Transnational mothers take care of a family in the host country and their own from a distance in their country of origin. They are the fastest growing group of migrants. Helma Lutz, visiting researcher at Linköping University, is studying "the care drain", how caring and domestic work is increasingly contracted out to women from poor countries.
Millions of female migrants, mainly from Eastern Europe, today manages housework, children and elderly, in homes in Western Europe. For nearly half of the families in the East, the money the absent mothers send home is the biggest source of income.
- We do not know how many there are. Data is extremely hard to come by in this area. An educated guess is three million, only in Western Europe, says Helma Lutz.
She is Professor of Gender Studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt. During half a year she is visiting researcher at Linköping University and she divides her time between REMESO and Gender Studies. She is one of the pioneers in studying the phenomenon of the feminization of migration, how more and more women are leaving their own families for a future as migrants and domestic workers in wealthy countries. In central and southern Europe, this is now a common phenomenon, in comparison with the Scandinavian countries with stronger welfare systems. Child care and care of the elderly is to a greater extent handled by institutions.
The collapse of Eastern Europe in 1989 triggered this development. When the borders opened to the West former welfare- and safety systems eroded or collapsed. For many families emigration became the only chance to a decent life. At the same time women in Western Europe increasingly entered the labor market.
- Gender equality policy in the EU has had the aim to bring more women into the labor market, and it has succeeded. But who will do the work in the home when the women leave for salaried work?
It has become a non-issue, says Helma Lutz, and talk about a failure of feminism and the gender equality movement. One of its basic demands in the 1970s, that housework should be shared equally between men and women, was never realized. Instead, that is now out-sourced to women from poor countries.
In Germany, for example, these migrants are still illegal. No government regulation of this immigration exists. Everyone knows that they are needed, says Helma Lutz, it's an open secret. But officially they do not exist, which of course makes them vulnerable and unprotected.
In one study she interviewed domestic workers in German homes and their employers. She did not fin one single migrant that were legally employed. She also noted that female migrants are often highly educated but that they can not find a job in their home countries that match their education. This is the best way for them to make money. They choose to leave their own children, often in grandma's or grandmother's care, in order to earn money for a good education for them. But sometimes there is no grandmother, so it can be a teenage girl who takes care of his younger brothers in absence of the mother.
Many pay a high social and emotional price. The transnational mothers try to compensate for their physical absence through frequent phone calls. Through Skype they help their children with their homework. They live with a constant feeling of guilt, and are often stigmatized by authorities at home. Helma Lutz have met mothers that bitterly regrets their choice to leave afterwards. The price has become too high. At the same time, she points out, that no one worries about children when fathers migrate.
Housekeeping and child care appears to be an exclusively female concern. When mothers migrate fathers do not take over the care of children, but other women do. Of the 80 cases studied found Helma Lutz and her employees only one where the father had stepped in and took over the responsibility for the children.
The same applies to the other end of care chain, the host family. It was always the women of employers' families who had contact with the housekeeper / nanny. They made up the conditions, paid the salary and so on. The man in the family stayed outside of the whole arrangement, it did not seem to concern him.
Helma Lutz talks about a global care chain, where the poorest countries send their women to the slightly less poor countries, etc.. Ukrainian women work in Poland, Polish women work in Western Europe. She also speaks of "care drain," in analogy with the "brain drain". Now the care process is made into a commodity on the international market. However, care work is different from other sectors in several respects: It usually requires a physical presence and can not be rationalized in the same way as other production, on the contrary, criteria such as speed and productivity can be counterproductive in the care of children and the elderly.
Photo: Sofia Hovnert
Text: Anika Agebjörn 2012-05-02
Last updated: 2012-05-02