Gender, migration and domestic labor

Happy cleaner: a recruitment photo
Happy cleaner: a recruitment photo

Prol-Position on the proletarianisation of domestic labour and housework, and the role of migrant workers and gender.

Submitted by Steven. on January 8, 2010

There are huge armies of people, mostly women, doing low paid domestic work in foreign countries. They are the ones that look after the old people, cook the food and clean the homes and offices in those cities where capital is concentrated and professionals are working longer hours on the back of this work. These immigrant workers send huge amounts of money back home, sometimes making up the largest source of foreign currency for the sending countries. But they also leave behind broken families and a 'care deficit'.

Behind the stories about abuse, slavery, degradation etc., that break into the news every now and again, there is an intrinsic role of this work in the current global division of labour. This article looks at the role of this work in the economies of the receiving and sending countries, the tendency to industrialisation of this work, the gender dynamic and the implications for families in both countries.

We use the term 'domestic work' to mean work traditionally done in the home, by women - e.g. cleaning, cooking and care work. However, what is considered domestic work is constantly changing. Cooking from scratch is fast becoming unusual and clothes-making almost unheard of. Old people are increasingly being cared for in institutions. One question is whether the current increase of wage workers in the home (nannies, cleaners etc..) and the growth of care homes is simply part of the on-going tendency of the commodification of domestic work.

Trends of migrant women domestic workers
It is hard to get reliable statistics on this subject because not only are many of the immigrants illegal, but also much of the domestic work is not declared by the employer or worker. So much of this is approximation and the real figures are probably much higher.

In Singapore approximately one in every seven households employs a migrant domestic worker, including middle-class families. Most migrate from the Philippines and Indonesia. The migrant domestic worker population grew from five thousand in 1978 to the 2005 level of 150,000.[1]

In Spain in 2002 there were 393,500 homes with a domestic employees (most of whom were women) [2] and about 60 percent of domestic workers are in the unregistered underground economy.

The UK careers service state that there were about 928,000 private household workers in 1998.[3] The average weekly wage packet is £30 for 4.5 hours work - equivalent to £6.70 per hour. Research by Morphy Richards in 2005 claims that 8 percent of UK households employ a cleaner, the total wage bill amounts to around £2.8 billion annually. They also discovered strong potential demand, 31 percent of those of interviewed currently without a cleaner would like to have one. The group most likely to want a cleaner is 30 to 44 year olds.[4] However, 68 per cent of women with children work (and 76 per cent of women without dependant children) in spring 2003 in the UK, so one can assume many more women are employing childcare.[5] 65 percent of US women with children work, compared with 15 percent in 1950.

Official statistics show that in the latter half of the 1990s, there were roughly 802,000 legal private household workers employed in the United States of which about 40 percent were childcare workers.[6] But in 1993 the LA times reported that fewer than 10 percent of those Americans who paid a house-cleaner reported these payments.[7] Meaning that the figure could be much higher. According to the Center for Migration Studies, at least 10 percent of the United States' 3 million illegal immigrants worked in childcare in 1993, with roughly another 10 percent working in other private household occupations. According to research by Human Rights Watch, the average US hourly wage was $2.14, from which deductions for room and board might, according to U.S. law, still be made. The average workday was fourteen hours. Most of the workers were not allowed to leave their employers' homes without permission, and most were only allowed to leave on their one day off per week-Sunday.[8]

There is evidence that the biggest growth in domestic work is in countries with recent fast economic growth such as Singapore, Bahrain, Kuwait, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia rather than the established 'first world' such as the US, Western Europe or Australia. According to the UN, throughout 1990s more women than men migrated to the USA, Canada, Sweden, the UK and Israel.[9] One can identify four main stream of migration: South-East Asia to Middle East; former Soviet Bloc to Western Europe, South to North America and Africa to Europe.

Currently, the International Labour Organization estimates that twenty-two million Asians work outside of their home country.[10] Statistics from the mid 1990s show that in every ten citizens of Sri Lanka works abroad, most of them women. 84 percent of Sri Lankan migrants to the Middle East are women. 70 percent of Filipino migrants in the US are women. Most of these women are doing 'social' work in some way - from domestics and care workers, to work in the catering industry, to sex workers.11

There are more women than men migrating to work, particularly from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. In these countries, national-level estimates indicate that women comprise 60-75 percent of legal migrants, a significant proportion of whom are employed as domestic workers in the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.12
The general increased polarisation of the global economy means that middle class women in the third world earn less than low wageworkers in the first world. In Hong Kong the average wage of a domestic worker is 15 times that of a teacher’s salary in the Philippines. Or $176 a month for a professional salary in the Philippines compared to $700 a month in Italy or $1400 in LA as a nanny.

Migrant women often do not come from the lowest classes in their home countries, but from the more middle class, educated classes (especially true for ‘mail order brides’). There is also evidence that as more women take up work in the manufacturing sector in their home regions, more women will later migrate.

Global cities and low paid work
There are certain cities where there is a high concentration of business head offices, IT businesses, banking firms etc.. employing men and women in highly paid, skilled, professional work. These centres are vital to the smooth functioning of global capitalism. To keep this going, and keep the professionals working long hours, there also has to be an army of low paid workers - the data inputters and call centre workers, but also the office and house cleaners, those caring for the children and elderly relatives of the high paid workers, the fast food and ready made meals industry. According to research by Saskia Sassen, "between 30 and 50 percent of workers in the leading sectors are actually low-wage workers".13

These jobs are not 'relocatable'. Urban professionals live in the city - and transfer a growing share of 'domestic' work onto the market place - either by buying goods and services, or by hiring labour themselves.
In the shadow of these growth sectors - traditionally places of potential high pay and workers empowerment, you see a growth of low-paid low-status workers, who are often migrant, often illegal and marginalised. The fact that sexism and racism are still so prevalent enables people to emotionally deal with this and not feel too bad about the low paid cleaner or kebab shop worker at 3 a.m., because they are the 'other'. Even if it feels charitable to give someone work, many employers or service buyers would not consider doing that work themselves.

Industrialization of care work
Domestic servants and those doing personal care do not fit the picture of modern capitalism (industrialised workplaces, distance between the producer and the consumer). The consumer in this case is often the employer - with all the horrible intimacy of exploitation within a personal relationship. But although there is a rise in people working in private homes - this is nowadays often done via agencies, or else the work is industrialised in the more traditional sense - e.g. the ready-made meals or take-away food being prepared in a workplace, more and more old people going into care homes. This follows the trend of clothes or soap making, herb growing etc..

Employment Agencies - for example Kellys Services - now have a 'home care' division, including services for cleaning, cooking and picking up the children from school. "The fact that employment agencies have moved into providing domestic services signals both that a global labour market has emerged in this area and that there is an effort afoot to standardise these service maids, nannies and home-care nurses deliver".14

A few large cleaning firms who in turn are being bought out by larger conglomerates dominate 25 percent and rising of the home cleaning work in the US. Advantages for the workers are not only some protection from the whims and abuses reported when you are employed directly by the house owner, but also potential for communication and common action because you would know who your colleagues are.

The cleaning firms lay down firm rules about the work process (doing the room next to the kitchen first, dusting from left to right and top to bottom etc.). They impose a division of labour (hovering, dusting, bathroom and kitchen) and work is done in teams of four - each taking on one task. The threat of hidden cameras is used to provide the necessary supervision aspect of work under capitalism. Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) did a sort of workers inquiry into this sector and wrote up her experience in a chapter of Global Woman, Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy.15

These firms are likely to grow because new clients prefer dealing with a firm than an individual, and because the global professional classes like the standardised, branded 'product' a firm provides. Both worker and service user like the impersonality that capitalist work brings. The intimacy of care work or domestic work can be intensely uncomfortable, as it does not have this distance and alienation from the job that in fact makes it bearable.

Women's work and working women
Since the 1960s women have increasingly done 'professional' work. There was a phase when many households were sustained by the man's income and the women stayed at home and did all the domestic tasks, or employed lower class people from the same countries. Now many middle class women are doing higher skilled waged work and employing immigrant women to do the domestic work.

After the demand for domestic workers had nearly vanished, it is now sharply increasing again. 72 percent of all American women now work, making up 45 percent of the workforce. This includes the grandmothers and aunts who may previously have done a lot of childcare or elderly care. The state has not filled in the gap left by these women.
There are many complex reasons however why certain families employ someone else to do their domestic tasks. These include: cutbacks in the welfare state, the increasing age of the population, women headed families, decline of extended family - and a desire for a certain lifestyle. (E.g. the aspiration to live in a very clean house, wear clothes that need hand washing, have a well-tended garden, give dinner parties at home and still work and spend time with the children).

Some women will pay out almost the same per hour as they earn to have a child carer for reasons such as the job they do is not available part time, so they can't look after children after school, but don't want to give up working and their career altogether, such as women on the bottom rung of competitive industries in the media or IT. In such cases the increase of domestic work is the result of decrease, not increase of wages in the West, as the woman may want part time work if she could afford it. The situation might be temporary, i.e. a dying elderly relative and the woman needs to stay in work to keep her current status and pay in her career. The work might be undesirable or upsetting e.g. physical care for a parent. Increasingly working class families are also employing people to help out with childcare. This is also partly because increased migration within countries means that the extended family is not around to help out but is also due to migration leading to a very complex and many layered class - so long as someone is willing to do that work for less than you get elsewhere, you may make the choice to employ them.

The value of reproduction
Feminists have long pointed out the low social status or value placed on domestic work. The view of it being demeaning and lowly. When the pool of people that had to share out this work was the immediate family, this view was revealed in the gender relations between the man and the woman of the household. Now this pool of people is the global labour market. We see that it has one of the lowest statuses and lowest pay in the developed world. The pay and social status of domestic workers shows how little this work is valued in our society.

When the unpaid work of raising a child became the paid work of child-care workers, its low market value revealed the abidingly low value of care work generally. There is a vicious circle of domestic work being considered demeaning (and so of low value) because women do it, and women doing it because it is considered demeaning and of low value, economically and socially.

The 'wages for housework' debate centred around the fact that re-producing the daily life and needs of the workers (usually men) and bringing up and educating the children was work necessary for the production of surplus value, because it enabled those men to get to work, clothed, fed, emotional needs met, and the children became the next generation of workers. The capitalist division of labour relied on these tasks being done, but did not give it a 'value' in the sense of a wage, thereby recognising, valuing and quantifying it.

There is also an implied power relation in someone else cleaning up your stuff and caring for your intimate needs.

From the perspective of capital - money has been invested in the education of a skilled worker, Jane, for example and Jane demands a certain standard of living for that - i.e. a certain wage. Jane spends 15 hours a week on low skilled tasks such a cleaning, she is essentially being paid an IT workers wage (for example) for cleaning. To get that IT worker to work for 50 hours, rather than 35 and spend half of the wage of those 15 hours on a cleaner to do the 15 hours unskilled work for them maximises the investment into that IT worker.

The Care Drain begins with the men. As women increasingly took up paid work again, the men did not increase their share of the domestic work. So now there is increasingly a third person (or a range of other people) - the low paid, immigrant woman, to do that 'degrading' work. The presence of 'affordable' immigrant domestic workers enables men to continue to avoid the 'second shift' and to provide the illusion of gender equality within the relationship of the employing couple. But in reality the gender inequality has just been shifted out outside that relationship and into a global relationship of migration and has a knock-on, very harsh, effect on families of the sending countries. A division of labour feminists critiqued when it was 'local' has now gone global. So we do now have wages for housework - but they are low wages paid to women who do not have any other choice but to do someone else's housework - at a deep cost to their own families.

Remittances and the global economy
In times of economic crisis women 'make ends meet' (e.g. small subsistence plots of land), or make the hard choice to emigrate. As men loose their jobs, local markets collapse and governments withdraw social spending, developing alternative survival strategies becomes necessary, both for the families themselves and for the governments.16 For the women - migrating and sending back money to their families is often the only choice left to them. 34 to 54 percent of the Filipino population is sustained by remittances (money send back home).17 In general women tend to send back 50 percent of what they earn. This is one reason why governments encourage women to migrate for work, through employment schemes and even propaganda songs.

A World Bank report shows that "officially recorded remittances worldwide exceeded $232 billion in 2005. Of this, developing countries received $167 billion, more than twice the level of development aid from all sources. The report estimates that remittances sent through informal channels could add at least 50 percent to the official tally, making them the largest source of external capital in many developing countries. The report considered that it is plausible that in the coming years, official remittance flows will continue to rise at the 7 percent to 8 percent annual rate seen during the 1990s. These figures are for all remittances, but more women than men migrate in order to support families back home.

The countries receiving the most in recorded remittances are India ($21.7 billion), China ($21.3 billion), Mexico ($18.1 billion), France ($12.7 billion) and the Philippines ($11.6 billion). Those for which remittances account for the largest proportion of gross domestic product are Tonga (31 percent), Moldova (27.1 percent), Lesotho (25.8 percent), Haiti (24.8 percent) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (22.5 percent).

Remittances were larger than public and private capital inflows in 36 developing countries in 2004. In another 28 countries, they were larger than the earnings from the most important commodity export. In Mexico, for example, remittances are larger than foreign direct investment, and in Sri Lanka they are larger than tea exports. Remittances might also help smooth out the economic cycles of the recipient country. That is, remittances might rise when the recipient economy suffers a downturn in activity or macroeconomic shocks due to financial crisis, natural disaster or political conflict, because migrants may send more funds during hard times to help their families and friends.

On the national scale, by generating a steady stream of foreign exchange earnings, remittances can improve a country's creditworthiness for external borrowing, thus expanding access to capital and lowering borrowing costs. The report pointed out that often migrants are obliged to pay high fees when transferring funds.18 Many governments of countries that people emigrate from have schemes to facilitate women to migrate. Governments encourage migrant labour, sex workers and mail order brides. The Filipino government has legalised 'mail order bride' agencies.

Indonesia, along with many other countries, includes targets for the numbers of workers it hopes to send abroad in its five-year economic development plans. In the plan for 1999-2003, the target was 2.8 million workers.19

So the private decision of a woman to go abroad to do domestic work is propping up not only the professionals and business in the receiving countries, but also the governments of the sending countries, the money traders such as western union and any number of people smugglers, employment agencies and pimps along the way.

Third world governments are often encouraged (by the IMF etc.) to develop their tourism and entertainment industries - meaning also a parallel sex industry. In Thailand, somewhere between one in 120 and one in 60 of the entire population are women working as prostitutes. One in 20 of those women are enslaved. Those who deal in prostitutes make a fortune. According to a CIA report, traffickers receive about $7000 dollars for each woman delivered to the US and the pimp gangs then get something like $215,000 dollars per month from her work.

Prostitution is a growing industry - along with the growing international tourism industry.20 There are also many reports of maids, mail order brides and other domestic workers being trafficked, tricked and enslaved.

Effects on families in sending countries
Most migrating women have children. The average age of women migrants into the US is 29 and from countries where this usually means already having children. They cannot bring their children with them - for legal and economic reasons. More women than men migrants stay in the adopted countries.

There is a sort of economic chain reaction of the care crisis. One example is this: Rowena works in the US ($750 a month) and sends money back for her two children who live with her mother ($400 a month). But her mother also works, 14 hours a day as a teacher. So Anna de la Cruz comes in at 8am to cook, clean and care for the children ($50 a month), leaving her own teenage son in the care of her eighty-year-old mother in law.21

Many Governments and the local media of sending countries on one hand encourage migration, but at the same time vilify these women as 'bad mothers' creating a generation of delinquent children. This can be a stigmatisation of these families. Globalisation has lead to "ideas about gender and modernity that create large female workforces at the same time that ideologies of 'culture', 'authenticity' and national honour put increasing pressure on various communities to morally discipline working women".22

The fact that they cannot afford to, or legally cannot bring their own families, works in the favour of the employers - as the women will have more time and energy to give to their charges. They are more likely to be happy to live in the employing families home, meaning they are almost always on duty. One sample of live-in domestics in the UK found that 30 percent averaged an over 12-hour day.

Arlie Russell Hochschild writes about the fetishisation of the commodity of love, or "Globalisations pound of flesh". She looks at the affect on the children left behind, and makes the case that the loneliness and pain of these women means that they transfer huge amounts of love onto the children they are employed to look after. She says that love is 'an unfairly distributed resources - extracted from one place and enjoyed somewhere else…. Love does appear scarce and limited, like a mineral extracted from the earth". Ironically - if the women stayed in their origin countries they would not have the time to lavish the love they do on their charges in the 1st world. "The first world extracts love from the third world. But what is being extracted is partly produced or 'assembled' here; the leisure, the money, the ideology of the child, the intense loneliness and yearning for one's own children".23

The number of immigrant women working in parallel to more developed and wealthy sectors and areas is numerically and economically very significant. They are enabling a development of long hours and stressful work in developing sectors, enabling women to do professional work and have a certain home life lifestyle and enabling the men to continue not doing much domestic work, whilst the professional couple maintain the illusion of gender equality - in reality just shifting the gender inequality onto the global market place, leaving a care crisis further down the line. The wages and conditions of the work reveals the low status or value accorded to this work. 30 years after the start of the wages for housework debate we do have wages for housework - and they are about $3 an hour.

The work is integrated into modern capitalism not only in terms of this necessity for the modern sectors, but also in terms of the work organisation of the domestic work. The increasing industrialisation through agencies, the work processes and the location - e.g. the growth in care homes and fast food outlets.

The remittances are vital for the global economy - for the survival of people in the receiving countries, for those governments, and for economies that rely on those countries having foreign income.
Although these women are often described as marginal, invisible and dis-empowered - the last two undoubtedly true in the case of live-in domestics and nannies - there is also an intrinsic power these workers have. These are all jobs that have to be done where they are - so capital cannot re-locate in the case of a struggle for wage rises. It is also work which has to be done by humans and cannot really be done with less workers - so capital cannot industrialise in that sense - or provide a 'technological fix'. It is also work that simply has to be done.

Often we find examples of these women organising via NGOs or cultural groups. There is evidence that regular wage work can empower immigrant women - they learn the language better, have their own income, get better at accessing services available. Women tend to be more involved in community building and community activism. These trends suggest that women may emerge as more forceful and visible actors in class struggle. When looking for these potentials a lot depends on whether one is working in private home, or in a workplace. The isolation of the private home makes it a very hard place to organize collectively as workers. But there is also evidence that second generation immigrants tend to be those who struggle more than their parents.

There are some reports of collective struggle. On the 6 January 20,000 domestic workers in India went on a one-day strike with the Domestic Workers Union calling for recognition as official workers with the usual workers right. There are also some struggles of maids in Hong Kong and much more work could be done of researching and supporting these struggles all over the world.

What is for sure is that global capitalism would not function without the huge amounts of labour done by this significant part of the class, the immigrant woman doing so-called 'domestic' tasks.


1 Ministry of Manpower, "A General Guide on Employment of Foreign Domestic Workers," September 2005, pdf here,
7 Barbara Ehrenreich, Maid to Order, Global Women, (Granta Books, London, 2003)
10 Inter­national Labor Organization, Towards a Fair Deal for Migrant Workers in the Global Economy (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 2004), p.7. These numbers refer to the total number of migrant workers in receiving countries at a given point in time, including all who had migrated prior to the date and are still inside the country. The flow of migrant workers refers to the numbers going out of a sending country or entering a receiving country during a particular period of time, usually a year. Several limitations constrain migration estimates, including high levels of undocumented migration, lack of record keeping, restricted access to existing data, competing definitions of migration, and difficulties aggregating across diverse sources of information.
11 Janet Henshall Momsen, Gender, Migration and Domestic Service, (Routledge, 1999)
12 Migrant Centre and Migrant Forum in Asia, Asian Migrant Yearbook 2001 Migration Facts, Analysis and Issues in 2000 (Hong Kong, Asian Migrant Centre, 2000). Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Perempuan/CARAM Indonesia, Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers: Their Vulnerabilities and New Initiatives for the Protection of Their Rights (Jakarta: Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Pe­rempuan/CARAM Indonesia, 2003), p.9. This figure was 69 percent for Sri Lankan overseas workers in 2000 and almost 70 percent for Filipina overseas workers in 1998. Malsiri Dias and Ramani Jayasundere, Sri Lanka: Good practices to prevent women migrant workers from going into exploitative forms of labour (Sri Lanka: International Labor Organization, 2001), p.7; Piyasiri Wickramasekera, Asian Labour Migration: Issues and Challenges in an Era of Globalization, International Migration Papers 57 (Geneva: International La­bour Office, 2002), p.18.
13 Saskia Sassen, Global Woman, Granta Books, London, 2003, p.262.
14 Saskia Sassen, Global Woman, Granta Books, London, 2003, p.263.
15 Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Global Woman, (Granta Books, London, 2003).
16 IMF, "Workers’ Remittances and Economic Development," World Economic Outlook: Glo­bal­ization and External Imbalances (Washington DC: IMF, 2005), p.69.
17 Gina Mission, The Breadwinners: Female Migrant Workers, WIN: Women's International Net Issue (November 1998), p 15.
18 International migration can be an important tool in helping developing countries, affirmed a World Bank report published Nov. 16. Migrants and the money they send back home, remittances, is the main theme in the annual "Global Economic Prospects report for 2006."
20 CIA report, 2000: women/trafficking.pdf and Saskia Sassen, Global Woman, p.269.
21 Arline Russell Hochschild, Global Woman, Granta Books, London, 2003, p.15.
22 Arjun Appadurai, Globalization and the Research Imagination, (International Social Science Journal, 1999) p.231.
23 Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Global Woman, (Granta Books, London, 2003), p.15 - 31.

[prol-position news | 2/2006]



13 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by tastybrain on April 28, 2011

The general increased polarisation of the global economy means that middle class women in the third world earn less than low wageworkers in the first world. In Hong Kong the average wage of a domestic worker is 15 times that of a teacher’s salary in the Philippines. Or $176 a month for a professional salary in the Philippines compared to $700 a month in Italy or $1400 in LA as a nanny.

Couldn't a lot of this difference be explained by differences in the cost of living? I'd imagine that the divergences would be a great deal less if calculated using PPP figures rather than official exchange values.


13 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Khawaga on April 29, 2011

It's likely that in $PPP, the wage difference would not be as big, though it also depends on how many people are subsisting off a single wage. However, I think that's beside the point for the argument that they're trying to make. If you're a migrant worker that sends money home, absolute differences in wages means a lot, especially if a $1 in your home country is "worth" much more than the country you work in (hence the whole point about remittances). This partly drives migration and the proletarianization of domestic work.


13 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by tastybrain on April 30, 2011

Good point, and obviously there are huge differences in living standards across countries. My only motivation for pointing this out is that many people use these regional disparities to argue that an international working class movement/revolution is impossible 'because we're all upper class compared to them", etc