The often invisible and globally undervalued labour of mainly female domestic and care workers is the ‘work that makes all other work possible’ (UN Women’s “Progress of the World’s Women Report 2016). It is work that reproduces us and our societies every day. It is work through which gender equality and welfare states are sustained. The corona pandemic has revealed the value of domestic and care work in individual households, yet we have not heard calls to increase domestic and care workers’ wages, nor have politicians proposed public applause for those who clean households and care for the elderly and children in private homes.
The opposite is the case. Italy, hard hit by the pandemic and with a welfare state relying on a large number of migrant domestic and care workers, recently decided to explicitly exclude domestic workers from Cura Italia (“Care for Italy”), the financial support package for crisis-affected workers. It is estimated that this will leave over 2 million domestic workers in Italy, of which 1.2 million are undocumented, without compensation if they lose their job. According to the figures for 2018, over 70 percent of the domestic workers in Italy, as in many other countries, are migrants, and almost 90 percent are women. With national lockdowns and reduced public transport, it has become increasingly difficult for domestic workers to get to their workplaces. With borders closed, they are trapped in Italy if they lose their jobs.
By doing the necessary hands-on care and cleaning work, migrant domestic workers, especially undocumented workers, are risking their lives, often with no access to proper health care if they fall ill.
While many academics and knowledge workers agonise about having to work from home, domestic work is work that by definition takes place in the household of the employer. Domestic work involves persistent hierarchies that derive from the informal, feminised, and seemingly boundless nature of reproductive work that takes place outside formal labour controls. Moreover, the intersecting inequalities of gender and migrancy have been further emphasised during the pandemic.
Domestic workers often live far away from the wealthy neighbourhoods their employers reside in. To commute to work, they are required to use public transport multiple times a day, as it is common to work in several houses each day. This means an increased risk of catching the virus.
According to online interviews made by Elisabeth Wide with migrant domestic workers in Finland, employers encourage domestic workers to stay home in case they are ill, in order to protect the employers from being exposed to the virus. However, the same consideration is not shown to the workers when the employers themselves are ill. Domestic workers are expected to come to work even though the employer is sick. They are often not told that someone in the family that they work for is ill, only to realise it upon their arrival to work.
With the pandemic, employer families’ homes have been transformed into double workplaces. This has brought an increased workload for domestic workers, who get put in charge of family meals in addition to cleaning. A Filipina woman, whom we will call Valeria, does domestic work for private families in Finland. She describes her situation as follows:
“In addition to cleaning the entire big houses, I now also have to cook lunch and dinner for the families. I work so much, it’s too stressful and simply too much for me.” Valeria says that she sometimes needs to combine cleaning with childcare, as well. During the pandemic, a greater share of families’ social reproductive labour is transferred to domestic workers, leaving employers with more time for work and rest – at the expense of the domestic workers.
While some domestic workers are overburdened with work, others report of being laid off without pay at short notice. In Finland, the residence permit for non-EU migrant workers is tied to an existing work contract and receipt of income. The Finnish Immigration Service has announced that a temporary lay-off will not directly invalidate a residence permit. However, due to the lay-offs, there is a risk that the work permits will not be renewed, resulting in the affected migrant workers risking deportation after their permits expire. There has been no public debate on the renewal of work permits.
The pandemic has revealed how much European countries depend on a flexible and inexpensive migrant labour force. Europe needs migrants for domestic and care work, as well as for seasonal work in agriculture. Unfortunately, this revelation has not been accompanied by a greater acknowledgment of how migrant workers’ health, safety, and rights could be improved. Following a postcolonial logic, European countries continue to treat migrant workers as disposable, and the countries they originate from as sources of flexible labour.
Lena Näre is a tenure-track Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki. Her research interests include the study of migration and asylum, work and employment, care and transnationalism, intersectionality and ethnographic methods. She is the editor-in-chief (with S. Bendixsen) of Nordic Journal of Migration Research.
Elisabeth Wide is a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki, researching the intersections of class, gender and racialisation in migrant care and domestic work.
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