Bargain Hunting: Seeking Sustainable Care in a Globalized World

Jocelyn Olcott
3 November 2023

A recent book reckons with the “moral bargain” that provides protections for some at the expense of others.

Just the other day, on October 29, the International Labor Organization (ILO) marked the first ever International Day of Care and Support by calling for “heavy investments in the care economy,” including parental leaves, early childhood education, and care for the elderly and disabled (whether permanently or temporarily). The scale of the issues around carework and migration, in particular, have compelled international organizations such as the ILO to highlight the social and economic centrality of paid and unpaid care labor and to advocate for minimum standards of social protection for everyone. 

Last week’s forum and seminar on migrant careworkers reminded me of a recent coauthored book examining the various ways that care provision has become a transnational undertaking.  Transnational Social Protection: Social Welfare across National Borders, by Peggy Levitt, Erica Dobbs, Ken Chih-Yan Sun, and Ruxandra Paul (Oxford UP, 2023), insists that we consider carefully the “moral bargain” in which “enhanced protections for come at the expense of others” (167). Considering a wide range of actors, social protection systems, and forms of social care, the authors challenge us to think about how we might imagine a more just and sustainable approach to care provision.

Written by a team of two political scientists (Dobbs and Paul) and two sociologists (Levitt and Sun) with a range of geographic expertise that covers Latin America and the United States (Levitt), Western Europe (Dobbs and Paul), and East Asia (Sun), Transnational Social Protection centers the experiences of careworkers and their families, attending to the factors that inform their access to various forms of social protection.  The authors bring together research from a range of subfields to achieve a holistic sense of migrant careworkers’ life-building strategies and to offer a bird’s-eye view of how migrant care labor has reshaped social care in the aggregate.  Organized around five different areas — children and families, education, labor, health, and aging and elder care — the book examines “how the decoupling of social rights from citizenship has led to a reconfiguration of responsibility and a new division of labor among the actors engaged in risk management and basic care provisions” (14).

The authors consider a broad array of migrant careworkers (including teachers, home health aides, camp counselors, and physicians) as well as people traveling to seek care and capital traveling to seek greater profits in the care industry.  “The experiences,” the authors explain in their introduction, “bring to light how an array of actors—states, corporations, nonprofit organizations, communities, and households— mitigate risk in a world on the move. They challenge traditional narratives about social welfare as something provided by states to their citizens in a single place” (2).

This wide-ranging but concise study builds on an extensive literature about the impacts of transnational circulations of care on migrant workers, their families, and sending and receiving communities.  The book opens with a framework for examining what the authors dub hybrid transnational social protection, composed of a “cluster of protections” provided by market services, state capacities, “third-sector organizational ecology,” and migrants’ families and communities (20).  Readers of Care Talk will no doubt recognize some of this research from their own forays into the care literature, but bringing all this work together allows us to appreciate this bigger picture from a comparative perspective.  

Readers get a feel for the different factors shaping social protection by considering, for example, Norwegian efforts to support retirees in Spain alongside the Thai government’s public-private partnership (the Thai Longstay Management Company Limited), and the DIY arrangements of US retirees in Lake Chapala, Mexico.  The chapter on education explores migrants’ experiences as both teachers and students.  More than once while reading this volume, I was reminded of geographer Cindi Katz’s metaphor of contour lines — the elevation indicators on a topographical map that describe new formations of social reproduction in a world of globalized capitalist production.

This volume takes up questions that remain central to the Revaluing Care in the Global Economy project:  how do we describe communities of care, and how do those boundaries leave some people on the outside looking in? 

Citizenship is a conspicuous way that people claim entitlements to care, particularly in countries with comprehensive social welfare systems, but — as this volume demonstrates — it’s far from the only vehicle for gaining membership in a community of care.  Some states provide welfare to non-citizens, rising nativism notwithstanding, and non-state actors often play a substantial role in welfare provision for citizens and non-citizens alike.  Through the “deterritorialization” of social protection, a growing number of states provide support for their diasporic citizens whose remittances have become critical to national, community, and household economies. The US and Mexican governments, for example, collaborate to ensure that the children of migrants can receive a complete education with credentials that allow them to progress in both school systems, and the Mexican government guarantees a free education to all children, regardless of their countries of origin (65-67). The Mexican government has established Ventanillas de Salud, clinics established in consular offices abroad (118-19).  The Romanian and Philippine governments proactively educate migrant workers going abroad about their labor rights (96-97).

These studies consider state and non-state actors within the same frame, an important innovation.  Laws and policies are relevant here, but they also aren’t the dispositive factors.  States often rely on private contractors and nonprofits to provide carework for state-administered social protections. US citizens, unable to find affordable healthcare at home, travel to Mexico or India to access care. Decades of neoliberal policies have limited states’ roles in order to encourage market solutions to care needs, but this doesn’t mean that states are out of the picture, and the authors clearly aren’t ready to let them off the hook for their social obligations. 

Transnational Social Protection is, as the authors say in their conclusion, more of an invitation to further research than a policy prescription. It raises a host of issues that should shape any policies regarding transnational care provision, such as the inflationary effects of both remittances and international retirees; the ambivalent impacts that NGOs, religious organizations, and hometown associations have on transparency and democratic decision-making; and the importance of contextual understandings of governments’ roles and relationships to market services and civil society.  Further attention to this interplay of state and non-state factors could offer some strategies for responding to the ILO’s call for “heavy investments in the care economy” while striking a more just moral bargain for social protection.

The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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