Global “serving class” made up of low-wage, migrant caregivers

Posted on : 2021-09-12 10:23 KST Modified on : 2021-09-12 10:23 KST
Employers often conduct themselves like feudal lords, acting as though they have full authority over the workers’ bodies, emotions and character. Rather than relationships of cooperation to remedy caregiving gaps, care workers face segregation along lines of ethnicity and status
A domestic worker from the Philippines fold laundry at her employer’s home in Singapore. (Reuters)
A domestic worker from the Philippines fold laundry at her employer’s home in Singapore. (Reuters)

All living beings, human and non-human alike, require care to survive. The giving and receiving of care are vital parts of life.

But while caregiving is a worthwhile activity, care work is time-consuming and carries a physical, economic and emotional toll. Questions of who deserves to receive care and who should be performing care work have long been an area in which inequality has prevailed.

For much of history, care work was not reciprocal or mutual; it was a duty forced on socially vulnerable groups such as slaves, servants, women and foreigners. This reflects just how strenuous, poorly remunerated and socially undervalued this labor is.

Yet care work is now the most acutely sought-after form of human labor on a global level. Since the pandemic, crucial questions have arisen on who should take responsibility — and how — for the human lives that are at risk, and for the social caregiving that lockdowns and social distancing have brought to a halt.

UK brings in nurses from India and Africa

For the past 40 years, developed economies have relied on migration as a solution for caregiving issues, including childcare, patient care and care for increasingly aging populations.

Migrants are seen as capable of providing caregiving labor for the benefit and welfare of “our people,” while being available to work for little money.

Americans and others who subscribed to neoliberalism cut welfare benefits and privatized social services, turning caregiving into a matter to be resolved at the individual level. Meanwhile, traditional welfare states in Europe brought in large numbers of foreign nationals specialized in caregiving in order to make up for shortages of healthcare and care workers.

The situation has been much the same for the wealthy economies of Asia, including Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.

At a global level, there has been a rapid relocation of healthcare professionals and household and caregiving workers from the Global South to the Global North. For example, the UK sought to make up for its shortage of caregiving workers by bringing in large numbers of nurses and household workers from India, the Philippines and southern Africa.

The UK boasts one physician for every 620 people and one nurse for every 185. In Liberia, the ratios are 43,478 people for every physician and 9,804 for every nurse.

The reason for this deepening healthcare divide among countries is the fact that health professionals educated in poor and economically developing countries are migrating to advanced economies in search of better working environments and economic compensation.

Even if their field is not recognized as a specialized profession, a fast-growing number of caregiving migrants are performing nursing duties at senior welfare facilities and hospitals in the Global North or raising and cooking for children in other people’s homes, where they exist as an unfamiliar “other.”

According to urban sociologist Saskia Sassen, the rise in global income inequality is causing a new form of class differentiation between a “serving class” that survives through service, entertainment, hospitality and caregiving labor, and a middle- to high-income “served class” that benefits from their care.

Members of the serving class might be employed privately in others’ homes, where they care for children or those with illnesses, cook food, and clean. They are hired as a way of boosting the cultural cachet of middle- and upper-class families and making up for the absence of caregiving there.

Though some care workers relocate overseas based on agreements between countries, in most cases, they labor as “privately employed help” not included in national GDP figures.

Labor relations in the private domain of the home very often take the form of a caste system, lacking labor rights or contracts. Sassen refers to these workers as a “serving class” that emerged in the era of globalization.

Migrant women suffer exploitation within “care chains”

There is no question that these workers are wage laborers. Yet employers often conduct themselves like feudal lords, acting as though they have full authority over the workers’ bodies, emotions and character. Rather than relationships of cooperation to remedy caregiving gaps, these workers face segregation along lines of ethnicity and status.

When in the film “Parasite” Mr. Park warns his driver, Ki-taek, against “crossing the line,” he is demanding obedience based on the unbridgeable disparity of culture and status that separates them.

It is a familiar fact that tens of thousands of caregiving migrants suffer physical and sexual abuse each day. Still, people were shocked to learn of the Myanmar maid who died as a result of abuse, torture and starvation at the hands of the Singapore family she was hired to serve.

The victim, 24-year-old Piang Ngaih Don, had a three-year-old child. She died five months after going to work for the Singapore family. At the time she was found, she was emaciated, weighing 24 kilograms and having suffered severe brain injuries.

Her body was covered in 31 scars and 47 external injuries. For 12 days before her death, she was tied to a window grille.

As the incident attracted global attention with the ensuing trial, the focus ironically shifted to the struggles that the victim’s employer endured as a mother.

The family’s legal team defended her, saying that the employer was suffering from postpartum depression and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder shortly after giving birth, explaining that she had been fixated on cleanliness and hygiene due to concerns about her child’s health.

Caregiving crisis: A vicious cycle

Little to no importance was placed on the fact that the woman’s police officer husband had encouraged the abuse and destroyed evidence. Instead, the death of this female caregiving migrant was reduced to an issue of a selfish female employer and her maternal instincts.

A society that has been apathetic about protecting the labor rights of women care workers — regarding caregiving as something trivial meant for “women and mothers” — obscures the structural inequalities by viewing women through lenses of condemnation and compassion.

The global care market links people with different ethnicities, languages, ways of life and social status together through the relationship of care-provider and care-beneficiary. The deepening economic divide, together with the patriarchal idea that care work is “women’s work,” gives rise to new forms of gender-based and racial discrimination.

The demand for care on the part of members of white and Asian middle-class heterosexual families is granted approval in the name of improved quality of life, welfare benefits and the socialization of caregiving. They are viewed as people entitled to care.

In many cases, women and health professionals in the Global South leave their homes because of state policies encouraging migration as a way for individuals to resolve their own unemployment, poverty and sense of deprivation. When women and primary childcare providers leave to earn money, another caregiving vacuum arises as the children who need their care end up being raised by others.

US sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defines today’s global care chains as a form of “emotional imperialism.” For the benefit of their own people’s welfare, health, aging and lives, wealthy economies treat the emotions, caregiving, nursing, labor and knowledge possessed and practiced by migrants from economically developing and poor countries as though they are natural resources to be exploited and put to low-cost use. Yet they ignore — or willfully disregard — migrant workers’ own needs for care.

This is reminiscent of how the safety, health and labor rights of Chinese people of Korean descent and other migrant workers who have long provided nursing and childcare services in South Korea have never been included in social agendas. Even amid a global contagion like the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea has excluded migrants from its disease control and disaster relief systems, depriving these workers of their own entitlement to care.

Human rights regarding care encompass the right to provide care, the right to receive care, and the right not to be forced to provide care. The transition toward a caregiving society must start with the recognition that all of us need care and are entitled to receive it.

To avoid a shift that merely creates a market aimed at improving quality of life for a particular demographic in the Global North with economic means, we must comprehensively examine the issues of class-, ethnicity- and gender-based inequality that permeate care work.

Caregivers deserve our respect for their talents

For that to be possible, care work must first be shared, distributed equally, and recognized for its social value. In the developmentalist East Asian states of South Korea and Japan, the family has functioned as the most rudimentary unit for caregiving of various kinds, from providing basic necessities, to childcare and nursing the sick. The COVID-19 crisis has once again made the family the locus for care on various levels, imposing heavy burdens on women. The only option women have to resolve the crisis they themselves face is to purchase the labor of other women in the care market.

Experts who argue that Korea should bring in large numbers of caregiving migrants from other countries have recently said that “cheap” foreign maids should be “imported” so that highly educated Korean women can enter the workforce.

Doing so shifts communalized care back onto the shoulders of women without tackling the issue of fair distribution of caregiving labor within the family or holding the government or companies responsible for stealing workers’ time through long hours or sexual inequality in the labor market. This ultimately causes caregiving — critical to running and maintaining society — to be essentialized yet again as “women’s work” and turns caregivers’ lack of labor rights into an issue of discrimination and conflict resulting from the disparities between women in different global classes.

A given society’s caregiving capacity can’t be boosted simply by hiring foreign migrants for low wages. Because caregiving is essential labor, a high degree of social discussion must take place and legislation crafted to ensure the safe reproduction of workers’ labor power. What is most needed is not for all members of society to receive an education that enables them to compete as wage earners, but for us to become caregivers: people with the capacity to care for both themselves and others. We must create a society that highly values those who are capable of caregiving so that we can resolve racial, gender-based and class-based inequalities in caregiving.

By Kim Hyun-mee, professor of cultural anthropology at Yonsei University

Please direct questions or comments to []

Related stories

Most viewed articles