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«Work, care and life among low-paid migrant workers in London: towards a migrant ethic of care November 2006 Kavita Datta, Cathy McIlwaine, Yara ...»

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Work, care and life among low-paid migrant workers

in London: towards a migrant ethic of care

November 2006

Kavita Datta, Cathy McIlwaine, Yara Evans,

Joanna Herbert, Jon May and Jane Wills

Department of Geography

Queen Mary, University of London Mile End, London E1 4NS

ISBN: 0-902238-38-8


A care deficit is clearly evident in global cities such as London. This can be attributed to a range of

factors including increased employment of native-born women, an ageing population that needs to be cared for, prevalent gender ideologies which continue to exempt men from much reproductive work, as well as the failure of the state to provide viable alternatives. However, while it is now acknowledged that it is migrant women and to a lesser extent, migrant men, who are stepping in to provide care in cities such as London, there is far less research on how migrants themselves achieve their own work-life or work-care balance. Drawing upon empirical research with low-paid migrant workers in London, this paper will focus first, on providers of care through paid employment as care workers for the elderly, and second, on how migrants across the spectrum of low-paid employment manage their own care responsibilities for children in relation to the worklife balance. In considering both aspects of the care relationships, both in the workplace and at home, we argue for the development of a ‘migrant ethic of care’ that takes full account of the gendered and racialised nature of both paid and unpaid caring. In particular, this involves highlighting the importance of the paid caring work that migrants in cities such as London do, as well as recognising that this caring work in the marketplace can potentially jeopardise the ability of migrants to develop their own viable unpaid work-care strategies in their own lives.

Introduction Researchers have increasingly reflected upon the emergence of global circuits of care which rely upon migrant labour and are the outcome of complex and interconnected social, economic and political processes. Structural transformations in both the Global North and South have fundamentally altered both the nature of work and workers, resulting in the creation of more parttime, less secure work as well as increased pressures and opportunities for women to work (McDowell, 2004; Pearson, 2000). In turn, processes of production are deeply embedded within social reproduction and the everyday (Katz, 2001; see also McDowell, 2004; Mitchell et al., 2004).

The gendering of social reproduction has emerged more or less intact from the turmoil of economic restructuring such that dominant gender ideologies and conventions continue to persist with men rarely taking much responsibility for unpaid reproductive work (Elson, 1999; Windebank, 1999).

Coupled with a declining public provisioning of care in the industrialised North linked with neoliberalism, as well as women’s increased labour force participation and an ageing population (Mitchell et al., 2004; Dyck et al., 2005; Frew, 2006), a ‘care deficit’ has emerged as women struggle to combine their paid labour with their gender ascribed roles of being primary carers of the young, the elderly and the sick (Hochschild, 2000). As suggested above, pressures on women to work in the Global South have also grown apace. Global restructuring and falling wage earning potential among men mean that women’s earning power has gained significance in terms of providing for the family. Yet, opportunities to work are not necessarily found in local spaces leading to the rise of transnational migration, as well as the feminisation of this migration as women migrate abroad to provide for their families (Yeoh, Huang and Lam, 2005). This has led increasingly to what has been referred to as the “global commodification of caretaking” (Parreñas,

2001) and the creation of “global care chains” (Hochschild, 2000). In the latter, women migrants leave their own dependents to be cared for by others, usually family members and/or paid women workers while they move abroad.

In this paper, we want to engage with the above debate yet from a different perspective. First, we want to develop the notion of a migrant ethic of care which recognises not only the importance of gender (taken here to include both women and men) but also its intersection with ethnicity and race in determining care and caring (see Duffy, 2005; Kofman and England, 1997; Nakano Glenn, 1992). Our empirical vantage point is also somewhat different from other research in that while the focus of much research has been on domestic spaces, the care of children, and migrant women working as nannies or domestic servants (Anderson, 2000; Cox and Watts, 2002; Ehrenreich and Hochschild [eds] 2002; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001; Mattingly, 2001; Momsen [ed] 1999), we concentrate instead on migrants who work as domiciliary care providers looking after the elderly and/or the disabled (see also Dyck, 2005; Stark, 2005).

The second and related aim of this paper is to consider the implications of the economic and social processes described above on unpaid caring work within the specific context of the work-life balance of migrant workers, and the implications of this for the construction of a migrant ethic of care. Broadly defined as the right of individuals to work while not damaging their freedom to pursue activities and responsibilities outside the workplace (Houston, 2005; Taylor, 2002), research on the work-life balance reflects two main preoccupations. For a start, while ‘work’ clearly refers to paid productive work, ‘life’ encompasses a range of activities and responsibilities (Ungerson and Yeandle 2005). Yet, the focus has often been on social reproduction leading some to argue that a more appropriate term would be “work-family integration” (ibid.) or “work-care strategies” (Wall and José, 2004). Here, we refer to this as the ‘work-care-life’ balance and strategies. Furthermore, it is a concept which is strongly mediated by class such that achieving a work-life balance is largely a pursuit of the middle classes (Jarvis, 1999), and one which often relies upon migrant labour (Ehrenreich and Hochschild [eds], 2002). Taking migrant labour as our starting point, we explore how migrant men and women who are employed in low-paid jobs attempt to strike a work-care-life balance themselves. Furthermore, we attempt to adopt a wider perspective on ‘life’ or what Mitchell et al. (2004) refer to as the “life’s work” in that we focus on not only the upaid work of social reproduction but also voluntary and community life which are often critical to an ethic of care ‘of the self.’ In considering both aspects of the care relationships, in the workplace and at home, we argue for the development of a ‘migrant ethic of care’ that takes full account of the intersections between the two as well as the gendered and racialised nature of both paid and unpaid caring. In particular, this involves highlighting the importance of the paid caring work that migrants in cities such as London do, as well as recognising that this caring work in the marketplace can potentially jeopardise the ability of migrants to develop their own viable unpaid work-care-life strategies in their own lives.

Care, work and the work-care-life balance “We need to value care as our most valuable resource, and to notice where it comes from, and where it ends up” (Hochschild, 2002, p.30).

Care and caring have become a renewed focus of research in recent times (Conradson, 2003; Dyck et al., 2005; Parr, 2003; Popke, 2006). It is perhaps instructive to begin by defining what care means, while also acknowledging that definitions are contested. As Dyck (2005) argues, care is simultaneously a construction, a process and an achievement that includes family care, home making and health care, but also encompasses physical activity as well as emotional work. In delineating these various dimensions further, Duffy (2005) provides a useful conceptualisation that identifies two overlapping perspectives: nurturance and reproductive labour. The former reflects an attempt to move beyond defining care work by the dependency of care receivers, towards an approach that emphasises relationality and interdependence as well as the emotional dimensions of caring based on human relationships. The latter draws on early Marxist feminist work that emphasises the work that is required to maintain the labour force and focusing on non-relational domestic labour. While the two obviously intersect, the key distinction revolves around the emotional connections usually attributed to nurturing care rather than reproductive labour.

Beyond these broad definitional issues, research on care and caring has concentrated on two broad areas: conceptual debates about the ethics of care and the intersections between this and citizenship, rights and justice (Cockburn, 2005; Conradson, 2003; Stahaeli and Brown, 2003) and the spatiality of care ranging from the body to the home to institutional care (to which a special issue of Social and Cultural Geography (2003) is dedicated). Gender, or more specifically, women emerge as central figures in much of this research and the reasons for this relate to hegemonic notions of women’s roles and responsibilities, that while mutable, have also proved to be very persistent (Windeman, 1999). Not only do women predominate as care providers (both paid and unpaid), but the norms of the nuclear family and the gendering of labour herein explicitly marks care as feminized work, associated with ideals attributed to femininity.1 In reflecting on this concentration of women in caring McKie et al. (2001, p.236) note: “ Caring itself is an activity in which both subtle and not so subtle relations of power can be expressed, as well as something usually relegated to social subordinates”.

Briefly elaborating on these two sets of debates and especially on the meaning of care and caring, Conradson (2003: 251) defines an ethic of care as a sense of connection to, and engagement with, unfamiliar others which has a significant bearing upon the quality of collective social life. As such, the ethic of care is based upon not just “a sense of others but also for others.” Feminists have played a critical role in re-evaluating the concept of care over the last two decades leading to the emergence of a distinct feminist ethics of care (Tronto, 1993; Cockburn, 2005) which proponents argue encompasses a more holistic vision of care. Fisher and Tronto (1990) identify four phases of caring: caring about which involves being aware of, and paying attention to, the need for caring and the factors that determine survival and well-being; caring for which occurs when someone assumes responsibility to meet a need that has been identified; care giving which includes both individuals and organisations that meet caring needs and finally care recipients or the interactions between care givers and care-receivers (Fisher and Tronto, 1990).

As such, a feminist ethics of care recognises that peoples’ needs are met at a variety of levels (including the individual, institutional and political, public and private) and that care is relational in that it involves both care givers and recipients. Indeed, not only is care an activity that concerns everyone, it is also of the self and others (Kofman, 2006). Furthermore, it comprises of caring activities (which Cockburn [2005] refers to as the ‘activity of caring’) which are informed by a moral set of values (such as caring, respect, trust) which govern interactions in a range of social fields (Kofman, 2006). A feminist ethic of care also depends upon an enlarged vision of politics understood as pertaining not only to the public realm of formal politics but also an envisioning of the personal as political as well as a focus on the everyday world of social reproduction and on acts which are governed not only by money but also by love, affection and trust (Stahaeli and Brown, 2003). As such, feminists have been at pains to reconcile the ethics of care with broader arguments around citizenship by stressing that the care of young or older people is as valuable as paid work and that care work constitutes a moral activity which is informed by an understanding of others’ needs (McDowell et al., 2005b; McKie et al., 2001).

Yet, ‘the’ feminist ethics of care are not a homogenous set of ideas and there has been considerable debate over the interpretation of care from this perspective (Cockburn, 2005). For a start, despite the identification of care-receivers above, there is an appreciation that the focus of much research has been on care providers such that the former are largely silent (Cockburn, 2005; although see Dyck et al., 2005). Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the power relations which potentially exist between the care provider and user and the implications that these have for the latter. Based as it is upon a needs perspective (Tronto, 1993), a feminist ethic of care does not always acknowledge who determines needs, and whose needs are important. Fundamentally, however, a true ethics of care should consider the needs of both the care recipient and the care provider (see below; also Dyck et al., 2005). Perhaps the more pertinent criticism here is that while gender is evidently the starting point of much analysis, there is less consideration of how it intersects with other crucial axis of differences such as race and ethnicity (Dyck, 2005). Feminists themselves acknowledge that prevalent understandings of care are usually based on the perspective of white middle class women and relate to the caring of people who are either related by birth (children) or marriage (Cockburn, 2005). Yet, while the intersections of gender and class have been taken into consideration within the context of care provision (Gregson and Lowe 1994; Hansen and Pratt, 1995), there is less appreciation of how gender, class and ethnicity/race intersect despite some ground-breaking work in the US (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2000; Nakano Glenn, 1992, Romero, 1992) and in Europe (Kofman, 2004).

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