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The Missing Link: Migrant domestic workers in Europe (II)
It is no longer possible to separate out the domestic work agenda from the feminist European agenda according to Andrea Spehar in her speech to the WIDE Annual Conference on 'Migration in the context of globalisation: women's human rights at risk', held in Bucharest 3 to 5 June 2010.
Domestic work the unrecognized pillar of the economy
Andrea's intervention raised important insights into gender problems of migration within the European context where domestic work is being carried out more and more by migrant women, particularly in South Europe (Italy, Spain and Greece). She pointed out that domestic work is not another market, but a socially constructed gender activity where women are seen as primarily responsible for taking care of the home, family, children, disabled and elderly. Though it is a largely unvalidated it is a profoundly important economic and social activity needed all over Europe. However much of the work in the household is invisible, unregulated and mostly in the informal and unpaid or badly paid sector. She argued that there is a new gender order now taking place in Europe as a growing number of European women have moved into paid work in the public and private sector. This is a positive move, challenging the male bread winner role and leading to more economic independence for women. However it has not been followed by equal distribution of the household work between women and men. Instead of men taking up responsibilities for domestic care work, it is migrant women who are stepping in. Particularly in southern Europe where there is a strong conservative tradition of relying on the family rather than state, migrant women have taken up domestic work in large numbers. Essentially domestic workers are helping to reconcile the balance between productive and reproductive work in family life in Europe. However, as Andrea points out those very same female workers are excluded from all policy agendas in European. In European debates on gender quality no recognition of their contribution to European gender equality project is evident. They are invisible from European discussions around rights, benefits, health care and economic security. As a result they earn low wages, work long and antisocial hours, are often undocumented and in the informal sector.
Revalidating domestic care work
But the main reason Andrea suggests for their poor economic and social conditions is because domestic care work is not seen as real work. Unpaid or badly paid care work is just not seen as contributing to European economic growth. It is stigmatized and seen as some how natural and rewarded in ways other than money. She argues that we need to challenge the stigma and low economic value given to the work and transform gender equality laws to value domestic work in order to improve the rights of migrant domestic workers. Domestic work and migrant rights needs to be reincluded in discussions of the European women's movement on rights or development. She proposes strategies that cannot only help reinstate an understanding of migration but also help unravel today's global world and the current economic crisis. She reminds us that in the 1960s and 1970s a major feminist battle had been for pay for domestic work and for the state to take up responsibility for care work. In different parts of Europe more child care facilitates, more state involvement in domestic and care work were seen as the strategic way to break down structures of inequality between men and women, and change the public order of domestic life. Although there are child care facilities in many places in Europe, Andrea questions if this strategy did indeed work. As we see in the current economic crisis, it is assumed that women who had moved out of the home to take up (largely) low paid jobs can now just return home. What happened to gender equality for life/work balance. Is the answer for more state control of family life? Does that help the revaluing of domestic work, will it help the rights of migrant workers? What is the evidence that state policy helps to change the gender order regarding domestic work? Why does it remain undervalued and feminine, despite incentives such as paternity leave etc.
Who is the champion now?
Certainly the state support families but Andrea points out family policy even in Sweden, which is seen as the champion of gender, state policy did not change the gender order. Since the 1970s Sweden has offered comprehensive childcare, parental leave and child allowance but only 20 percent of Swedish fathers use parental leave. Furthermore, jobs in Sweden are highly segregated. Men tend to work in the private sector and women in the public sector. In the child care sector 95 percent of the employees are women. Essentially the responsibility duty and obligations for care have just been moved to women working in the public sector. So the trend has gone from women working unpaid in the home to women paid low wages to do care in the public sector. Nurses and teachers for example in Sweden are mainly women, and paid very badly. For example a nurse in a Swedish hospital with three years university education earns 35 percent less than a male technician same hospital with no university education. State involvement does not change the gender order, even if it may reduce gender inequality.
Organizing for change
The question is how to revalorize domestic work and care work at the national level. How to put care on the political agenda and on the trade union agenda? Solidarity is required to support care workers, both European and migrant domestic and care workers, perhaps the answer is to organize themselves. This is a question for each nation state to deal with. Although the EU and international laws are there for domestic workers, the different migrant and gender regimes at the national level are really what determine change. In reality the EU has no capacity to inform national legislation. It is the national context which is the most important. For example when women in Slovenia and Croatia tried to put into practice policy that was passed at the EU and international level they found it did not work, such policy did not adapt to their reality. One strategy is to reformulate migrant and domestic work as about labour rights, rather than women's politics per se and therefore work along with trade unions. But perhaps most importantly, is for European and migrant women to network together, much openly about the problems they face in order to see they can collectively work together to put in place a new gender order. In this the WIDE Conference was an important step forward.
Related article: Taking Citizenship Rights with You - A new vision for human mobility
For more information on the WIDE conference, click here