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The Feminization of Carework

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Women in the United States have long been expected to care for others out of love or devotion rather than for money. This feminization of care work has resulted in low wages for domestic workers, who are often immigrant women, and the exclusion, historically and today, of care workers in many parts of the workforce from the protections of labor laws and policies.

In Part 1 of a recent interview, Gender Policy Report curator, Professor William P. Jones spoke to Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn about this topic and its intersection with U.S. labor and immigration policy. Professor Nakano Glenn is a Professor of the Graduate School and founding director of the Center for Race & Gender at the University of California, Berkeley. In her recent book, Forced to Care, Nakano Glenn explains how the “valorization” of care work has led policymakers to exclude domestic workers from minimum wage laws and other labor protections on the grounds that state regulation would violate the sanctity of the domestic sphere. Even as those laws were extended to some care workers in the 1970s, Congress exempted home health care workers who were considered “companions” to the elderly. This changed with the reinterpretation of the Companionship Exemption during the Obama Administration, but this is likely to revert under President Trump.

As demand for care work has increased, many women have immigrated to the U.S., mostly from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, to perform this work that few native-born workers are willing to do. President Trump’s proposed changes to immigration policies could drastically change the caregiving industry. Immigration policies have been shaped by differing perceptions of skill and the value of certain types of work. The naturalization of women’s caregiving creates a perception of carework as unskilled and unnecessary for the purposes of immigration policy; a perception far from the reality.

Excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity, appear below.  The full audio recording follows.

William P. Jones

How do you see the historical work that you’ve done on race and gender, immigration and labor, helping us make sense of this contemporary time and this contemporary political moment?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

I think one of the things that has changed in terms of immigration flows, especially around labor issues, is in some sense the feminization of immigration from particular sources, like the Philippines, where the biggest demand is around carework and those sorts of feminized work. So what’s happened in terms of the Philippines is that the flow of immigration from the Philippines has become much more female. So that’s a historic change. It has impacts intergenerationally within the Philippines where women leave to do care work and many of them leave their own children and partners behind in order to care for generally elderly or disabled people in the United States and Europe and some other locations. What has happened is a kind of intergenerational migration of women. Women migrate to do care work and finally return home and even though that lifts the family’s economic status, so they can pay for education and so forth for their children, it doesn’t actually create mobility for them, so the next generation then has to immigrate. That’s an interesting pattern. At the same time, the immigration of women from the Philippines has not led to a change in the division of labor in the Filipino family. In other words, the fathers or the husbands do not, in fact, take up the care of the children and those kinds of responsibilities. Instead, those kinds of responsibilities fall on the female relatives or sometimes care workers abroad hire poorer or more rural women to do their domestic chores. In an interesting way, it actually reinforces the valorization of motherhood. It hasn’t actually shifted that kind of gender politics. The women are seen as heroines. In other words, it’s become part of the mothering role to provide for the family by going abroad, but it doesn’t actually shift the gender division of labor within the Filipino family. It also doesn’t shift the gender division of labor in the first world, the United States or Europe. Because it’s still women who employ other women to do that kind of care work. So having that kind of available labor force makes it possible for women in the first world to be employed in certain occupations, but again it doesn’t shift the gender division of labor.

William P. Jones

We have this whole migratory system set up around carework. It reflects a high demand for carework in the first world. And yet this work remains undervalued and it remains very low wage work. Why is that? On one hand, we see a valorization—or even a valorization of motherhood and caring in the abstract, but that doesn’t follow with a sort of monetary valorization.

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

Well, it’s considered to be a labor of love and therefore something that women do for either emotional satisfaction or because it’s what they’re expected to do. […] The idea is that on the one hand, the work is priceless and on the other hand, it doesn’t have a monetary value. And in a sense, the motivation for doing it should not be monetary. I think that’s the kind of argument that people do it for love. Very often the care worker is praised for going above and beyond what the requirements are by investing in that work emotionally. I think it’s built into the sort of moral thinking of people and then that’s also, on the other hand, trivialized within the law and the labor protections that there is a valorization of the home as a place of love and not as a place of economic exchange. Therefore, the care worker should not see her job as primarily economic. And that somehow that relationship between the caregiver and the care recipient is such that it shouldn’t be seen as a monetary exchange. So for that reason when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in the 1930s it specifically exempted care work through the Companionship Exemption because the home was seen as a sacred place where the government should not interfere. It prevented minimum wage and maximum hours from being enforced by the government. In an odd sort of moral thinking, by elevating the home as a sacred, private sphere then it omitted it from any kind of protections for the workers who were working in the home.

William P. Jones

Who are the live-in home health care aids? What do you they do?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

They are primarily immigrant women. In different areas of the country, there are different groups. Like in the New York area, a lot of Afro-Caribbean women are in the workforce. In a lot of areas, again it’s Filipina women who do that work. There was a famous case, Evelyn Coke vs. Long Island Care at Home. Evelyn Coke was a Jamaican woman who had worked for over 20 years as a live-in home care worker for an agency. Sometimes she would work 80 hours a week and never received overtime pay. But she was employed by a for-profit home care agency. So she sued the agency for overtime pay. This case went all the way up to the Supreme Court where she eventually lost the case on a technical basis. […] With the loss of the Supreme Court case, then the only thing that could happen was a change in the Labor Department’s interpretation of the Companionship Exemption. When Obama came into office there was a promise that that exemption would be reinterpreted so that live-in caregivers would be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

William P. Jones

It’s been difficult to follow changes in labor policy under the Trump administration, in part because these are administrative decisions and interpretive decisions. How you see these longstanding debates over the value of care and how might they inform debates over changing immigration laws to value particular skills?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

In some ways, carework is being seen as unskilled because it is something that women know how to do naturally. The same thing could be said about agricultural workers. Usually, the argument is not that it’s skilled worked, but that it’s a type of work that native-born Americans are not willing to do. […] The ability to do some types of work are racialized or gendered. They’re kind of natural and therefore, in some sense, they’re not skilled. But more often, the argument has been around Americans being unwilling to do this type of work. They’re not willing to do agricultural labor. They’re not willing to do carework. Which can be dirty work. […] So it will be interesting to see the way this is played out. Traditionally, the farmers, the agri-businesses have had tremendous political clout in being able to get workers, even though supposedly the immigration law is going to be based on skills that are in short supply. I think that those are not the battlegrounds on which the whole issue of who and what types of people are going to be allowed in is going to be fought. There will be a lot of different economic interests, health care industry, insurance companies, agri-businesses, all those players will be in the mix.

 

LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION

 

— Photo of Evelyn Nakano Glenn from the Center for the Study of Women in Society