Care for the elderly, the invisible work of migrant women


“She doesn't like me calling it a job. She wants me to be part of the family.” Meliza shares the life of an elderly person who can no longer be alone. Like thousands of workers – often migrant women – she takes care of one of our elders Round the clock. Invisible and yet indispensable, these women help them, wash them and dress them. They cook and clean. They accompany them: they stay with our elders, day and night.

The importance of these workers is proving to be increasingly crucial with the Aging of the population and the explosion in the need for home care for the elderly. However, in Belgium as elsewhere in Europe, not only the working conditions in that sector are among the most precarious on the labor market, but the position of these workers in social stratification is also among the lowest on the socio-professional scale.

The documentary "Auprès d'elle" co-directed by Chiara Giordano offers an insight into the lives of workers who take care of our seniors 24 hours a day.

Low wages, difficult working hours, lack of professional development opportunities: what are the reasons for the persistence of poor working conditions in this sector? Why the professions of which (care given to others) have a bad reputation, despite the social role they fulfill? Where do the difficulties come from in valuing and professionalizing this work?

The lower status of the work of the which

The hardship of the work, which is good documented, is partly linked to the very nature of the activity (taking care of the hygiene of others, carrying heavy weights, taking care of people who are sometimes very sick, etc.). But what prevents an evolution of working conditions is above all the symbolic representation of the profession. This grants the work of which lower status in the stratification of occupations in the labor market. She makes it different from any other employment relationship.

At least two factors feed this representation. The first is the legacy of the poor social image of domestic work more broadly. Dealing with other people's dirt is associated with degrading jobs, "dirty jobs". Moreover, domestic work conjures up images of "bondage" : there is always a person "who serves" and a person "who is served". If the relationship between worker and beneficiary is based on an interpersonal relationship of power which is traditionally expressed and justified by a class distance, today it is based on more complex shapes. Nationality or ethnic group perform the function of otherness, where social origin or level of education allow it less than before.

Working from home 24 hours a day… so not a real job?

The second factor is related to the dichotomy between the public and private spheres and the gendered division of labor within the family.

On the one hand, the work of which is inextricably linked to the private sphere. The opposition between "productive work" (possessing an economic value) and "reproductive work" (carried out for free within the family) works against the professions of which. Their status as “real” work is constantly questioned. Moreover, they are considered as an activity that does not require specific skills or qualifications since “everyone does it for their family”.

On the other hand, this reproductive work still today has a strongly gendered dimension, since it is associated with the work traditionally carried out by female members of the family. the which, seen as a “natural” activity, or at least naturally acquired by women, is essentialized as female work, which explains the predominance of women in the area. The concept of which raises criticism precisely for this reason: it designates both the practice of taking care of others and the disposition to do so. The risk of creating confusion between the two is real.

Photo taken from the documentary “Auprès d'elle” co-directed by Chiara Giordano.

If the private character and the gender dimension of the which contribute to the low valuation of these professions in general, working from home 24 hours a day adds additional challenges.

Not only does the private nature of work imply the lack of control over working conditions, but even when working hours are defined by contract, 24-hour work often implies permanent availability. This leads to a lack of separation between home and work, between leisure time and work time. Moreover, the sharing of an intimate space and the emotional work that characterize this work make the relationship between the worker and the elderly person constantly oscillates between work relationship and family relationship. This generates a strong ambiguity, the worker being no longer considered as such, but rather as “a member of the family”, as employers tend to define her.

This set of factors means that employers, whether families or intermediaries, consider that these trades do not “deserve” good wages.

rungs in misery

This occupation includes the most vulnerable people on the labor market: often migrant women and/or women of foreign origin. This concentration of foreign labor can be explained in particular by factors of an economic nature: the increase in demand for which in Western countries was accompanied by an increase in the mainly foreign supply.

The elements generally proposed to explain the formation of this supply are based on the characteristics of the workforce, which is said to be more flexible, less expensive and more adaptable to atypical hours, compared to the local working population. Nevertheless, as my research As shown, other elements contribute to the ethnicization of the sector. At the macro level, for example, public policies regulating migration, social protection or gender inequalities have an impact on the concentration of female migrant workers in this sector.

Thus, the position of domestic workers and which cannot be reduced to their professional situation. It is defined and continually remodeled by other factors, such as their administrative status and work permits, which are in turn determined by each country's own migration regime.

But among the working women, not all enjoy the same working conditions. Within this generally highly devalued work force, migrant workers without contracts, and in particular those who live with the elderly, represent the most invisible and the most precarious. The situation of administrative irregularity can be added to these factors and make their situation even more vulnerable.

In our aging societies, real public measures are to be considered so that this phenomenon does not become a new global model of exploitation.

Clare Jordan, Postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in sociology, Free University of Bruxelles (ULB)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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