Getting to Win-Win?: Labor Justice for Migrant Careworkers

Jocelyn Olcott
21 October 2023

The posts in this forum on visas for immigrant careworkers explore possibilities for policies that afford full labor protections and social inclusion for a system that serves both the providers and recipients of care.

The apparent inextricability of migration and care labor is a product of the neoliberal age.  As globalization has allowed capital and goods to move with relative ease, state policies still attempt to constrain the movement of people. Thus, while pressures to migrate have increased, protections for migrants have diminished. The exigencies of falling real wages and labor insecurity have left most households without any adult free of labor-market obligations.  Structural adjustment programs imposed throughout the Global South have devastated economies and societies and compelled the commodification of nearly everything.  Wealthy countries now find themselves at the leading edge of fast-growing compounded crises of care deficits and migrant populations that vastly exceed state capacities even to process their status.

Although the posts included in this forum focus on the United States and Canada, migrant care labor is global.  People migrate from Bolivia to Peru, from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia, from Syria to Italy, from the Philippines to pretty much everywhere.  The migrants end up in nearly every sector of the care economy, particularly at the lower-paid end.  Not only do they care for children, the elderly, and the disabled (whether temporarily or permanently), they fill the ranks of market services that increasingly replace what was formerly unpaid care provided by a household member.  That food on the Whole Foods hot bar didn’t get there on its own, and the services delivering groceries and prepared foods (both products that involve substantial migrant labor in most settings) also rely heavily on immigrants. This labor force constitutes what sociologist Ruth Milkman has dubbed the “new precariat.”

Despite the widespread need for the labor that migrants provide, immigration has galvanized a nationalist backlash in many countries, leading to the elevation of staunchly conservative political leaders.  Even in New York City, the quintessential immigrant gateway (the Statue of Liberty, for crying out loud!), Mayor Eric Adams is threatening to roll back the city’s famous right-to-shelter laws, and 82 percent of New Yorkers describe the recent influx of migrants as a serious problem

The issue of migrant care labor highlights a question that has animated Revaluing Care in the Global Economy since its inception:  how do we describe our communities of care, and how to we determine who falls inside and outside of that boundary?  Mayor Adams’s threat to eliminate the right to shelter points to one of the critical tensions:  liberal immigration policies pose a resource challenge for robust welfare states.  Even the city of immigrants seems to have reached its limits.

This forum starts from the premise that we need to reframe the problem.  As legal scholar Supriya Routh points out in his post, the situation appears on its face to be not a crisis at all but rather a potential win-win.  Wealthier countries, many of them facing drastic fertility decline and an aging population, need care workers, and people from poorer countries, many buckling under the combination of poverty, violence, and ecological disasters, come willing to work. Still, as sociologist Naomi Lightman demonstrates in her post, even Canada’s more liberal careworker immigration policies have barely made a dent in the care deficit or the precarity of migrant careworkers.  We clearly require a sturdier scaffolding of governance to reach the win-win outcome.

The posts here start from the perspective of immigration reform, changing visa policies to allow a freer circulation of people and to support more just conditions for non-citizen workers.  As historian Eileen Boris points out in her post on the legacies of the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Naturalization Act, we need to learn the lessons of previous guest worker programs, which often functioned as a race-based system of labor control.  Abigail Rosenfeld, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, argues that a system that requires employees remain with a specific employer is ripe for abuse.  In all these cases, the seemingly objective practice of classification introduces distortions — what work is classified as skilled or necessary and which workers are classified as independent contractors or (in the case of Grazielle Valentim’s post on au pairs) part of a cultural exchange. 

These posts offer no simple answers, but, taken together, they underscore the importance of taking up several critical issues, all of which point to the need to strengthen rather than weaken the government’s role.  If we are to avoid solving are care crisis through the hyperexploitation of migrant laborers with few options, we need both to offer immigrants more options and offer those needing their services more ways to pay for them.  Most families find it unfathomable that they would have to pay more for childcare that they can barely afford as it is, but the recognition of childcare as a public good should justify the allocation of greater public resources to pay for it.  Recognition of the need for economic migration — rather than requiring nearly every migrant to claim political asylum — would allow for visa programs that could expedite granting work permits that workers could take to any employer rather than just a sponsoring employer.  A reformed program should also give migrants more freedom to return home whenever they want to.

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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