Women who care

The “Filipina,” who may well be from Nepal or Sri Lanka is anything but a member of the family, family members are not replaced every five years.

March 7, 2011 22:37
3 minute read.
A foreign worker taking care of a senior citizen (

foreign worker ass 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

When giving talks to the Israeli public on the plight of migrants, I have often been told “we have a Filipina and she’s like one of the family.”

This is of course not true. The “Filipina” domestic worker, who may well be from Nepal or Sri Lanka – Filipina having become the generic form for all care workers – is anything but a member of the family. Unlike labor migrants, family members are not replaced every five years, nor are they deported. And it is precisely because no member of the family is willing to carry out domestic work that migrants are employed.

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Yet the phrase speaks to a deeper truth. Domestic work has always enjoyed the dubious status of being women’s duty.

Caring for one’s family has remained unrecognized as employment. Thus, women’s advancement has never been the result of acknowledgement of their contribution at home, but rather by getting out of it. That is, for those that could.

Women comprise half of the world’s migrants, and within the care sector they are a majority. Although the share of remittances sent by women is roughly the same as those sent by men, according to a 2006 UN report, female migrants earn less yet send a greater portion of their earnings.

These remittances contribute to the health, education and development of their families. They care for both their families back home and the ones that employ them. At once hailed and marginalized, they are expected to sacrifice for others in silence.

There are currently some 60,000 domestic care workers here. Most are women. It is the largest sector employing migrants in the country, and it is on the rise. The combination of an aging society with the privatization of welfare services has led to an increase in demand for care labor, preferably cheap. Women migrants care for the elderly and treat the disabled. They enable them to remain in their homes, enjoy a higher standard of living and retain their dignity at a low cost to them and society as a whole.

Yet care workers are themselves denied the right to live in a dignified manner. Interior Ministry directives prohibit labor migrants from forming any type of family existence.

Not only are they denied the right to bring their families with them, but they are also forbidden from forming relationships with other migrants while in here.

Female migrants who become pregnant must send their children away or lose their legal status. This policy has recently been criticized by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Women are expected to make sacrifices: for their children, for their husbands, for their parents and for society. This is taken for granted. At the same time, their contribution is overlooked and remains unrewarded. Domestic care workers are among the lowest earners. They are not paid for overtime, yet are required to be on call 24/7. They are dependent on their employers for their visa and can be easily exploited. A report by the Hot Line for Migrant Workers and Kav La’oved details the common practice of denying workers’ rights such as minimum wage, time off and severance pay. Female care workers in particular are vulnerable to verbal, sexual and physical violence.

Who cares for female migrants? We don’t know, and we don’t care. They subsidize our welfare system and at the same time are excluded from it. They care for our families, but are denied the right to form families. They enable the elderly and disabled to remain at home, yet are required to leave their families behind. It seems that the more appreciation there is for the sacrifices made by women, the less remuneration they receive.

So please, don’t say “they are like a member of the family.”

Pay them well instead. Don’t glorify their sacrifice, but rather acknowledge their contribution and treat them as equals.

The writer was formerly executive director of the Hot Line for Migrant Workers, and is currently reading for a MSc in migration studies at the University of Oxford.

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