows and hospitality care was first highlighted by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who coined the phrase ‘global care chains’. These networks are predicated on an increasing demand in the Global North and the precarious economic situation of women in the Global South. For Hochschild, a typical example of a global care chain looks like this: a woman from Asia or Latin America wants to provide a better future for her family and so migrates to a European country to work in domestic services. In turn, this migration generates a deficit of care in countries in the Global South, particularly for the families of migrant women. This scarcity results in the unpaid labour of other women; usually girls, teenagers, or older women from the same family or social group. Eulalia, Norma, and Martha, in leaving their families in their home countries, become the first link in a chain that is formed by them and by the other women who now care for the people they would have looked after – such as children or parents.

Related: Venezuelan migrants in limbo

The concept of global care chains does not only describe South-North interchanges, they can also develop between countries within the Global South, or between rural and urban contexts. In these different scenarios, all of the care chains are feminised phenomena. As feminists have been saying for more than a century, the division of labour is not just a question of class, but also a question of gender. For this reason, domestic labour and caretaking tend to be attributed to women, girls, and feminised subjects.

But why talk about care chains? What’s so important about this idea? Care chains help us to understand the way in which migratory exoduses support a gendered division of labour both  transnationally and nationally. In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than a third of migrants are domestic workers who work informally, without a fair salary, and are victims of economic, physical, and psychological violence. The problem, therefore, is not that migrants work as caretakers – in fact, many feminist fights have sought to recognise this as dignified work when given sufficient labour guarantees. The problem is that it is their only alternative in a world that still looks down upon this labour.

Some – like Eulalia, Norma, and Martha – work as ‘live-in’ employees, blurring the line between work and private lives. Live-in domestic employees work as many as 18 hours per day for an insufficient salary. In one part of the documentary, Eulalia says it clearly: “You’re there for the whole day, always available for them.” This limits any possibility to have a personal life, as it subjects the women’s behaviour to the vigilance of their employers. Even those who don’t live in suffer negative consequences: the majority live on the outskirts of large cities and spend close to 20% of their salary on transportation.

As the care chain develops, so it becomes more complex – though the complexities vary from situation to situation and country to country. Researchers Camila Esguerra and Friedrike Fleischer found that it’s not only the high demand in urban areas or Global North, but also the internal armed conflict that pushes Colombian women into care chains. Due to the multiple effects of the conflict, women have had to flee their territories, most ending up displaced in urban centres. No matter their work experience, the majority of these women find only one path forward: working in domestic services and subjecting themselves to a precarious salary for long hour. While Colombia has a legal framework that guarantees labour rights to domestic workers, official numbers show that 85% of domestic workers remain within the informal economy  – and this number could be higher due to underreporting. Those that enter this informal labour market must turn to neighbours, women in their families, or to the family wellbeing program (Bienestar Familiar) to care for their children, parents, or older relatives.

Cases like Colombia illustrate the implications of global care chains for women in the Global South, from rural environments, or from ethnic-racial groups. They show us that care chains are not only characterised by the gendered division of labour, but also by a racial division. According to Esguerra and Fleischer, the racial order established in the region generates disproportionate effects on the experiences of afro, indigenous, and rural women who, facing displacement and discrimination, only have access to poorly compensated work as caretakers. The consequence, then, is that these women end up being considered natural for this kind of work in urban centres.

Understanding such dynamics, then, is important because it discourages us from labelling migrant women as care givers par excellence. By understanding why certain women from certain regions end up doing certain work, we can start to recognise the fact that the majority of domestic workers are migrants in precarious situations. It allows us, for example, to be critical of the fact that various classified ad sections in Colombia have announcements like, “Live-in Venezuelan Needed” or “Looking for a Venezuelan Woman for Live-In Work.” In other words, it helps us not to accept labour exploitation as a response to the vulnerability of migrants.

Finally, care chains are a useful concept because they bring us closer to the broader question of the contribution of women to economic development. On occasion, we forget that many men and women are only able to go work because there are other women that clean their home, care for their children, and cook for them. We also forget that this is not always a labour based in love, affection, or care, but is strenuous, exhausting, and thankless. In 2016, activist and domestic worker Rafaela Pimentel gave a talk where she forcefully stated: “without us, the world would not turn – at least, not your world.” Pimentel’s message is clear. The world – above all, an urban, “developed,” Global North world – would not function without these women; and yet, their work remains invisible, is taken for granted, and is not recognised or paid as it deserves.

María Ximena Dávila is a researcher for Dejusticia, a research and advocacy organisation dedicated to strengthening the rule of law and promoting human rights. This article was originally published on their website.