Injustice in Temporary Migrant Care Worker Programs

Supriya Routh
21 October 2023

Employment law’s limited view of the migrant care worker merely as an employee defies Immigration law’s acknowledgement of the social need of care workers. By characterizing migrant care workers as isolated employees, Temporary Foreign Worker Programs dissociate care workers from their own social relationships.

From a purely policy point of view, it seems an attractive proposition – a win-win situation – to import care work to meet the care deficit of the Global North while simultaneously meeting the market access “need” of care workers from the Global South. In this respect, temporary foreign worker programs (TFWPs) would seem to cater to the needs of both migrant caregivers and citizens in need of care. However, the commodification and temporariness of care are both problematic. While the commodification is an extension of the neoliberal orthodoxy that almost all products and services could be marketized for efficient outcomes, the temporariness negates the very assumptions of efficiently competitive markets by denying choice and power to migrant caregivers. TFWPs for care work enable contracting of intimate labour in a situation of perpetually unequal power disparity marked by a migrant’s temporariness.

As Anne Stewart notes, importing care offers a perverse subsidy – a net flow of benefits – from poor countries of the South to the rich and imperial countries of the North. While migrant care workers (mostly women) support the higher productivity and familial needs of individuals (mostly women) and families in rich countries, their own families have to do without their intimate care. Migrant care workers’ primary relationship to their families are based on remittances – their care expressed in monetary value to their children and their elderly – while the care deficits at home are fulfilled by unpaid non-marketized care work in their origin countries. Higher productivity and a better life in the North stands on the shoulders of unpaid care in the South. In this sense, TFWPs for care work simultaneously recognizes (as a commodity) and de-recognizes women’s care work (biological, social, cultural, environmental) by creating a class distinction between deserving (the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, and the Middle East) and undeserving societies (South-East Asia, South Asia, Caribbean, and Latin America). The global care chain, is then, a continuation of colonial-capitalism’s centre-periphery rationale. 

This rationale is supported by the legal regime, largely imposed by hegemonic countries on others during the process of economic globalization. Social values and relational nature of care work in non-Western societies get converted to the foundational logic of commodification and contractualization of care in the North. The legal regimes of Contract, Property, and Trade with their fetishization of profit maximizing autonomous individuals fail to see this (intersocietal) disjuncture between the social value and market value of care work. Based on the legal rationales of Contract, Property, and Trade, and legitimized only through market efficiency logic, TFWPs almost always underpays⎯undervalues⎯migrant care workers by discounting their much broader social contribution that is never captured through the market logic.

While I am not averse to such policies, I hesitate to wholeheartedly root for it. TFWPs exist at the intersection of public and private regulatory frameworks. Whereas immigration law caters to the “public need” of care, employment law determines the entitlements at work. Employment law’s limited view of the migrant care worker merely as an employee defies Immigration law’s acknowledgement of the social need of care workers. By characterizing migrant care workers as isolated employees, TFWPs dissociate care workers from their own social relationships. Whereas in acknowledging the social contribution beyond market exchange, a just TFWP might want to allow migrant workers to be accompanied by their children and other dependents for example, the temporariness of the program often blunts such possibilities. A justice-oriented TFWP should aim at nurturing a non-marketized inter-societal relationship, while actively facilitating a wholesome (and permanent) integration of migrant care workers with the host society.

As my colleague Bethany Hastie examined, even in one of the best TFWPs, migrant care workers often suffer from access to justice problems. When care work is tied to an employer, because of the inherent power dynamics of the relationship workers almost never question violation of rights. Even when care workers are not tied to an employer, complain against an employer for rights violation is largely perceived as harmful to workers’ long-term interests of continuing to work in – or return to – the same country in future. Because of the transitory nature of their employment, workers are often not aware of their rights and entitlements under the employment law regime and find the legal process intimidating. If they must continue to exist for care work, a just TFWP should operate on principles broader than the mere market exchange rationale.

Author’s webpage Supriya Routh

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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