Child care, nannying, and race: What you need to know about migrant care work

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A SYTYCB entry

This week, I received an email from SC. In this email, SC mentioned that because she knew of my “interest” in migrant workers rights, she wanted me to know that she is hiring a Filipina “nanny” through Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) to help take care of their first-born kid. (Quick aside: the LCP is Canada’s official migrant domestic worker program, where Canadian families can hire women from overseas to work in their homes for a mandatory 48 month live-in period, followed by an additional 12 month period where the caregiver can opt not to live with the families who hired them. When their work contracts are done, live-in caregivers can apply for permanent residency and eventually, Canadian citizenship.  This opportunity is the carrot that draws a lot of live-in caregivers to Canada.) She then ended her email by saying that she wanted to cook a Filipino meal for when her “nanny” arrived and that she was wondering what I could suggest. (I’ve placed this in quotation marks because these were her terms; I prefer the use of the term ‘live-in caregiver’ because this is one of the semantic distinctions care work activists insist on to show pride for their work).

I had a visceral reaction to this email as various thoughts ran through my head. First thought: I had more than an “interest” in migrant workers rights. I have spent the better part of the last decade researching and advocating on behalf of migrant workers, specifically migrant domestic workers. Second thought: SC felt that telling me about this would automatically be of interest to me not only because of my research and activist work but also because all Filipinos like knowing what other Filipinos are up to! Perhaps she shares the same compunction as the men who tell me all about their Filipina girlfriends. These men seem to think that it would thrill me to no end to know all the gory details of how “cute” and how “loving” their girlfriends are because I, too, am Filipina! (That this always comes from US immigration officers is weird, no?) Third thought: Maybe I am being too reactionary. Maybe SC really did just want me to suggest Filipino recipes.

I couldn’t, however, accept thought number three, no matter how hard I tried. I really did not want to make a big deal out of it. Sherene Razack wrote about the difficulties of confronting racism at dinner parties because it just plain sucks having to be in an uncomfortable situation in supposedly benign circumstances. Try as I might, though, it’s hard not to see how race figures in, especially in light of how live-in care work has essentially been associated with Filipinas in Canada and in nearly all countries around the world.

Want examples? The fact that people always want to tell me about how loving and how “naturally caring” their Filipina “nannies” are even without them knowing that I do research and activist work on this very issue shows this. The fact that in all Canadian cities that I go to, I see Filipinas pushing strollers containing white babies show this. The fact that I was at a book launch and some woman asked me if I knew anyone who could take care of her children show this (why did she only ask me, hmmm?). The fact that just the other day, at a coffee shop serving $10 cups of coffee containing java beans excreted by monkeys, I overheard two yummy mummies comparing “their Filipinas” show this – note that in this case, the word ‘Filipinas’ is universally deemed as being synonymous with the word ‘nannies,’ making it redundant to say ‘Filipina nannies.’

So when I read SC’s email, I could not look at it as just another email. I kept mulling over why she told me that she was hiring a Filipina live-in caregiver. Upon reflecting with close friends, I wondered whether it was because SC wanted to either:

  1.  Seek validation for her decision to hire a Filipina live-in caregiver, knowing that I am “interested” in the cause and am also Filipina myself or
  2. Preemptively avoid any social awkwardness that might transpire the next time we see each other by telling me now that she hired a Filipina live-in caregiver

In my response, I decided to be honest about how much her message confused me and also told her that it is hard for me not to think of the LCP without thinking of the problems associated with it. For one, the live-in requirement breeds a lot of abuse. A lot of employers know that live-in caregivers desire permanent residency and so use that to their advantage, meaning that a lot of live-in caregivers, in their eagerness to complete their work contracts, become reluctant to speak out against abuse.  More onerously, the LCP fosters family separation. The hardships of coming to Canada to take care of other children while leaving your own children behind is a source of much trauma for the live-in caregivers I know. (The excellent film “Brown Women, Blonde Babies” explores this phenomenon sensitively and powerfully). These reasons – along with the power discrepancies that allow rich countries like Canada to recruit workers from developing countries, thereby exacerbating the ‘brain drain’ taking place – are my personal and political reasons for seeking changes to the LCP.

All this I told SC, though I also added that my reasons for wanting the program to be reformed did not mean that I did not understand why Canadian families and live-in caregivers participated in the LCP. On one hand, there is a scarcity of child-care spots in Canada, making it hard for Canadian families to arrange childcare. With daycare costs amounting to $1000/month per child here in Toronto, the LCP is certainly a cheap alternative. Live-in caregivers, on the other hand, have to withstand economic stagnation in their home countries. Most of them who come to Canada, in fact, are university graduates with professional work experience who had to seek greener pastures abroad because of an absence of jobs back at home. This means that despite my opposition to the structural issues embedded in the program, from an individual basis, I understand why the program exists. I respect people’s decisions to enter the program – I know that families and live-in caregivers tangibly benefit from the LCP. The last thing I added in my message was that I hoped that she will provide her future employee with a fair and just working environment and that if her employee needs to talk about anything, she can call me.

SC responded by saying that the live-in caregiver she was hiring was single so she won’t have to go through family separation. She also said that she was familiar with issues of labor abuse after having gone to Malaysia. While I’m not entirely sure that issues of family separation are automatically assuaged just because someone doesn’t have children, it was the last sentence that rankled. This sentiment is one of the most common rebuttal points that I hear when talking to those saying the LCP is fine as it is. Because the LCP is a program based in Canada – supposedly a bastion for equality, human rights, and liberalism – then that means that labor abuse within the LCP is non-existent.

Is this the case? Activists engaged in struggles as varied as Aboriginal sovereignty, refugee rights, and so forth will be unsurprised to see that my answer is a definitive hell-fucking-no. Canada cannot pat itself on the back for being “better” than other countries. There’s still a lot of abuse that happens within the program. It is unknown whether stringent regulations preventing employer abuse such as the creation of an employer and agency black-list and the imposition of strict fines and/or possible prison terms for guilty employers and agencies have actually accomplished anything. Word on the ground is that these have not done much. Abusive employers and recruitment agencies still exist despite attempts to blacklist them. Cases of employers who confiscate live-in caregivers passports, refuse to pay wages, and ask live-in caregivers to do work that isn’t specified in the contract – such as outsourcing their live-in caregivers to clean their friends’ houses or asking their employees to give random family members nightly massage, to name but a few tasks – still prevail.

It isn’t just the obvious cases of abuse, however, that I worry about. It is the sticky cases that reside in the grey area that anger me. Because live-in care work is done within the private sphere of the household, it becomes difficult for most to imagine that the activities being undertaken in it count as work and that one’s home is actually a place of employment. One of the mantras commonly stated by care worker activists goes, “care work is real work,” which successfully captures the biggest hurdle felt by care workers in gaining labor recognition. Gendered notions that assume care work should ‘come naturally’ to women, coupled with racialized assumptions on how being so ‘loving’ is ‘innate’ to Filipinas/Latinas/insert-racial-group obscure the very real effort live-in caregivers make in their jobs.  This makes it all too easy for employers to justify exploitative practices such as not paying their live-in caregivers fair wages because caring for someone doesn’t seem that hard; if you’re Filipina or Latina, it’s ‘part of your nature.’ Countless live-in caregivers I’ve spoken to have told me that their employers don’t respect rules on overtime work and do not think twice about asking them to “just watch” their children even during their time off because of the aforementioned sentiments.  If care work isn’t considered a big deal – heck, if it’s not ‘real’ work – then why bother following labor regulations?

More problematically, one is confronted with the reality that at the heart of care work lies emotions. Let’s face it. Care work is about building close relationships.  When employers entrust the care of their children to live-in caregivers, they do so with the expectation that live-in caregivers will love their children. Mixing love with work makes it really hard for employers and even some live-in caregivers to see abuse. Most don’t see that when employers say that their live-in caregivers are “part” of their families, this is part of the problem for doing so obfuscates the line between employer and employee and leads to the flawed assumption that employers can rightfully ask their employees for “favors” without expecting financial compensation. I’ve heard live-in caregivers say that when they ask their employers for unpaid wages or request time off, a lot of employers feel betrayed. “I thought you love Baby X,” they retort. “Why do you have to bring money into this?” Even if such thoughts remain unarticulated, legitimate requests invariably breed resentment among employers, who oftentimes feel that live-in caregiver should be ‘grateful’ and ‘know their place.’

Ultimately, no matter how progressive and how liberal employers think they are, there is still a power relationship that exists at the center of the LCP. Unlike other caregivers, the fact that live-in caregivers are required to live with their employers exacerbates this power relationship because this blurs the distinction between ‘home’ and ‘work.’ Recognizing the existence of this power relationship and taking steps to ensure that the rights and welfare of live-in caregivers as employees and not as so-called family members will go a long way towards mitigating the grey area abuses transpiring within the LCP.

It is also crucial to recognize that the empowerment of women in the developed world in part exists because of the labor contributions of women from the Global South. Global South women have taken over upper and middle-class women’s domestic responsibilities, thereby enabling these women to unearth their inner Peggy Olsons and find career success. (Such a phenomenon has led one activist to tell me that “the liberation of women in the developed world occur at the expense of women from the Global South.”) That childcare is a divisive feminist issue that still hasn’t been resolved needs acknowledgement too; the complicity of women* in Canada, in the US, in Hong Kong and in any country with a migrant care worker program in encouraging family fragmentation in the Global South should be addressed directly.

Doing all of these, of course, doesn’t solve all of the problems associated with the LCP. Live-in caregivers themselves have been active in campaigning for change. Why not give live-in caregivers permanent residency upon arrival with their families so they won’t have to go through the long period of waiting to be reunited with their families? Why not make sure that their visas are open and are not tied to a single employer so that they can more easily leave when they find that their rights being compromised? Why not establish a national child-care program? Live-in caregivers and other migrant activists have also been seeking political solutions that aim to decrease global power discrepancies that make migrant-sending programs necessary in the first place. There are political parties in countries like the Philippines, such as the Migrante Party List, that represent migrant workers and seek alternative national development policies that minimize reliance on migrants’ remittances. One of my biggest pet peeves is the idea that live-in caregivers are trapped in a narrative of “tragic linearity,” as theorist Martin Manalansan says.  Despite the oppressive circumstances live-in caregivers may find themselves in, they are in the front lines of the transnational care workers’ movement.

As for SC, if she reads this, I hope that this doesn’t affect our friendship. I actually appreciate her email despite the awkwardness and discomfort it caused me initially because it forced me to write this piece. I only hope that in sharing my thoughts, mothers and mother-to-be like SC who are thinking of or who are currently employing live-in caregivers are aware of the complexities of the issue.

*Please note that once again, I am NOT blaming women from the developed world for hiring migrant care givers. That the responsibility for care work – or for arranging care work – usually falls in the hands of women shows how far we have yet to go in achieving gender equality.

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