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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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Thus, the little leisure time that migrants had was often taken up in these activities. Kojo, a male tube cleaner from Ghana commented that although he was lucky in that he lived close to his place of work and so saved time on travelling, his leisure time was still taken up by such tasks: “And then when you get home you need to cook. You need to eat, you need to--. So at my leisure time, yeah that’s what I do, I like to cook. I like to eat fresh all the time, I don’t like junk food, so--,And then I will watch TV and then I will read a book, then I’ll sleep.” Contract cleaners like Gladys and Maribel acknowledged that working the night shift meant that they could balance their paid work with reproductive tasks such as shopping, cleaning, going to the doctor and so on.

Work-life balance among low-paid migrant workers From a more holistic perspective that includes voluntary and community activities in the workcare-life balance, many migrants complained that they were too busy to have a ‘life’. When asked

if he had much leisure time, Mirek, a Polish construction worker, responded:

“I do not have much of that. Beside it is relatively expensive for me, and I have a family in Poland. Life of a Pole in England looks more or less in the following way. I leave home for work at 6.45, take some over time and am back home at 7.30 so after 11h of hard physical work I do not have much desire for sociability”.

However, the compulsion to work hard was tempered by class differences between migrants.

Reflecting his own middle class background, Nivaldo, a Brazilian construction worker, had different ambitions in London which involved being part of ‘life’ in the capital, drinking, travelling, watching football as well as clubbing. Furthermore, participation (or a lack of) in ‘life’ or leisure activities was not just an outcome of work commitments but also attributable to the ways in which migrants felt excluded. Patricia, the care worker from Jamaica, put this into words when she said that although she was comfortable in London in that she could work, go shopping when she wanted and so on: “Entertainment wise, like, if you want to go dance in the street, you know, you can’t do that and we’re used to that back home…..because we live in the country so we do whatever we want, you know, everybody is friendly, everybody knows everybody.” Friendship networks emerged as being very important in the accounts of many of the migrants we interviewed. Not only did they provide material support when migrants first arrived and settled in London (with one of our respondents saying that there was an unwritten rule that friends provided this support), but they also gave emotional support. This in turn illustrates the importance of friends, and not only family and extended kin, in facilitating migration. Joao, a Brazilian

construction worker, spoke about how:

“You learn to value friendship, because you need friends here. You are all by yourself here, and not being able to speak English, you are no one. If you stay at home, it’s worse because you get into depression, so you have to go out in spite of the difficulties.” At the same time, people also noted that their friendship networks were small in that they had few friends, partly linked with lack of leisure time. Joshua, the care worker from Ghana noted how he rarely socialised with other people, especially compared with his life back home where there were always parties and funerals (the latter were important social occasions), a point also made by Portia. Similarly, Carlos, from Honduras, reported that together with his girlfriend, he had two friends: “Myself, César and Pablo and my girlfriend, you know, I’m very select with whom I can consider as my friends, or rather I only have a few people whom I consider to be my true friends, very few, very few, the rest are acquaintances”. Also significant is that people tended to build their friendship networks from within their own ethnic group or nationality group and it was rare for people to have any white British friends for example. Even then, there was also a degree of mistrust within ethnic and nationality groups as well. Carlos, for example, said that he often found other Latin Americans to be ‘problematic’ and it was safer not to get involved with them (see McIlwaine, 2005 for the same sort of evidence from the Colombian community in London). In turn, leisure activities undertaken with friends ranged from drinking (but often not in pubs as these were too expensive), and going to live music events.

Participation in faith-based organisations featured prominently in the accounts of both men and women migrants in terms of what they did when they were not working such that 43 percent of migrant workers in our survey were actively involved in faith-based organisations. These included Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh organisations. However, again these organisations were divided along ethnic and nationality lines. For example, Brazilians congregate in St Ann’s Catholic Church in the East End every Sunday, where they hear mass in Portuguese, Colombians meet at St Ignatius church in Seven Sisters where they hear mass in Spanish, Lithuanians reported attending their own Catholic Church in Bethnal Green, while many Ghanaians were involved with their local Evangelical churches (one in Lambeth near the Elephant and Castle and another in Greenwich).

Indeed, in some cases, there were specific churches for people from particular regions of a country.

Mary, a carer from Ghana, for example, noted:

“you go to your various churches and then the one for people from my home town, they will actually know, once you come here, they know you are here and they will let you know that they have this group and that they have these meetings and they will inform you we are meeting at this time and that is from my home town and the people will speak my dialect, my language … it comprises people from the Volta region, we have one language, one is for people from my town and one is for people from my region, but because of the language, you have this core language … they’ll tell you they have it, you decide to go be part of them or not, it’s all the same community.” Several migrants pointed out the importance of these groups in their lives, providing not only mental and spiritual sustenance, but also material help especially for those who have recently arrived in London. While Mary noted that her church helped recent migrants, Christina, also

Ghanaian really enjoyed attending her Pentecostal church:

“you enjoy it, it’s like everybody from my country goes to church, you see people, so you don’t get lonely, you see people on Sunday from your country … you go on your dialect … everything’s like … you don’t really get bored … because you just go to church and you see people … but I enjoyed it, everybody around you … where you see people from your own country, you talk in your own language and it’s fun, I enjoy it.” A final point that we would like to make here is that for many migrants, ‘life’ was something that was carrying on elsewhere by which we mean that they were working in London but were embedded in ‘life’ back home. This was evidenced by regular and frequent communication with relatives at home via telephone or email, watching ethnic TV channels as well as keeping abreast with social, economic and political events at home (see Datta et al., 2006b). In turn, Nivaldo, also a construction worker from Brazil, argued that migrants had to, or indeed were willing to, put up with these kinds of work conditions and poor work-life balances because of their aspirations and ambitions as migrants.

“But these are people that work there from 8am-5:30pm and then work cleaning for 4 hours at night. They sleep for 4 hours only each night and spend only £350 per month.

They live in bad accommodation, they eat badly. They are dreamers. Once I was talking it with a friend in a joking way, this are people that for each one brick they lay here, they think is equal to two bricks that they are laying in their house in Brazil. They are people that sacrifice a lot”.

Overall, the picture presented by low-paid migrant workers in our research in relation to the workcare-life balance was one of fragility where people were literally just ‘getting-by’ in juggling their unpaid reproductive and paid productive responsibilities with women feeling these pressures most acutely. In striving to make ends meet, many women had little time for nurturing. This was evidenced most clearly among transnational mothers and to a lesser extent, transnational fathers, whose nurturing was done from afar, with remittances and financial security replacing more everyday emotional connections. Even for those without immediate or distant childcare responsibilities, trying to achieve a ‘life’ in terms of leisure pursuits in London was extremely difficult because of cost, long working hours, isolation, and exclusion. It would appear that lowpaid migrant workers may be providing a high quality of care in their paid caring roles, yet are often unable to sustain this in their own lives as they struggle to look after their own dependants.

Thus, a migrant ethic of unpaid care is characterised by juggling various caring strategies, most of which are informal, unpaid and inherently unstable.


This paper has explored two dimensions of caring among low-paid migrant workers focusing first, on the nature of paid care work in the public sphere and second, on the nature of unpaid care work in the private sphere of the home. In thinking about developing some form of a ‘migrant ethic of care’ we have tried to highlight how paid migrant care workers provide very high quality paid care rooted in faith-based, familial ideologies that foster the creation of nurturing spaces. This is despite a care system that tries to stress non-relational reproductive labour and ethnic discrimination that makes the workers jobs so difficult. However, because of the inherent precariousness of their jobs, the quality of this migrant ethic of care is not always translated to unpaid care in their personal lives. Separated from extended families, many migrants struggle to cope, exacerbated by the lack of institutional assistance, and with no access to affordable formal childcare. Indeed, despite creating a range of innovative work-care mechanisms, the nurturing ability of many migrants is often compromised by distance in the case of transnational parenting, and by huge demands on their time and energy for those who have dependants and especially children living with them.

Therefore, we need to question the costs not only of women and men from poorer nations providing various types of paid care for those from wealthier nations at a global scale, but also the costs for these migrants, and especially women, of providing quality unpaid care for their own dependants at the micro-level of their everyday lives.


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