European policies in the wake of the globalisation of care work

cobweb with waterAs a result of the increasing outsourcing of care work from the private, unpaid area, transnational care chains arising. Photo: Steve Corey. Creative Commons LizenzvertragThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

1. Transnational migration, care drain and the consequences for the countries of origin and the receiving countries

Women’s increasing integration into the labour market comes with a crisis of care systems and the development of a labour market for care work. Increasingly women migrate to richer countries to seek employment in the care sector, hoping their salary will improve the living conditions of their families. These women need other women to take over the care work in their homes, which leads to the creation of care chains out of the relationship between care workers in the global north and care workers in the global south (Hochschild 2001). The UN-INSTRAW project defines care chains as transnational networks that enable the reproduction of everyday life. They consist of households that delegate care work to other households along axes of power such as ethnicity, social class and country of origin (Perez Orozco, 2009a: 2009b).

The expression ‘care chain’ is a metaphor that highlights the shift of social and emotional capital from the countries of the global south to the countries of the global north. The concept of a socio-emotional ‘commons’ is helpful in understanding these shifts (Widding Isaksen, Sambasivan and Hochschild 2009). Socio-emotional commons constitute an emotional capital that is exchanged within a community and from which all members of the community benefit. They represent a common good and build on the principle of ‘generalised reciprocity’. In this sense global care chains are anchored in the socio-emotional networks of relations and communities of giving and taking in the global south. When mothers emigrate communities lose a part of their social and emotional resources. Societies in the north then appropriate the care capital of the south in order to secure their care and reproductive needs. Care chains seen in this light reflect a colonial relation in which instead of raw materials the social good of emotional work is (cheaply) acquired by the north. This enables developed countries to earn a care surplus, whilst the less developed countries experience a care drain (Hochschild 2001; Hochschild und Ehrenreich 2004) and a deepening care crisis (Parreñas 2001). Social solidarity in the countries of the global south is thereby undermined by the north’s care labour market. In the societies of origin decreasing reproductive capacity is seen most clearly in the changes in the relationships between mothers who emigrate and their children. With their concept of a transfer of social and emotional resources through care chains, Widding Isaksen, Sambasivan and Hochschild (2009) have shown that the costs of migration cannot merely be equated with the private costs of individual members of a community, but instead must also be seen as a cost to the community as a whole. In other words, they must be understood as a social and political problem. In particular the effects of the emigration of mothers on the psycho-social development of their children are hotly contested. So-called ‘transnational motherhood’ has very specific characteristics (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997, Parreñas 2001, Shinozaki 2003, Lutz 2007). Even when children are taken care of by other people, the relationship between the absent mother and her children persists and is maintained despite the physical distance between the family members. Whereas the mother-child relationship was previously based around direct care, it develops into care through money that allows children an adequate livelihood and a good education. Love is expressed through material goods which leads to a commodification of motherhood (Parreñas 2001). Whereas some researchers have focussed on the children’s problematic psycho-social development (Parreñas 2004; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997) other researchers have shown that families can successfully adapt to the migration of mothers and that new arrangements develop within families (Gamburd 2000). The question of the impact on children puts feminist scholars under pressure, because it can be used to reinforce gender stereotypes (Widding Isaksen, Sambasivan and Hochschild 2009).

2. Care chains and the development of hierarchies of power between women

Care chains establish complex relations of social power and powerlessness between women. As a workplace the household is a place where the private and the public spheres overlap. The paradoxical simultaneity of professional distance and intimacy that results from this situation informs the relationship between employers and migrant workers in ambiguous ways (Anderson 2007). On the employers’ side, egalitarian social principles have become dominant and internalised making it difficult to deal with the class differences produced by domestic work. A frequently used strategy is therefore to redefine class differences in terms of ethnic or cultural differences (Lutz 2007). Another strategy is to interpret working relations in terms of providing help to migrants in need of work (Anderson 2005).

But for the migrants too their class position is contradictory. For most, migrating into care work represents a loss of social status. A middle class job, academic qualifications, and relevant work experience are all exchanged for a job in a richer country’s care economy. The reason behind this is that these migrants were unable to maintain their family with the salary from more highly-qualified work in their countries of origin. But this de facto social decline (working in a job that is socially not as highly recognised) is accompanied by a higher salary which, in the social context of the country of origin, represents a rise in social status. This contradictory heterotopic social ascent is reinforced by the fact that the migrant caregiver is herself in the position of an employer to the woman/migrant whom she now pays to take care of her own children in her country of origin (Shinozaki 2005).

Whilst on the one hand there is a huge difference in power between the migrant and her employer which clearly separates the two women from each other, relationships of consolidation develop between women in their countries of origin. Migrants frequently send remittances to other women in their families, but far less frequently to men. Consequently, men take on less responsibility for children and are less active in these processes. In contrast, as both breadwinners and caregivers, the role of women is collectively strengthened in their countries of origin (Anderson and Phizaclea n.d.).

3. The care diamond: care chains embedded in public, market, and non-market structures

Embedded in care regimes that can be public, market, or community structures, care chains are complex and diverse (Yeates 2005). To highlight this embeddedness some researchers use the metaphor of the care diamond. The care diamond has four corners: families as the main caregivers, the market where care services are organised, third sector welfare organisations which organise a mix of paid and unpaid care services, and finally the state, which offers formalised care services in the form of the school and healthcare systems and by granting people access to basic care services through social security (Kofman and Raghuram 2009). Often the borders between these four corners cannot be drawn clearly and complex processes take place within and between them resulting in overlaps and mixed forms. For example, family care needs are covered by buying migrant labour on the market under conditions regulated not only by the market but also by the state, such as regulations specifically aimed at migrants. In this way the care diamond highlights the complex context in which care work is embedded.

4. The policy environment of care chains: the example of Germany

Migrant work in the care and domestic services sectors is organised in the context of family, public, market, and third sector non-profit settings. In Germany these settings mean domestic services and care work occupy a grey area of informal employment and irregular immigration. Socio-political attempts to formalise such employment through tax incentives (for example through tax allowances for domestic services) or by expanding part-time employment have rarely proven successful (Kontos et al. 2006). If we take a look at the large segment of migrant care workers employed in domestic care for the elderly then it becomes clear that the informal part of such nursing care is set within the framework of care regime regulations. For example, the law on long-term care insurance (Pflegeversicherungsgesetz) is based on the idea that care should be organised by family members and undertaken by paid employees. The provision of more time off work for carers and the latest reform of the inheritance laws (‘whoever cares for relatives, inherits’) aim to encourage family members to care for elderly relatives. The central role played by immigrants in care remains invisible and is not taken into account. In 2002, public pressure led to the possibility of officially employing immigrants as domestic workers for the care of the elderly. But jobs that contribute to social insurance are very expensive, and most households cannot afford them, which means that only a few immigrants are actually legally employed (Kontos and Shinozaki 2010, Frings 2009).

The care diamond also points to the different combinations of legal conditions that create different types of care chains. An example is the structure of care chains that developed through inner-European migration after the collapse of the socialist economies. In Germany, carers from eastern European countries organise their work by rotating with other migrants in an attempt to balance their salaried care work with their own (unpaid) care responsibilities. This has led to the interruption of care chains: these carers spend three months in Germany and then return home for three months. In the meantime a fellow migrant takes on the work in Germany and then they switch again. Thus the traditional caring mother role in the family is at least partially secured (Metz-Göckel et al. 2008). Generally, for such a care chain to work, the country of origin must be geographically close to the country of work, travel costs must be affordable and immigration laws must make it possible to cross the border. In a similar way, migrant carers from the Ukraine who work as carers in Poland have developed rotational patterns which are dictated as much by their own care responsibilities as by ruling visa regulations (Slany et al. 2007). In contrast, migrants from geographically more distant locations or from countries where stricter entry regulations apply are faced with lengthy absences from their families. Care chains in these cases are continuous and last longer. Interrupted care chains may therefore express a certain autonomy among migrants and provide a creative way of dealing with the dilemma between working in a foreign country and the need to physically take care of their own families.

Since the EU’s eastern enlargement in 2004 the legal conditions for the employment of immigrant carers from eastern Europe have changed. In spite of postponing the free movement of workers from new EU member states to the year 2011, the EU directive on services in the internal market did enable migrants from Eastern Europe to legally subcontract to companies based in the new EU member states. This has been particularly relevant to people employed in Germany as carers for the elderly. Their salaries are not higher than those paid in irregular employment; German labour regulations do not apply; and they are virtually barred from gaining union representation in Germany. Therefore, although EU enlargement has legalised migrant care work, bad working conditions and low pay are far from being abolished. Many of the subcontracted workers in Germany work under the same three monthly rhythm that was and continues to be observed by migrants in irregular employment (Frings 2009). In reality, the new situation has had no effect on the established patterns of periodically interrupted care chains.

5. The overall political conditions in the countries of origin

Remittances from emigrants are an important source of income to many countries. In the Philippines this type of income accounts for 5.2% of GDP (O’Neill 2004). The Filipina care worker abroad has become a national hero in official discourse at home. Her life full of privations and the money she sends not only ensures the economic survival of her family, her efforts also stabilise the economy (Shinozaki 2008).

            Next to this ‘heroic’ discourse there is also a diametrically opposed, deprecating and moralising discourse critical of emigration that describes migrants as consumer-oriented ‘deserters’ from difficult living conditions. Strong criticism of emigration to Western Europe in Polish media points to the ‘Euro-orphans’, abandoned by their mothers or parents who left for Western Europe and who are raised by relatives or in orphanages. These discourses are on the one hand tightly bound to the balance of powers and interests in society as well as to ideas about gender roles. On the other they are also embedded in larger political projects for socio-economic development. In Poland, for example, the discourse critical of emigration is also a discourse critical of capitalism and the consequences of the transformation of the former socialist societies (Shinozaki 2008).

Because of the economic importance of remittances many governments have developed policies that support emigration. Some countries prepare emigrants for their work abroad. An example is the Sri Lankan programme ‘From Sri Lanka to Tuscany’. In cooperation with the International Organization for Migration women are offered a course in Italian, trained as ‘personal care assistants’ and then looked after in Italy (Shinozaki 2008). With money from the European Social Fund, unemployed women in Poland are provided with language courses and trained as caregivers to work in Italy (Kontos et al. 2009). Some Asian countries however maintain a restrictive female emigration policy. India only allows women older than thirty to emigrate for care work. By this age women are expected to have already formed a family and will therefore regularly send back the money they earn. It is also more likely that they will return home in the future (Shinozaki 2008, OSCE 2009). Some Asian countries have also developed an infrastructure to protect their emigrants abroad. For decades the Philippines has been organising the orderly and temporary emigration of its citizens. Bilateral and regional trade agreements include clauses to protect the rights of Filipino emigrants overseas. Social benefit payments to emigrants and returnees are supervised by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. A special identity card for emigrants may also be used as a visa and reduces the costs involved in transfering remittances (O’Neil 2004). In Philippine embassies labour-attachés are tasked with helping emigrants with any problems they face. Sri Lanka has founded the Bureau of Foreign Employment for its emigrant workers (Schwenken 2009). But in spite of the effort by the Philippine government to create a formal framework for emigration, the country has not been able to stop irregular emigration, which accounts for a large percentage of the total number of emigrants. Most irregular emigrants are employed in the care sector (O’Neil 2004).

6. Perspectives for transnational care chains within the framework of European policy

Care regimes in European countries are maintained with the informal labour of irregular emigrants. This is the case, as this type of work calls for extreme flexibility due to its familial and maternal character. The willingness of emigrants to do this work is based precisely on the fact that they have transferred their own care responsibilities to others. This is then the process through which transnational care chains are established. Migrants become available for salaried care work because they can delegate their own care responsibilities. An emigration of women together with their families, that is, with their children, would mean they would have to fulfil their own care responsibilities. This would be incompatible with the principle of availability and would lead to the dissolution of transnational care chains. The 24-hour availability of migrants could not be maintained if entire families were allowed to emigrate or join them at a later time. If we wish to speak about the existing link between transnational care chains, social exclusion, and social rights, then it is necessary to speak about the migrants’ right to care, which means the right to receive care, the right to care for themselves, as well as the right to care for others.

There is an extensive literature on the specific working and living conditions of migrant carers. The private nature of the workplace as well as irregular emigration and the informality of the work are viewed as central causes of the precarious living and working conditions faced by carers. Current EU immigration regimes only insufficiently regulate the immigration of migrant carers. One out of five irregular workplaces in Europe is a job in the domestic work and/or care sector (Williams and Renooy 2009).

The isolated nature of work within a household makes it difficult for immigrant carers to organise themselves ethnically or otherwise. Many belong to religious groups, but due to a lack of identification with their work they are hardly ever organised as members of a group engaged in the same work. It is mainly immigrants from the Philippines that have joined together in the transnational organisation RESPECT. A reason could be that as described above they are considered ‘heroes’ in their home country and this probably makes it easier for them to identify with salaried care work.

RESPECT’s approach is to fight the victimisation of immigrant domestic workers and to gain recognition for domestic and care work as normal work (Schwenken 2006, 2007). It is the private character of the workplace that has made it difficult to see care work as real work. In many countries employment legislation ignores care work, and unions – with the exception of unions in southern European countries – neglect the issue. (Gallotti 2009).

EU care policy does not prioritise fighting the care crisis (Lisbon Strategy 2000, Europe 2020, 2010). What is more, in texts concerning the improvement of care for the elderly in Europe the migrant work is not even mentioned. Instead, the focus for care is put on the family members of those in need of care, and professional nursing services. In immigration policy an attempt was made at the beginning of the decade to develop a joint policy for migrant workers but binding regulations were only implemented for highly skilled immigrants. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that in November 2000 the European Parliament passed a resolution on the need to regulate and provide rights to irregular immigrants working as ‘domestic labour’ (European Parliament 2000). This resolution however had no further effects on the legislative work of the EU commission.

More frequently it is transnational labour organisations that raise the question of labour rights for migrant caregivers. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has been demanding the recognition of care work by immigrants as regular work for a number of years (ETUC 2005). In 2008, the International Labour Organisation decided to discuss the issue of decent work for migrant carers at their 2010 conference with the goal of setting out acceptable working conditions for domestic workers. It is expected that this will strengthen the work of unions in this area.

Both ETUC and the ILO as well as the resolution by the European parliament in November 2000 focus primarily on the lack of labour rights for immigrants. But to break the vicious cycle between care, social inequality and exclusion, the care needs and rights of immigrants must be recognised. What is missing in the discussion on care rights is an ethical perspective. Although the ILO report on which the discussion of the domestic work sector during the 2010 conference will be based does include a chapter on maternity protection and the recognition of carers’ own care responsibilities towards their families, this only refers to the issue of maternity leave (ILO 2010). There is no mention of the specific situation of immigrants bound into transnational care chains and no recognition of the care responsibilities and needs of migrant workers towards their own family members who continue to live in the migrant’s country of origin.

Many female migrant carers hope to escape from work situations where they are exploited and oppressed, or from bad marriages. Others simply want to work abroad for some time before returning home and therefore do not want to emigrate together with their family and children. Nonetheless most of them suffer due to separation from their children and not being able to care for them themselves. The debate on the rights of migrant carers must therefore take into account the fact that care for one’s own children or other family members is also a right which migrants are denied but would like to have. Today, it is especially the right of migrants to give care that is not being respected (Perez Orozco 2009a).

A right to care does not only mean a right to receive care in times when a person becomes dependent on others. The right to care is also the right to decide whether one wants to care for others and under which conditions they want to do so (Perez Orozco 2009b). The right to care also includes the right to care for oneself (Küchenhoff 1999). Under current working conditions in domestic care, carers do not have these rights. Instead, they must be permanently available, they have no privacy, no sociality of their own, no family life, and it is not clear what will happen to them when they become old.

Consequently, it is important to recognise the rights of migrants to a family life and so to be reunited with their families. But if families are reunited then transnational care chains would cease to exist which in turn would mean that care work would have to become regular work. This can only be achieved through considerable socio-political changes and a radical reorganisation and redistribution of care work. This could be done by providing households with public money, by professionalising care work and raising its social standing as well as by legalising migrant workers. Clearly this would mean the corners of the care diamond would have to be reconfigured and the public share in care work would rise at the cost of the care provided by the market.

This text is based on a contribution to the discussion The Care Economy as a future economic model: political approaches and perspectives for a sustainable and gender equitable economy presented by the Gunda-Werner-Institute on February 10 2010 in Berlin.


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