Not One of the Family. The Tight Spaces of Migrant Domestic Workers – Rhacel Salazar Parreñas and Rachel Silvey
Rhacel Salazar Parreñas is Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California (USC). Prior to working at USC, she taught at a number of other universities including the University of California, where she had also done her studies. After a Bachelor of Arts in peace and conflict studies in 1992, Parreñas finished a Ph.D. in comparative ethnic studies with a designated emphasis in Women, Gender and Sexuality in 1998. Parreñas works on social issues such as gender and migration in a globalized context with a focus on reproductive labor called the care chain.
Rachel Silvey is Professor at the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Washington, after a dual B.A. from the University of California at Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies and Southeast Asian Studies. The main focus of her work lies on the research on women’s labour and migration in Indonesia.
Silvey and Parreñas’ collaborative work, which is funded by the US National Science Foundation, examines Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers’ employment conditions in Singapore and the UAE. Their article “Not One of the Family. The Tight Spaces of Migrant Domestic Workers” was published in the Harvard Design Magazine, no. 41 „Family Planning“ in 2015.
The article thematizes the generally poor living conditions for migrant domestic workers around the world. These workers generally come from Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, with most of them coming from Southeast Asia, as the authors point out. 73.4% of migrant domestic workers are women, of which 82% work in high income countries.(1) It quickly becomes clear, that the issue is one of gender and ethnicity-based marginalization and social injustice.
Migrant domestic workers leave their home country to live and work for a relatively long period of time as live-in servants. Their personal space is often very tight and more of a leftover space than an actual bedroom with daylight. The authors refer to a case in Hong Kong where the servant of the popular singer Purple Lee had to use a bathroom as her bedroom in a 170 squaremeter apartment with 6 beds, 4 baths and 2 kitchens. Other cases are mentioned of domestic workers living in storage rooms or bomb shelters.
Another problem for immigrated care-givers is that by permanently living at their employers place it becomes more difficult to differentiate between paid work and unpaid favors. The line between paid work and unpaid work becomes blurred. In the context of women’s place in capitalist society Nancy Fraser calls this unpaid work “free rides”. Parreñas and Silvey point out that by calling the workers “one of the family” the states often refuse to see them as independent individuals and thereby exclude them from labor regulation and protection. But “their legal attachment to the family does not translate to their inclusion in the family; it merely increases their dependence on the family. For this reason, the legal incorporation of migrant domestic workers as “one of the family” has been linked to modern-day slavery (…)”.
Furthermore the authors explain that the ethically questionable market of live-in caregivers is growing around the globe. In response architects and planners in New York, Dubai and Singapore incorporate tiny spaces into their designs that can be used as storage spaces or bedrooms for the caregivers. Many of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers around the world have to live in alarming conditions.(2) Consequently human right organizations, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), started to look for solutions to help improve this group of workers living conditions with a focus on privacy.
In their desperation many of the migrant domestic workers escape their “home”. Because of their specific “servant” or “caregiver” visa it is difficult for them to find another job. They often end up living together with other escapees having even less private space than before fleeing. The authors picture migrant domestic workers spaces as social spaces and “also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power”.(3) “Looking at the living and working spaces of migrant domestic workers, we can see small-scale versions of the tensions playing out on the global stage regarding the proper place – socially and spatially – of paid domestic labor in transational development and global migration.”
The injustice between different social classes – or the class struggle, as Karl Marx calls it – is still an observable phenomenon in today’s world. Many people working in the service sector as dishwashers or the construction sector as construction workers deal with similar problems migrant domestic workers do. They often lose their rights as citizens in a foreign country, can’t participate in local social life, are paid bad wages and live in poor conditions. The way some hosts have their servants sleep in bathrooms, storage spaces or bomb shelters, cities of the global north have their immigrated working class live in quarters with qualities similar to the ones of the spaces mentioned above.
In “Contradictions of Capital and Care” Nancy Fraser talks about a phenomenon comparable to the class struggle, which she calls “boundary struggle”. It is a friction between ‘economy’ and ‘society’, ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’, and ‘work’ and ‘family’. The depreciation of care work manifests itself in the devalua- tion of the womans role in society because of the association of her with that kind of work without beeing paid for it. Furthermore the outsourcing of care work leads to the devaluation of migrants doing the work. By outsourcing carework the social problem is not solved but shifted to other social and ethinic classes. The result is a reflection of global injustice in the home, or modern day slavery.
- 1 http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/multimedia/2016/9/infographic-migrant-domestic-workers
- 2 http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/multimedia/2016/9/infographic-migrant-domestic-workers
- 3 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 26