Domestic and care work
Who cares?

A nurse helps an elderly woman with a walking stick
It is mostly immigrant women who clean and do the caring work | Illustration (detail): Leigh Wells; © picture alliance / Ikon Images

In the current debates on global migration, men still dominate the public image of migration. A look at private households and homes for the elderly, on the other hand, opens up another reality that has long been taken for granted: immigrant women are the ones who clean, nurse and tend to people's needs.

By Karen Körber

For about three decades, a feminisation of migration has been observed, which has not been without consequences for families in the countries of origin. From south to north and from east to west, women from poorer regions migrate to wealthier countries to work as legally or illegally employed household and nursing staff.

Gender-specific migration paths are not historically new, but in the context of increasing mobility, women now account for half of all migrants worldwide according to United Nations estimates, and care work has become the most important global labour market for them. Since the early 2000s, US sociologist Arlie Hochschild has been describing a global care chain in which women migrate to raise children of working parents in wealthier societies, while their own children in their countries of origin are looked after by other women - either from among their own family members or by paid sources.

High emotional costs

Since a gender-equitable distribution of domestic and care work does not exist either in the highly developed industrial countries or in the countries of the South, studies have been showing for years why an end to the resulting supply crisis is unforeseeable. Due to unequal wage conditions, receiving countries can access women as cheap labour without bearing the costs for their families, as they remain behind in their home countries.
Conversely, the sending countries are dependent on the funds that migrant women provide for their families at home to finance housing, food and education. After all, these remittances represent a significant contribution to the respective national income. In this sense, the states benefit from a dilemma that can be described as follows for women: Their mobility is a necessary precondition for maintaining their families.

How high the emotional costs are for family members in particular, who live separated from each other over long distances and periods of time, has been observed for many years. Technological change is less likely to change this than initial research has suggested. Although the possibilities of overcoming spatial and temporal distances via the internet or mobile phones have created opportunities for greater closeness and a more normalised exchange, they have also given rise to new problems for those involved. In some cases it is practical challenges that cause communications to fail, for example because children are too young or parents too old to operate the relevant devices. In addition, access to these communication media is by no means equally available to all. Access depends both on local technological conditions and on the financial resources of family members.

Long-distance motherhood

And finally, family members are confronted with the limitations of the media themselves. This includes, on the one hand, the fact that the proximity produced is irrevocably interrupted at the end of the telephone call and, on the other hand, the fact that interactions are limited to communications and any form of affective-bodily proximity is impossible. As a result of these restrictions, members of transnational families learn early on what they communicate with one another and what they do not. In other words, the new technologies enable migrant women to have forms of long-distance motherhood while at the same time providing material support for the family. The women not only provide financial support for the children's school attendance, they can also ask about their homework. They cannot take them in their arms.