Global care chains and the spectral histories of care migration

Author: Ethel Tungohan1
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  • 1 York University, , Canada
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This article unearths hidden narratives that have been ignored in care migration research by using intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches. I examine the following: the accounts of a child of a migrant caregiver versus the child of a migrant caregiver’s employer; caregiver ‘Clara’s’ experience when working for an employer who was a surrogate grandmother; and caregiver ‘Linda’s’ lived experiences of being in a same-sex partnership in Canada while still being legally married to a man in the Philippines. Ultimately, I show how care migration research benefits from considering the ‘spectral histories’ that are part of people’s encounters with care migration.

Abstract

This article unearths hidden narratives that have been ignored in care migration research by using intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches. I examine the following: the accounts of a child of a migrant caregiver versus the child of a migrant caregiver’s employer; caregiver ‘Clara’s’ experience when working for an employer who was a surrogate grandmother; and caregiver ‘Linda’s’ lived experiences of being in a same-sex partnership in Canada while still being legally married to a man in the Philippines. Ultimately, I show how care migration research benefits from considering the ‘spectral histories’ that are part of people’s encounters with care migration.

Introduction

Globally, many families rely on migrant care and domestic workers to meet their need for caring labour.1 The International Labour Organization estimates that of the 67.1 million domestic workers worldwide, 11.5 million are migrants (ILO, 2015). Contrary to migrant-sending and migrant-receiving states’ depictions of such programmes as mutually beneficial, scholars have found that such programmes lead to numerous inequities at the individual, meso- and macro-levels.

At the individual level, many scholars have noted that, in such contexts, contractual relationships between employer and employee lead to much abuse. In Canada, for example, scholars were critical of the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP), in place from 1992 until 2014. This offered migrant care workers the possibility of acquiring Canadian citizenship for themselves and their families after completing a two-year live-in work requirement. Critics noted that tying migrant care workers’ immigration status to their employer magnifies employers’ power over migrant care workers (Arat-Koc, 1989; Bakan and Stasiulus, 2005). Making migrant care workers ‘citizens in waiting’ also places pressure on them to tolerate situations of labour abuse to avoid jeopardising their citizenship applications. The harsh working conditions facing many migrant care workers underscore, as Fiona Robinson (2010: 5) has argued, that ‘relations of care … can and often do become relations of domination, oppression, injustice, inequality, or paternalism’.

In fact, the relatively higher salaries that migrant care workers receive compared to the wages that they would receive in their home countries, and the possibility of being able to apply for Canadian citizenship, does not compensate for the reality that care workers under Canada’s LCP experienced high rates of deskilling. Care workers may have college degrees and professional qualifications, yet they are asked to perform menial tasks that are not part of their employment contracts (Tungohan et al, 2015). Although strong relationships of love and care can emerge between care workers and care recipients, these are still employer–employee relationships in which the balance of power is inevitably skewed towards the employer (notwithstanding that care workers also hold some power as providers of care for vulnerable individuals). There are also differences in the experiences of those being cared for, those who are doing the work of caring and those who have been left behind, with very little policy attention paid to the latter two.

At the meso-level of the families involved, care migration gives families in receiving states access to affordable and convenient care but separates care migrants from their family members. The emotional harm that may be felt by the families that migrant care workers have left behind can lead these family members to feel ambivalent about whether, ultimately, care migration was ‘worth it’. Family fragmentation often leads to feelings of abandonment and alienation on the part of care workers’ children (Parrenas, 2005), and to feelings of estrangement upon reunification (De Leon, 2009). This does not mean that care migration inevitably leads to instances of grief and sadness for migrant women and their children; indeed, research shows that transnational caregiving arrangements are complicated and can be sites of joy, sadness and many other emotions (Francisco-Menchavez, 2018). Care migration nevertheless places the families of migrant care workers in an inferior position compared to the families of those who employ them, who oftentimes do not have to deal with complications generated by geographical distance. Extended periods of family separation mean that family members are often not privy to each other’s lives. Despite technological advances facilitating greater ease in communication (De Leon 2009; Brown, 2016a), discussing major life changes becomes difficult.

Finally, at the structural level, care migration programmes facilitate a ‘brain drain’ in sending states. As Robinson (2010) notes, sending states are often complicit in encouraging their nationals to migrate abroad, and should not be seen as lacking agency in forming relevant policies. Rodriguez (2010: 12) concurs, observing that the Philippine state ‘sought to capitalize existing out-migration while also expanding it given new forms of labor demanded globally’. It is also the case that sending states in the Global South, addressing recurrent problems of unemployment, increasingly compete with each other in establishing labour migration agreements with receiving states. A consequence of this is that receiving states have a plethora of countries from which to recruit workers, and are in the advantageous position of negotiating agreements that work in their favour and lower labour protections (Arnold and Pickles, 2011). Sending states also contend with a ‘care drain’. This arises not only because migrant women’s departure means that their children and elderly relatives may lack adequate care in their absence, but also because migrant workers trained as health-care professionals are leaving their own country’s hospitals and clinics.

Yet, an analysis of individual, meso-level and structural inequalities is insufficient in capturing nuanced realities. What remains insufficiently explored are the ‘spectral histories’ (Ahmed, 2006: 152–3), which can be ‘conjured’ or ‘conceived’ but ‘cannot simply be perceived’ because taken-for-granted assumptions about migrant care work are so deeply embedded that other narratives are subsumed. Ahmed’s (2006: 3) argument, that ‘orientations shape not only how we inhabit space but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as “who” or “what” we direct our energies and attention towards’, is relevant because she compels us to think about lived experiences and institutional and structural arrangements previously neglected in care migration research. In this article, I ask ‘Whose experiences are we omitting?’ and ‘What institutional and structural arrangements have we overlooked?’.

I argue that using decolonial, queer and intersectional frameworks allows us to recuperate spectral histories under-reported in care migration research to date. These add nuance to Global Care Chains theories, which figure prominently in studies on migrant care work. The emphasis that Global Care Chains scholars place on recognising care as an important social value is compelling; yet, to unearth ‘hidden’ narratives, empirical and normative models of care also need to use intersectional, decolonial and queer lenses. Feminist care researchers have developed ‘sensitivities to the particularities of others’ and understandings of ‘local genealogies’ of care (Raghuram, 2012: 170) through intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches, which offer nuanced theorising and open up new and radical spaces for imagining just alternatives.

I develop the arguments summarised in preceding paragraphs in three sections. First, I critically assess the Global Care Chains literature, and show that the analysis of care migration also needs to centre local genealogies of care (Raghuram, 2012), migrant agency (Vaittanen, 2014) and affect (Brown, 2016b). In the second section, I look at the ‘spectral’ narratives haunting care migration research, gathered in researching and teaching care migration. I recount differences in perception between the children that migrant care workers left behind and those they care for in Canada, and discuss a heated exchange I witnessed during a class in which Canada’s Live-in Care Program was being discussed. I also consider the complicated emotions that can emerge in difficult situations facing migrant care workers. Here, I address how Clara,2 who took care of an elderly woman she called Lola (which translates as ‘grandmother’ in Tagalog), was barred from attending Lola’s funeral, and discuss Linda’s secret same-sex partnership with Nene (a fellow care worker) while legally married to a man in the Philippines, himself also in another relationship. I consider whether and how the concept of Global Care Chains can accommodate these narratives. In the third and final section, I return to the narratives and apply intersectional, decolonial and queer readings to each. In so doing, I hope to show that existing care migration frameworks – with Global Care Chains theories a prominent example – do not fully account for the complex and messy emotions that result from care migration. I hope that seeing how else we can think about lived experiences emerging from care migration will widen our analytical scope.

My goal in this article is to make visible the spectral histories that haunt commonplace understandings of care migration, as seen in Global Care Chains theories. Through the singularity of these frameworks and categories of analysis, such narratives become hidden. They risk making scholars of care migration complicit in reproducing the very inequities that they seek to expose. I take my inspiration from Iris Marion Young’s work on ‘asymmetrical reciprocity’, which debunks the notion that ‘being able to imagine oneself in the position ofothers’ is crucial to ensuring ‘moral respect’ (1997: 347). Instead, Young (1997: 343) argues for the importance of recognising that people’s relationships are ‘asymmetrical in terms of the history each has and the social position each occupies’. Examining the spectral narratives under-examined in care migration research, the article aims to rectify these asymmetries.

Care migration and emotions

In order to understand new caring arrangements that emerge as a result of care migration, many researchers have adopted the concept of Global Care Chains. First conceptualised by Hochschild (2000), this concept refers to transnational paid and unpaid caregiving arrangements made by families to accommodate women’s entry into the paid labour force. ‘Dwindling public services’ mean that families make their own care arrangements, making the hiring of migrant domestic workers an attractive option (Williams, 2001: 485). Parrenas (2000), noting that a ‘transnational reproductive division of labour’ involving ‘middle-class women in receiving nations’, ‘migrant domestic workers’ and ‘Third World women who are too poor to migrate’, provides a compelling and oft-used example of how Global Care Chains operate within the global market economy. By pointing out that migrant domestic workers who care for the families of middle-class women themselves seek help from women in sending states to care for the families that they are leaving behind, Parrenas (2012: 560) highlights how reproductive labour is gendered and ‘commodified’ and shows that ‘the economic value of care work diminishes as it gets passed along’ (Parrenas, 2012: 270). Global Care Chains theories aptly capture how broad transformations in the global economy have led to corresponding shifts in caring arrangements (Nadasen, 2017: 124).

Much empirical research attests to the validity of these theories. Palenga-Mollenbeck (2013: 364), for example, argues that Global Care Chains ‘result from and recreate social inequalities based on gender, class, and ethnicity/citizenship’. Hochschild (2000) observes that Global Care Chains entail a transfer of emotions from migrant care workers’ biological children to their employers’ children, a process she calls a ‘global heart transplant’ (Hochschild, quoted Nadasen, 2017: 124). Parrenas has conducted interviews with migrant domestic workers and their families that underscore the emotions felt by migrant workers caught up in Global Care Chains, and notes the grief that migrant mothers face when living apart from their families (Parrenas, 2000) and the range of emotions that their children face (Parrenas, 2005).

Researchers nevertheless criticise these theorists for analytical omissions. Yeates (2004: 379) argues that Global Care Chains theories should be expanded to look not only at migrant care workers hired within individualised settings, but also at other care arrangements involving different modes of care work and different family configurations. Raghuram (2012: 169) echoes Yeates’s insistence on widening the analysis, asking ‘are chains too unidirectional a concept to cover the complexities of care arrangements?’. She insists that attentiveness to the ‘locational specificities of genealogies of care’ (Raghuram, 2012: 156) in the Global South enriches Global Care Chains analysis by delving into more diverse norms and structures. Pairing Global Care Chains theories with a ‘care diamond’ approach (in which four ‘nodes’ – families, markets, communities and states – all affect care arrangements [Raghuram, 2012: 163]) offers, she suggests, ‘a greater diversity in the directions of flows, loop backs across and within countries and unexpected connections between the different nodes that go beyond the chain’ (Raghuram, 2012: 169).

Parrenas (2012: 273) criticises ‘care diamonds’ as potentially ‘losing sight of’ the transnational dimensions of caregiving, and Tronto (2012: 33) warns that a focus on ‘care diamonds’ may lead to an unquestioning acceptance of ‘the paradigm of unlimited economic growth’. This, she claims, ignores the normative question of why caring does not play a more central role in policy construction globally and nationally. Nevertheless, Raghurum’s point convincingly outlines why care diamonds are more responsive to diversity. Studying local realities – including diverse caring arrangements and the involvement of multiple actors – enables a better appreciation of the distinct histories and strategies people assume.

Like Raghuram, other scholars argue that Global Care Chains theories need to account for migrant agency. Vaittanen (2014: 195) provides a pointed critique, arguing that these theories assume that migrant care workers’ pathways are predetermined:

Imagining the global care chains as pre-structured paths along which the care workers migrate easily leads to the perception that the migrant care workers are but labouring bodies, governed by the rules of GPE [Global Political Economy]; as opposed to lived beings, whose embodied movement through the chained network leaves its marks on the entire structure.

Vaittanen (2014: 195) expresses concern about how the ‘erasure of the migrant from the structural presentation of [Global Care Chains]’ is ‘political’, illustrating how ‘the figure of the migrant is easily sketched invisible in modern political economies’ and how structural explanations prioritise ‘institutional actors’ over ‘embodied agents’, whose very decisions create and reinforce the structures being discussed. The invisibility of human beings’ agency – in short, the decisions they make, their strategies and their emotions – in current explanations of Global Care Chains is a significant shortcoming because Global Care Chains are mistakenly deemed ‘abstract, disembodied, and stable’ (Vaittanen, 2014: 196).

Inspired by Vaittanen’s critiques of Global Care Chains, Rachel Brown (2016b: 211) observes that Global Care Chains theorists mistakenly assume that emotions are ‘fixed, stable commodities’, and that the love that migrant domestic workers have for their biological children can simply be displaced on to the children that they are taking care of in receiving states. Such simplistic readings of emotions assume that people – in this case, migrant mothers – have a limited reservoir of emotions, to the detriment of the children they left behind. Global Care Chains theories also assume that only biological mothers’ physical presence determines children’s well-being, thereby bolstering the ‘sad’ stories that theorists like Manalansan (2006) argue have overtaken depictions of care migration. According to Brown, these theorists also assume that migration journeys do not take a longitudinal view of migration. They ignore how such journeys involve ‘the numerous transitions migrants undergo from being care receivers as children, to care workers, to care receivers again in old age’ (Brown, 2016a: 221) and how different people experience time and space distinctively. Brown (2016a: 211) proposes that Global Care Chains theorists take an ‘affective turn’ and ‘make visible the shifting subjectivities, experiences and sites of resistance that characterize the daily lives of migrant caregivers’. Pairing an affective turn with Global Care Chains analysis recuperates stories of diverse modes of transnational reproductive caring arrangements. This turn then overcomes ‘the tragedy of victimization rhetoric’ (Kapur, quoted in Brown, 2016b: 220), putting into focus the diversity of migrants’ lives within care migration.

Spectral histories: hidden narratives in care migration

In this section, I discuss the ‘spectral histories’ that remain hidden in mainstream accounts of care migration, and consider whether and how Global Care Chains theories take these into account. In invoking the idea of ‘spectral histories’ (Ahmed, 2006), I refer to those whose lived experiences cannot easily be accounted for within existing categories of analysis.

Children ‘left behind’ and employers’ children

During a discussion of Canada’s LCP, student #1 passionately stressed that programmes like the LCP allowed her family to meet their caregiving needs. Student #1 highlighted how much her caregiver loved her, and how much she, in turn, loved her caregiver. In response, student #2 forcefully condemned the LCP for tearing apart her family; for years, she lived apart from her mother, who worked for families similar to her classmate’s. “The caregiver who took care of you didn’t love you as much as you think she did”, she said to her classmate; “She probably did, a little bit, but part of it was acting, too, because it was her job to take care of you. She loved the children she left behind”.

Although scholars have examined the perspectives of migrant care workers’ children (see, eg, Parrenas, 2005), the assumption that children ‘left behind’ suffer from feelings of abandonment and face negative outcomes, such as low grades, increased rates of truancy and so on, following their separation from their parents has become a widely held assumption in the care migration literature. A notable exception is Francisco-Menchavez’s (2018) research that examines how migrant children’s feelings towards their parents shift over time, with older children learning how to rationalise their parents’ departure and even participating in their own forms of care work towards their parents. Her observation that emotions do not remain static and that contradictory emotions can coexist is an idea not easily accounted for within Global Care Chains theories.

Of course, migrant care workers’ children do not just have emotions towards their parents. By examining how migrant care workers’ children relate and interact with their siblings and other relatives who have assumed parental roles, Francisco-Menchavez widens existing analytical frameworks to encompass the affective networks of which migrant care workers’ children and migrant care workers are part.

Student #2’s interjection earlier shows the possibility that migrant care workers’ children also experience complex emotions in relation to figures beyond their affective networks. In student #2’s case, she expressed resentment towards student #1 upon hearing student #1’s belief that she was loved by the migrant care worker employed by her family. Student #1, in turn, does not appear to experience the same complicated emotions as student #2. Based on her account, she seems to take as given the idea that she loved the migrant care worker who cared for her, who then loved her in return. One wonders whether she has thought of children like student #1 and the circumstances compelling the physical separation of migrant care workers’ families.

How can Global Care Chains theories account for these fraught emotions? Certainly, they account for the transfer of care that led student #1 to benefit from migrant mothers’ daily acts of care towards them, and student #2’s ensuing feelings of resentment. Yet, it does not address how student #1 and student #2 feel about each other. On a different, but related, note, there has been scant research examining the emotions felt by the children of migrant care workers’ employers.

Family members or ‘workers’?

In Toronto, Clara, a Filipina live-in caregiver, discussed how hard it was to say goodbye to the 90-year-old woman who she considered a surrogate grandmother:

“I was with Lola every day, from the time she wakes up until she goes to bed. I go with her to her doctor’s appointments, I wake up in the middle of the night to help her go to the washroom, I know what pills she takes. And she knows about me. She knows that I want to live here with my children. She asks about them constantly and has even talked to them on Skype. I had another employment offer but said no because I didn’t know what would happen to Lola if I left. So, when Lola died, I was distraught. I wasn’t allowed to be in the hospital with her because I wasn’t family. And then her children fired me the day after her funeral, which I wasn’t allowed to attend because they wanted it to ‘just be for family’. My services were no longer needed. Not being able to say goodbye has left me with a gaping wound in my heart.”

Care migration scholars, including Global Care Chains theorists, acknowledge the labour precariousness at the heart of migrant domestic worker programmes. The intimacy of care and domestic workers’ labour places them in the paradoxical position of being both ‘part of the family’ and paid workers. The reality that migrant care workers like Clara live away from their biological family members and reside in the same households as their employers further blurs the line between ‘family member’ and ‘worker’. For them, there is no separation between ‘work’ and ‘home’. This meant, for Clara, that professional and personal boundaries between her and Lola were eroded. The love that she and Lola had for each other led Clara to reject a higher-paying job offer, a decision that seems counter-intuitive if Clara and Lola’s relationship is viewed as purely contractual, but which makes sense if it is seen as a tightly knit, familial bond. That this relationship was not recognised by Lola’s biological kin after Lola’s passing led Clara to feel emotionally devastated, emotions that were no doubt compounded by the termination of her contract.

Global Care Chains theories enable recognition of the ties that bound Clara and Lola by underlining the shifting emotions that migrant care workers face within a given employment relationship. In Clara’s case, taking an affective turn in Global Care Chains theorising (as prompted by Brown) provides space to acknowledge the coexistence of conflicting emotions. When reflecting on her experiences, Clara recounted both the love and security that she felt with Lola and the devastation, anger and disbelief that she felt afterwards. Looking at Clara’s situation through an affective lens shows the extent to which Clara’s emotional needs were disregarded.

Yet, is it sufficient to see Clara’s situation as evidence of the labour precariousness and contradictions that emerge when care workers are bound by contract to their employers? There does not seem to be much room for Young’s recognition of the asymmetries in migrant care work that result in the devaluing of migrant care workers’ emotions and entrench the inequalities in migrant care workers’ social positioning (Young, 2011) in Global Care Chains theorising.

Dual lives and new definitions of ‘family’

In Vancouver, Linda, a Filipina caregiver, laughed when I asked her about marital status. She said, “Technically, I am still married. In fact, I am processing papers to claim my husband in the Philippines. He’s now with someone else, though”. Linda’s partner in Vancouver, Nene, who she met and fell in love with in Vancouver, was the one Linda considered her ‘real’ partner:

“Being a live-in caregiver is hard. You can’t really share with your family back home what you are going through because you don’t want them to worry. I’m lucky to have Nene to take care of me when I’m here … it’s just unfortunate that our relationship has to remain hidden. If I can tell my family the truth, I feel like I would be able to exhale.”

Global Care Chains theorists have long noted migrant care workers’ dual lives (Parrenas, 2000). Omitting the truth about the difficulties of working abroad allows migrant care workers to shield their families from possible emotional harm. Although migrant care workers’ families, particularly their children, also keep secrets to protect their mothers from emotional harm, as discussed by Francisco-Menchavez (2018), on balance, migrant care workers keep more from their families. Loretta Baldassar’s (2008: 254) research on Italian migrants’ efforts to maintain family ties transnationally shows the influence of the belief that being far apart limits family members’ ability to ‘respond appropriately’ to news. Global Care Chains theories effectively illustrate that, advances in communications technology notwithstanding, there are still instances in which the chasms caused by physical separation cannot be bridged.

The duality that characterises migrant care workers’ lives can result in other omissions, such as migrant care workers hiding their romantic relationships. Linda’s children are aware that their father has a new partner but are unaware of Linda’s partnership with Nene. For Global Care Chains theorists, Linda’s situation is yet another example of the social costs of migrant domestic work. Due to prolonged family separation, keeping families intact becomes difficult over time (Asis, 2006).

However, can Linda’s narrative be seen in a different light? Although it is undeniable that sadness infuses Linda’s story, there is also the joy that Linda expressed in her new partnership with Nene. The singularity of the frameworks offered by Global Care Chains theories precludes the possibility that multiple readings of specific situations exist.

Intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches

Intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches that centre affect while also recognising structural injustices need to be brought into care migration theorising. This section discusses each of these approaches individually before discussing how they nuance the narratives discussed earlier.

Intersectional approaches

Intersectionality theorists encourage awareness of the multiple and overlapping forms of oppression that different people face and the impacts that interlocking power structures have on people’s experiences of oppression. Thus, when looking at the situations of migrant domestic workers, researchers have pointed not only to how migrant domestic workers’ gender, sexuality, class, race, citizenship status and other social locations are salient when understanding their situations, but also to the role played by interlocking power structures.

To be clear, Global Care Chains researchers make repeated reference to the importance of intersectionality. Yet, to strengthen our analysis of care migration, intersectional analysis is needed to critique these theorists’ assumptions. Rather than assuming the primacy of gender oppression in care migration, applying an intersectional lens discourages the use of additive approaches that see gender ‘plus race, plus class’ as interacting to produce essentialist portrayals of migrant domestic workers’ oppression; instead, an intersectional understanding of care migration allows for the possibility that ‘new and emerging intersections that are dependent on ever-changing political, social and economic contexts’ are salient (Hankivsky, 2014: 258). Such an understanding allows us to go beyond thinking of migrant care workers (and other care migration stakeholders) in ‘bounded and discrete categories’, such as ‘poor women’, ‘women of colour’ or ‘migrant domestic workers’, and to think instead of ‘within-group diversity’ (Hankivsky, 2014: 256), which brings to the fore the distinctiveness of individual narratives. Rather than assuming a priori that the injustices arising from care migration primarily exist because of patriarchy, we become open to seeing the ‘influence and complex interplay of globalization, neoliberalism, colonialism, racism, imperialism, homophobia, and “geographism” that create the demand for paid migrant care work and shape the relationships between affected care givers and receivers’ (Hankivsky, 2014: 259).

This approach can show which power structures bolster specific care migration regimes, how differences in how migrant domestic workers and their families fare depend on their intersecting social locations, and how access to and the quality of care (among many issues) are differentially experienced because of interlocking power structures and intersecting social locations. Young’s points regarding the asymmetries of people’s experiences become starker when intersectional analysis is applied. Within care migration regimes, it becomes clear just how much more migrant care workers’ employers and their families benefit from care migration compared to migrant care workers and their families. These parties occupy vastly discrepant social positions. Yet, intersectionality also encourages awareness of the specificities of individual situations. Appreciating that individuals and communities are differentially located in distinct, multiple, intersecting and interlocking axes of oppression allows us to be attentive to why specific individuals face certain situations and why their emotions arise as they do.

Applying an intersectional lens to the narratives raised earlier enables an understanding of the specificities of each person’s situations that cannot easily result if, as tends to happen in Global Care Chains theorising, they are each seen as part of bounded categories (‘migrant care workers’, ‘children of migrant care workers’, etc) with experiences that are indistinct from others in their group. Using an intersectional lens highlights that each person’s experiences result from intersecting social locations and interlocking power structures specific to their situation. Put differently, student #2, Linda and Clara may have faced experiences similar to other children of migrant care workers (in student #2’s case) or migrant care workers (in Linda’s and Clara’s cases) but it cannot be assumed that their experiences are identical.

An intersectional lens also highlights the fluidity of the interactions between different categories and structures, which intersect in different ways at different junctures. Thus, while gender, race and migration status may affect Clara’s and Linda’s daily experiences as migrant care workers facing the pressures of mothering their children from afar while being part of a feminised and racialised workforce, other intersections may be more salient in the future. Would migration status, for example, be less important than other social categories after they have received Canadian citizenship?

Similarly, an intersectional reading of student #1’s and student #2’s experiences promotes attentiveness to nuance. An intersectional analysis of their situations highlights why student #1’s social location as a white, middle-class child who had never needed to live apart from her biological family allowed her to have uncomplicated feelings of love and gratitude towards the care worker who brought her up. An intersectional analysis also explains why student #2’s social location as an immigrant child from the Philippines who experienced downward mobility on moving to Canada because of her citizenship status, and had to live apart from her family, had more ambivalent thoughts about migrant care work. An awareness of local/cultural norms concerning family arrangements explains why it was important for student #2 to see her mother as working and not as providing emotional care. As Asis (2006) shows, the perception in the Philippines that mothers are ‘ilaws ng tahanan’ (‘light of the household’), which valorises maternal care and presence, explains student #2’s sharp reactions to the points that student #1 raised.

Later conversations revealed that while student #2 attended private school in the Philippines and felt well cared for by her grandparents, on moving to Canada, she had experienced: reuniting with her mother (who she did not know well); bullying from peers because of her accent; and going ‘back’ several grades because her educational qualifications were not officially recognised in Canada. Also relevant in understanding these two students’ divergent life paths and distinct feelings about migrant care work is the poverty of student #1’s family in the economic environment in the Philippines – itself the result of the interlocking systems of power identified earlier. Francisco-Menchavez (2018) highlights how people’s emotions towards care work shift over time, suggesting that student #2’s and student #1’s emotions may shift in the future. Using an intersectional lens allows for the possibility of emotional fluidity, underscoring that people’s experiences and feelings are not static. At different points in time, different social locations and power structures may become more salient.

Decolonial approaches

Decolonial approaches similarly highlight unequal power relations but focus on how contemporary forms of care migration are also manifestations of the legacy of colonial arrangements. For countries in the Global South and their nationals to continue serving affluent countries perpetuates colonial arrangements. Gutierrez-Rodriguez (2010: 43) criticises the transnational analysis of migration for obscuring that ‘the coloniality of labor is inherent to the logic of capital accumulation’, and observes that migrant domestic workers are ‘targeted as “raw material” as their labour is codified as “natural”‘ (and unworthy of modern labour protections). She adds that, ‘symptomatically, this is exposed in the working conditions of domestic workers characterized by oral contracts, unregulated working times, unsafe and vulnerable working conditions and high dependency on the employer’ (Gutierrez-Rodriguez, 2010: 43–4). Decolonial analysis unearths paradoxes in colonial states’ treatment of migrant domestic workers, in which their working conditions remain outside the ambit of state protection because household relations are a ‘private matter’ yet migrant domestic workers’ bodies are ‘constructed as ciphers through flows of information and technologies of control and surveillance’ (Gutierrez-Rodriguez, 2010: 45).

Understanding the different treatment of bodies by the (colonial) state reveals how racialised groups are differentially configured within colonial institutions. In Canada, historically, European ‘nannies and nursemaids’ could access Canadian citizenship, while Caribbean and Filipina ‘servants’ could not (Tungohan, 2012). A decolonial lens shows that these groups are constructed as being different due to their purported cultural compatibility with Canada’s norms and values – with European domestic workers preferred for permanent settlement over women from the Global South. The erasure of the role played by indigenous women in providing care to Canadian families in the early periods of colonial settlement, data that the Toronto-based Filipinx artistic collective Kwentong Bayan discovered, additionally illustrates why a decolonial lens is necessary and enables an understanding of the different histories of colonial subjugation. A decolonial analysis sees the treatment of different subjects (indigenous, compared with Caribbean and Filipina care workers) as an outcome of colonial relations between states (Canada and European countries compared with Canada and countries of the Global South). Decolonial analysis shows that it is insufficient to only see migrant domestic work as arising because of structural inequalities and gender ideologies that devalue care, as argued by Global Care Chains theorists.

A decolonial analysis also reveals how these paradoxical policies lead to experiences of the ‘structural and everyday violence’ that affects the ‘bodies and minds’ of different groups of migrant domestic workers: ‘affect emerges here as the bodily expressions of scars, wounds and sensations born from this experience, but is also fueled by yearnings, passions and desires’ (Gutierrez-Rodriguez, 2010: 38). Adopting a decolonial lens creates awareness of the emotional pain felt by student #2, Clara and Linda, and how this is felt most viscerally in the body. Clara’s references to a ‘gaping wound in her heart’ and Linda’s desire to ‘exhale’ shows how their experiences of care migration leaves ‘memories in the flesh’ (Irigaray, quoted in Rivera, 2011: 2). A decolonial analysis puts affect at the centre: ‘address[ing] the impact a feeling or emotion leaves on a person’s body or mind … and emerges out of contact with others’ (Gutierrez-Rodriguez, 2010: 129). It rejects the disavowal of the body in Western knowledge traditions, ‘articulate[s] alternative understandings and visions’ and goes ‘beyond the legacy of colonial/imperial knowledge … and its disembodied definitions of “knowledge”‘ (Rivera, 2011: 2). Rather than analysing care migration only in terms of policy ‘problems’ (i.e., what policies are needed to rectify the imbalances wrought by Global Care Chains), decolonial thinkers give voice to how structural, institutional and individual forms of violence arising from care migration become imprinted in people’s bodies, necessitating a more nuanced understanding of care in these contexts. Thus, ‘solving’ Global Care Chains involves not only making care a priority by defeating ideologies of hegemonic masculinity and redressing unequal policies, but also grappling with the lasting intergenerational trauma wrought by colonial practices.

Queer approaches

Pairing migration studies with queer approaches highlights similarities between ‘queerness and mobility’, which ‘can be considered as liminal states and practices, since both, in their own fashion, constitute peripheral and borderline spaces and identities’ (Mai and King, 2009: 298). ‘Queering’ migration research necessitates an appreciation for the in-between, ambiguity and liminality and provides a more nuanced understanding of migrants’ lived realities by diversifying the framework of analysis. Queer approaches highlight how migration regimes are structured to control migrants’ sexuality (Mai and King, 2009), for example, through state-led pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (STD) tests to check on migrant domestic workers’ ‘morality’ (as in Singapore), employer-led impositions of curfews (which implicitly prohibit the formation of romantic ties), and migrant-community-led surveillance of migrant domestic workers’ adherence to cultural norms of ‘modesty’. Making visible how sexual mores oppress migrants is a crucial contribution of queer theory.

Relevant here are Ahmed’s (2006: 2) ‘queer phenomenology’, which ‘emphasizes the importance of lived experiences, the intentionality of consciousness … and the role of repeated and habitual actions in shaping bodies and worlds’. A queer approach forces us to reckon with the spectral narratives cited earlier. As the care migration literature is rife with assumptions about migrant domestic workers and their families, effectively making Global Care Chains a universalising concept, narratives such as those highlighted are obscured or interpreted simplistically.

Manalansan (2006: 225) shows how queer approaches dismantle normative assumptions about ‘marriage, family, and biological reproduction’. She notes that heteronormative assumptions have led to a preponderance of research on ‘heterosexual married mothers’ in the care migration literature (Manalansan, 2006: 237) and argues that otherwise important research on Global Care Chains and migrant mothers has been undertaken in ‘heteronormative terms’, limiting its scope and excluding important narratives. Focusing only on the experiences of heterosexual migrant mothers, Manalansan (2006: 241) argues, traps researchers into assuming that gendered differences are biological, not constructed, and leads to ‘a rather inflexible gender script’.

Catungal (2017: 24), inspired by Manalansan’s critiques, sees much potential in placing a queer reading on key trends, and highlights the subversive potential of queer theory in providing counter-explanations to ‘dominant norms’. For Catungal, a queer reading of Filipino care migration recuperates hidden narratives. A queer approach takes ‘as its object of critique the normalization of certain forms of intimacy, which, in some contexts, includes homonormative and homonational forms of gay and lesbian relationships’ (Catungal, 2017: 25). It widens our analytical scope by drawing attention to transnational family arrangements like Linda’s. It also nuances understanding of why family separation is a ‘problem’ by compelling us to go beyond commonplace understandings of the tragedy in stories of family separation. It asks ‘what ideas about the family do we refer to when we problematize family separation?’ (Catungal, 2017: 30) and forces us to reflect on whether we think of family separation as tragic because it unsettles our heterosexist assumptions about what families should look like (with a breadwinning father and a care-providing mother in the same household). By questioning the taken-for-granted assumption that family separation is tragic, queer analysis forces us to actively deconstruct beliefs that form the basis for normative assumptions about the family. In the same vein, Diaz (2016: 329), writing in the context of Filipino-Canadian studies’ fixation with certain narratives of migration, argues that the growth of the field has been constrained by its ‘continued reliance on heteronormative ideations of family, kinship, religion, civil responsibility, and gendered citizenship’, a critique that can also be applied to care migration.

These observations enable the vignettes discussed earlier to be considered differently, offering glimpses of ‘anti-normative critiques’ and more nuanced explanations (Catungal, 2017: 26). Student #2 is not a tragic figure victimised by Global Care Chains, but a person with agency for whom care migration brings forth feelings of love, resentment and ambivalence. Contrary to Hochschild’s argument that Global Care Chains displace a migrant mother’s emotions from her own biological children to her employer’s children, a ‘proto-queer’ analysis reveals complicated emotions. Debts of obligation mingle with feelings of love and resentment, and student #2’s interpretation of migrant domestic workers’ ‘love’ for their employers’ children as partly ‘acting’ illustrates a proto-queer awareness of the performative/agentic elements of care migration that disrupt other assumptions in Global Care Chains theories.

This reading of Clara’s narrative allows for a more layered reading of her experiences. Although her account illuminates her precarious labour situation and resultant emotional neglect, a queer lens focuses on the contradictions in her narrative; rather than seeing Clara’s situation as exploitative, it sees affect as central to migrants’ experiences. It recognises Clara and Lola’s love for each other and Clara’s joy in caring for Lola, and acknowledges their contradictory emotions.

A queer reading of Linda’s story reveals issues of sexuality within care migration and hidden stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) migrants often missing in the care migration literature, in which notions of family and intimacy are often seen as fixed. Queer analysis underlines the need to include non-traditional ‘family’ forms and fluid concepts of sexuality, repudiating binary definitions; Linda may be legally married to a man but is also in a same-sex partnership with Nene.

Migrant care workers are part of a wide range of transnational familial arrangements. Many of these arrangements transcend heterosexual and Global Care Chains models, which often assume that female relatives do care work while migrant care workers’ spouses work themselves (Francisco-Menchavez, 2018). In such models, acknowledgement of alternative family structures is often absent. Nene, Linda’s partner, may not be part of Linda’s biological, ‘legal’ family, but is a source of support for Linda, as is the local community of migrant care workers that she spends time with. By showing that ‘fictive kin’ are also effectively part of Linda’s family, queer analysis reveals that care migrants can make care arrangements beyond their biological families, avoiding an exclusive narrative of distress and portraying the migrant as a ‘desire and pleasure-seeking migrant subject’ (Manalansan, 2006: 243).

Multilayered readings of spectral narratives

Seeing the exchange between students #1 and #2, as well as Clara’s and Linda’s narratives through intersectional, decolonial and queer lenses shows that interpretations beyond those offered by Global Care Chains theories are possible. These multilayered readings do not provide a formula for applying intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches together, but encourage the adoption of each of these frameworks – individually or together – to recuperate the spectral narratives and structural injustices under-examined in care migration research.

Of course, intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches build on each other. Intersectional thinkers build into their analysis decolonisation and queer theory (Cohen, 1997); decolonial researchers use intersectional and queer analysis (Gutierrez-Rodriguez, 2010: 162); and queer scholars consider intersectionality and are invested in the ongoing project of decolonisation (Diaz, 2016; Catungal, 2017).

These approaches encourage a re-imagining of alternate arrangements that can inspire normative visions of care migration. Intersectionality theory (which emerged from activist circles; see Combahee River Collective, 1983) draws attention to structures and experiences of oppression as mutually constitutive, embodies ‘a motivation to go beyond mere comprehension of intersectional dynamics to transform them’ (Cho et al, 2013: 786), and seeks the transformation of unjust structures: ‘the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy’ (Combahee River Collective, 1983: 267–8).

Decolonial analysis is similarly attentive to unjust dynamics and historical wrongs. It unsettles assumptions about care work by ‘bearing witness’ to the trauma and violence emerging from migrant care work, with the concept of ‘decolonial love’ seeking a ‘transformative and reparative future’ where ‘ethical relations beyond coloniality are built’ (Figeurora, 2015: 44). Applied to care migration, this work involves imagining whether decolonial love can be extended to various stakeholders in Global Care Chains: migrant care workers; their children, families and ‘fictive kin’; and the recipients of their care in receiving states.

Queer analysis assumes a related focus, encouraging us to imagine other configurations and look at how extant care migration tropes ‘align with problematic heteronormative, homonormative, and homonationalist sexual politics, including and especially in their neoliberal and (settler) colonial forms’ (Catungal, 2017: 34). Queer analysis encourages us to imagine what could be, rather than what is, rejecting commonplace narratives of the state and transnationalism. It encourages us to ‘willfully pursue futures that have yet to be created’ (Diaz, 2016: 346).

Such normative visions have long been promoted by feminist ethics of care theorists. They ask why care, as a social value, should be prioritised over other values, such as economic growth (Held, 2006; Tronto, 2012), and have pointed to the inequities resulting from structural arrangements that lead to the commodification of migrant women (Robinson, 2010). When paired with intersectional, decolonial and queer lenses, such narratives may lead to radical re-imaginings. Although there are contradictions between different normative approaches (Hankivsky [2014] finds feminist care ethics incompatible with intersectionality due to the primacy accorded to gender oppression in understanding the injustices of care migration), the fundamental values that inform these normative visions – a desire to acknowledge and redress inequities, a recognition of unequal histories and positionalities, and a sense that new values are needed – highlights commonalities between these approaches.

Conclusion

This article has discussed the ‘spectral narratives’ hidden in care migration research, examining conflicting feelings on migrant care work, migrant workers’ experiences and their dual lives. It has offered interpretations of these situations using Global Care Chains theories, and alternative readings based on intersectional, decolonial and queer approaches. Rather than seeing the situations of migrant care workers and their families as a by-product of individual, meso-level and structural inequities, intersectional, decolonial and queer analyses look at other dynamics simultaneously and reject singular frameworks. They add nuance to portrayals of Global Care Chains, looking at the effects of interlocking power structures, colonial histories and normative ideologies of the ‘family’ and ‘sexuality’ on migrant care workers and their families. They may prompt a re-imagining of radical futures that acknowledges and resolves the asymmetries at the heart of migrant care work.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Sarah Munawar for her insightful and thoughtful comments.

Notes

1.

In this article, ‘migrant care’ and ‘domestic workers’ are used interchangeably to refer to workers hired by private households either to provide caregiving (ie childcare, eldercare or care for disabled individuals) and/or to be responsible for domestic duties related to household maintenance (ie cleaning, cooking and other tasks). While there can be distinctions between these – care work, at least in Canada, is seen as more ‘professionalised’ than domestic work – migrant care workers and domestic workers are both engaged in care provision.

2.

Names in the narrative accounts are pseudonyms.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Yeates, N. (2004) Global care chains, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 6(3): 36991.

  • Young, I. (1997) Asymmetrical reciprocity: on moral respect, wonder and enlarged thought, Constellations, 3(3): 34063.

  • Young, I. (2011) Responsibility for justice, New York, NY: OUP.

  • Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Arat-Koc, S. (1989) In the privacy of our home: foreign domestic workers as the solution to the crisis in the domestic sphere in Canada, Studies in Political Economy, 28(1): 3358.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Arnold, D. and Pickles, J. (2011) Global Work, Surplus Labor, and the Precarious Economies of the Border, Antipode, 43(5): 15981624.

  • Asis, M. (2006) Living with migration: experiences of left-behind children in the Philippines, Asian Population Studies, 2(1): 4567.

  • Bakan, A. and Stasiulis, D. (2005) Negotiating citizenship, Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

  • Baldassar, L. (2008) Missing kin and longing to be together: emotions and the construction of co-presence in transnational relationships, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 29(3): 24766.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, R. (2016a) Multiple modes of care: Internet and migrant caregiver networks in Israel, Global Networks, 16(2): 23756.

  • Brown, R. (2016b) Re-examining the transnational nanny, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 18(2): 21029.

  • Catungal, J. (2017) Toward queer(er) futures: proliferating the ‘sexual’ in Filipina Canadian sexuality studies, in R. Diaz, M. Largo and F. Pino (eds) Diasporic intimacies: Diasporic Filipinos and Canadian imaginaries, Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press, pp 2340.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. and McCall, L. (2013) Toward a field of intersectionality studies: theory, application, and praxis, Signs, 38(4): 785810.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, C. (1997) Punks, bulldaggers and welfare-queens? The radical potential of queer politics?, GLQ, 3(4): 43765.

  • Combahee River Collective (1983) Combahee River Collective statement, in B. Smith (ed) Home girls: A black feminist anthology, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp 26474.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Leon, C. (2009) Post-reunification reconciliation among Pinay domestic workers and adult daughters in Canada, Canadian Women’s Studies, 27(2/3): 6872.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Diaz, R. (2016) Queer unsettlements: Diasporic Filipinos in Canada’s world pride, Journal of Asian American Studies, 19(3): 32750.

  • Figuerora, Y. (2015) Decolonizing as transformation: radical literary (re)imaginings of futurities through decolonial love, Decolonization, 4(1): 4158.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Francisco-Menchavez, V. (2018) The labor of care: Filipina migrants and transnational families in the digital age, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gutierrez-Rodriguez, E. (2010) Migration, domestic work and affect: A decolonial approach on value and the feminization of labour, New York, NY, and London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hankivsky, O. (2014) Rethinking care ethics: on the promise and potential of an intersectional analysis, APSR, 108(2): 25264.

  • Held, V. (2006) The ethics of care: Personal, political and global, Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Hochschild, A. (2000) Global care chains and emotional surplus value, in W. Hutton, A. Giddens (eds), On the edge: Living with global capitalism, London: Jonathan Cape, pp 130146.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ILO (2015) Migrant domestic workers around the world: Global and regional estimates, Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.

  • Mai, N. and King, R. (2009) Love, sexuality and migration, Mobilities, 4(3): 295307.

  • Manalansan, M. (2006) Sexuality and gender in migration studies, International Migration Review, 40(1): 22449.

  • Nadasen, P. (2017) Rethinking care: Arlie Hochschild and the global care chain, WSQ, 45(3/4): 1248.

  • Palenga-Mollenbeck, E. (2013) Care chains in Eastern and Central Europe, Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies, 11(4): 36483.

  • Parrenas, R. (2000) Migrant Filipina domestic workers and the international division of reproductive labour, Gender & Society, 14(4): 56080.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parrenas, R. (2002) The reproductive labour of migrant workers, Global Networks, 12(2): 269275.

  • Parrenas, R. (2005) Children of global migration: Transnational families and gendered woes, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

  • Raghuram, P. (2012) Global care, local configurations: challenges to conceptualization of care, Global Networks, 12(2): 15574.

  • Rivera, M. (2011) Thinking bodies: the spirit of a Latina incarnational imagination, in A. Diaz and E. Mendieta (eds) Decolonizing epistemologies: Latina/o theology and philosophy, New York, NY: Fordham University Press, pp 20725.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robinson, F. (2010) After liberalism in world politics? Towards an international political theory of care, Ethics & Social Welfare, 4(2): 130–44.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rodriguez, R. (2010) Migrants for export: How the Philippine state brokers labor to the world, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tronto, J. (2012) Democratic care politics in an age of limits, in S. Razavi and S. Staab (eds) Global variations in the political and social economy of care, New York, NY: Routledge, pp 2940.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tungohan, E. (2012) Debunking notions of migrant ‘victimhood’: a critical assessment of temporary labour migration programs and Filipina migrant activism in Canada, in R. Coloma, B. McElhinney, E. Tungohan, J. Catungal and L. Davidson (eds) Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing invisibility, Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, pp 16180.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tungohan, E., Banerjee, R., Chu, W., Cleto, P., De Leon, C., Garcia, M., Kelly, P., Luciano, M., Palmaria, C. and Sorio, C. (2015) After the Live-in Caregiver Program: Filipina caregivers’ experiences of graduated and uneven citizenship, Canadian Ethnic Studies, 47(1): 87105.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vaittanen, T. (2014) Reading global care chains as migrant trajectories: a theoretical framework for the understanding of structural change, Women’s Studies International Forum, 47: 191202.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Williams, F. (2001) In and beyond New Labour: towards a new political ethics of care, Critical Social Policy, 21(4): 46793.

  • Yeates, N. (2004) Global care chains, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 6(3): 36991.

  • Young, I. (1997) Asymmetrical reciprocity: on moral respect, wonder and enlarged thought, Constellations, 3(3): 34063.

  • Young, I. (2011) Responsibility for justice, New York, NY: OUP.

  • 1 York University, , Canada

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