«Work, care and life among low-paid migrant workers in London: towards a migrant ethic of care November 2006 Kavita Datta, Cathy McIlwaine, Yara ...»
Overall, the narratives of the migrant care workers reflect how while they were not economically successful in London, their code of conduct and attitudes, particularly the respect and compassion they bestowed on others, positioned them as morally superior to the British. Their own principles, values and systems of care and caring are given a new emphasis in the context of their experiences in Britain. This moral superiority was further strengthened by a range of ways in they valorised their work through emphasising the nurturing dimensions of their occupations, with a particular focus on developing quasi familial relationships with clients. This allowed them to protect and enhance their self-esteem and dignity especially in light of the racial and ethnic discrimination that many experienced (Lamont, 2000; Vertovec, 2006). Therefore, the ethic of care created by these migrant workers revolved around moral fortitude, respect, nurturing, and resilience in the face of discrimination and the imposition of care plans that many felt to be inappropriate and ungenerous in providing care for their clients. Thus, these workers dedicate and invest a lot in their jobs, providing, in many cases, a level of care over and above what is required of them. However, what we want to turn to now is whether and how this dedication impinges on the ways in which they are able to care for their own families, and especially their children, in terms of their own work-carelife strategies.
Migrants as unpaid care-providers: towards a work-care-life balance?
This section examines how migrants are able to provide care for their own families and households, their work-care-life balance and the implications this has for a migrant ethic of care. Most research on the nature of work-care-life strategies among migrants tends to focus on the nature of transnational family strategies especially among domestic workers (Aranda, 2003; HondagneuSotelo and Avila, 1997; Parreñas, 2005), rather than how migrants with resident and dependant families manage the elusive balance between productive and reproductive life in the countries where they work (although see Wall and José, 2004). While we also consider transnational parenthood, we focus mainly on how low-paid migrant workers in general (drawing on a larger sample) manage the work-care-life balance in London. In particular, we highlight the costs involved for migrant workers of being employed in low-paid occupations in terms of having to juggle childcare responsibilities, and sometimes neglecting their own families, and themselves, in order to look after others. This neglect is often most marked in terms of providing care for the elderly in their home countries potentially creating a care deficit for this age cohort. Having said this, migrants still managed to develop a range of innovative and usually gendered strategies at different scales from the individual, community to transnational levels to cope with the challenges of maintaining a work-care-life balance (see also Datta et al., 2006a).
Work-care strategies among low-paid migrants Reflecting findings from elsewhere in Europe (Wall and José, 2004), the work-care-life balance among migrant workers emerged as being particularly fragile, especially among those who had migrated most recently. This was related particularly to the very long hours migrants worked, and the fact that many have more than one job to ensure their own, as well as their family’s survival.
This is evidenced by the account of Paulo, a Brazilian construction worker, who juggled two jobs for three months by sleeping on the bus in between his jobs. He claimed that, “there were days when I only slept 50 minutes per day.” Yet, the ability to work long hours is obviously tempered and constrained by responsibilities for dependants, especially among women. A third of our respondents were responsible for dependent children (children under the age of 16) in the UK, a third had dependants living abroad, while two thirds regularly sent money overseas (see Evans et al. 2005). These migrants then employed a range of gendered strategies based on networks of personal support which encompassed spouses, parents, extended family and ethnic communities, as well as institutional support (see also Bradley et al. 2005).
The first of these strategies was to leave dependent children behind in the care of either spouses (usually wives) or extended families in home countries. Research on ‘transnational mothers’ has particularly explored the importance of ‘other-mothers’ (Schmalzbauer, 2004) in looking after children who have been left behind (see above; also Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila, 1997; Parreñas 2005). While the use of ‘other-mothers’ is not new and has been noted for some time in research on the Global South, what is novel is obviously the distance that separates transnational mothers in particular from their children and the regularity with which they are able to go home to visit their children (Aranda, 2003, Zontini, 2004). Adanya who worked as a tube cleaner and was from Nigeria spoke about the difficulties of balancing her low-paid productive work with her
responsibilities as a transnational mother:
“Sometime I just feel like quitting the job. When I think about it, I pay my rent, 300 pounds, I’ll be left with 300 pounds, because my pay cheque is 600 pounds. After my rent I’ll be left with 300 pounds to pay my travel card, go shopping and that, so how much I have left to save? And I’ve got a baby back home, a three year old in Nigeria. So I have to send money back home to my mum. I’m just trying I’m just doing my best”.
When asked if she would bring her son to live with her in London, Adanya commented that it depended on whether she had a good job and was able to afford to. This view was echoed by male migrants like Mirek, a Polish construction worker who said: “I would say this. If I had a decent job, that would allow me to have a decent live, so I could bring over my wife and a child.” However, this view was not shared by all as other migrant women and men commented upon the poor socialisation of children in the UK (see above) which predisposed them to leave their children at home where they could be raised within cultural norms and expectations. Patricia, the care worker from Jamaica, for example had left her 12 year-old daughter in the care of her father and a domestic helper back home. She rationalised her decision to leave her daughter on the grounds that her remittances could secure a better private education in Jamaica than the state education available in the UK. Transnational fatherhood was also common with the children of these fathers usually living with their partner or ex-partner in home countries often because the fathers had split from the mothers who retained custody of the children. However, some men still sent maintenance payments for their children, and often for their ex-partners as well (see Datta et al., 2006b).
This type of transnational strategy or what Parreñas (2001: 72) calls the ‘international transfer of care-taking’ had significant costs for women in particular. Not only did they have to deal with feelings of guilt, trauma and loneliness at having left their children behind, but they also had to cope with ideological issues that often constructed them as bad mothers who had abandoned their children (see above; also Aranda, 2003; Parreñas, 2005, Yeoh and Huang, 2000). Migrant women often justified their actions through the sending of remittances that paid not only for daily living expenses, but also medical and educational expenses of both their children and other immediate family members and especially parents (Datta et al., 2006b). Furthermore, sending children to live with grandparents was justified by migrants like Mary, an office contract cleaner, on the grounds that “the grandmother wants the children, she needs the children to live with her.” Although she would not be drawn further on this, this could be a reflection of the extent to which children are themselves drawn into caring activities in the Global South, and especially in HIV/AIDS torn countries (Robson, 2004).
For those migrants whose children were in London, a range of other strategies were utilised to juggle productive and reproductive work. Referred to as the “negotiation of care within the nuclear family” (Wall and José,2004), one strategy was for couples to work alternate shifts so that children could be cared for by both parents which signals men’s involvement in caring responsibilities. As Yoffi, a Ghanaian care worker indicated, she arranged her shifts around her husband’s such that: “if it’s the night by the time I’m about to leave the dad is in, so I just stay till in the morning to--, I’ll be in before the daddy leaves in the morning.” However, apart from these few examples of male involvement in caring for children, it was mainly women migrants who assumed primary responsibility for arranging child-care for their children.
For married women like Antobam, a care worker from Ghana, a more viable solution had been to ask her mother to come to London so as to look after her children thus modifying traditional patterns of child care (see also Zontini, 2004).
“Because I’m not entitled to childcare and if I should get a child-minder, I can’t pay for them. All that I am willing to work for I would give it to the child-minder and back home, in Africa our mothers would take care of our children. She is no need to charge you. All she needs is, what you eat, what you wear. Anything she needs I give her. That’s all. She doesn’t charge me for anything, so economically it is wiser. Bringing her down. They are her grandchildren. She would get--, she would take good care of them than giving it to somebody else to do.” Yet, it is important to acknowledge that the ability to operationalise such a care strategy is itself dependent upon immigration policy. Not only is family reunification increasingly restricted throughout much of Northern Europe, the rights to bring (grand)parents is also discretionary even for legal residents and citizens (Kofman, 2004). This utilisation of female kin was also evident in other cases such as Zelu’s whose baby was looked after by his wife’s aunt when both his wife and he were busy “because she is free, she is old lady, so she has nothing to do, she likes baby, kids and by this way, we maintain.” Gendered ethnic networks were also important in achieving a work-care-life balance for some migrant women. Thus, although Yoffi’s husband looked after her children when she had to work (see above), if she had enough warning of her shifts, she left her children with her pastor’s wife in
what Wall and José (2004) call the “delegation to non-familial informal care”:
“Normally what happens is that when the daddy’s off that is when I get my shifts, but sometimes I take them to my pastors place, depending--, sometimes if they inform me early enough, I just tell them and I take them to my pastors places and then the wife is around so she takes care of him while I go to the shift.” Indeed, in a rare example of wider gendered (non-ethnic) community networks, Rosana, a Portuguese woman who worked as a chambermaid in a hotel, reported that she left her children with her neighbour (who had been recommended by her childrens’ head-teacher) who then dropped them off at school from where Rosana was able to collect them. Interestingly, this was the only case of the “delegation to non-familial care” that was paid for (ibid).
Some women migrants made work sacrifices in order to care for their children, in what Wall and José (2004) refer to as “mother-centredness”. Mothers such as Portia, a cleaner from Zimbabwe, cut back her hours of work as she had a 16 year old son who was studying for his GCSEs and she wanted to make sure that she was at home in the afternoons when he returned from school.
However, some migrants found it almost impossible to cut back on their hours of work because of conflicts with their supervisors, which were more prevalent when they were of a different nationality. Rosana was finding it increasingly difficult to balance her roles as a mother and worker
due to her changing conditions of work:
“Before we worked for the hotel… but they gave us to an agency, and we have some problems with them… because… before I was not working weekends and I begged and begged my boss, please give me the weekends [free] because I don’t have nobody to stay with my kids, and she gave me. One year I’ve been working from Monday to Friday. But now the agency wants… me to work… weekends… [It is] more difficult because of the kids. A lot of problems with the kids are about that… no matter when I have to go to work, I have to ask someone to stay with them or pay someone to do that”.
Related to this is also the fact that very low rates of pay mean that migrants cannot cut down on their hours of work and survive in the city while also providing for their dependents both in London and ‘back home.’ It is important to stress that migrant women had experienced significant changes in the ways in which they balance productive and reproductive responsibilities as they had lost the support of extended families which was a vital aspect of many of their lives back home (Wall and José, 2004;
Zontini, 2004). In turn, this meant that many were under high levels of pressure and stress. Lone mothers faced particular challenges in balancing their need to work with their caring responsibilities for their children. In some rare cases when women had no other choices, they had to take risks and leave their children alone (Wall and José, 2004). This was most common when women worked night shifts. Gladys, a contract cleaner, worked the night shift in order to combine these competing demands but acknowledged that she was constantly worried when she was at work as she had left her children, aged 15, 13 and 7, sleeping at home. Another contract cleaner, Maribel, faced similar pressures highlighting how it was impossible to get more than two or three hours sleep because when she got home from her night shift, it was time to get her 6 year old daughter ready for school, and before she knew it, she had to pick her up again.
While women often had the primary responsibility for the nurturing work of childcare, the vast majority of male and female migrants had to juggle unpaid domestic tasks with their paid work.