Foreign domestic workers swap family life for family future | Globalization | DW | 11.06.2013
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Globalization

Foreign domestic workers swap family life for family future

Millions of highly qualified workers in Europe and around the world are employed as foreign domestic staff. They may earn more than they would at home, but often it comes at the cost of their family life.

Rosi Torres has been living in Germany for ten years. She has no papers and she works illegally. She doesn't want to say from which Latin American country she comes, and she doesn't want her real name mentioned.

She's a topographer by profession, but she couldn't find a job in her home country and was unemployed for many years. She needs money to pay for her son's studies, as well for the medicine her parents take for diabetes and a heart condition. So she cleans every day in several German households, and sends a large part of the money she earns back to her family.

Over-qualified cleaners

Rosi Torres is not alone - many domestic staff are highly qualified, according to Kyoko Shinozaki, a Japanese sociologist at the German University of Bochum who is researching international labor migration and transnational families in Asia and Europe.

"These people would like to work in their professions," Shinozaki says, "but they don't see any chance of doing so in their own countries - or else the pay there isn't enough to support a middle-class lifestyle."

Domestic staff in Germany can earn more than teachers or engineers back home, but, as living costs are also much higher, "they lead a very simple life so that they can send lots of money to the family."

iPhone and computer, with Skype running on both screens. (Photo: Uwe Zucchi dpa/lhe)

Free internet telephone operators, like Skype, help overseas-based mothers keep an eye on their kids

An important reason is to help the next generation have a better deal: parents are prepared to undervalue their own qualifications - and to miss their children's growing up - in order to help their children get a good education. The children are then looked after by relatives or carers from even poorer countries.

That leads to international chains of caring: for example, Polish women look after old people in Germany, while Ukrainian women look after the Polish children.

Parenting by Skype

"The widespread availability of mobile phones, even in rural regions - and even more, the Internet - has led to a radical change in the contact which such families are able to maintain," says Shinozaki.

For example, one father told her proudly: "Look, Kyoko, I've had seven text messages from my son today!" That shows that the children need him and want his advice.

Some mothers even look over their children's homework via Skype: "You can turn these online relationships on," says Shinozaki, "which may be a positive thing - but you can also turn them off."

Rosi Torres skypes almost every day with her son. For ten years, she's only ever seen him via webcam. Since she lives in Germany illegally, she's worried even about traveling to the next town, let alone about flying home.

Now, though, she expects to see him in real life again: "He's finished his engineering studies now and he's coming to Germany for his Masters and to look for a good job. We'll both be working here for a few years, and then we'll go back home."

Insecure existence

Demo at the start of a campaign for ratification of the convention

ILO Convention 189 should improve the rights of migrant domestic workers worldwide

Sabine Ferenschild of Südwind, an organization that examines international economic relations, notes that the domestic work done by parents often makes it possible for their children to get a good education and thus increases their options substantially. But it's not always like that: "There are examples of the opposite happening, where family structures break down and children grow up virtually without any family support."

She notes too that it's not just a matter of people from the poor South coming to the wealthy North - there's quite a lot of movement between countries in the South. For example, most of the domestic workers in Hong Kong come from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Ferenschild says: "Most of these migrant laborers worldwide suffer from precarious employment." Few of them have social insurance and up to 40 percent earn less than the local minimum wage.

Red carpet at the airport

In some countries of origin, migrant laborers enjoy a very high status - not least, because their remittances are a significant contribution to the local economy. As Shinozaki points out, in the Philippines, where there's been a systematic policy since the 1970s of sending workers abroad, they are described as "national heroes" and "overseas investors." When they come back home, they are literally met at the airport with a red carpet.

But, in the countries where they are working, they have virtually no rights. The International Labour Organization (also known as the ILO) has initiated a convention to ensure humane conditions for domestic workers which should help them achieve proper payment, holiday and health insurance.

Currently it's more a matter of individual negotiating skills and good contacts for the migrant workers involved. An experienced cleaner or nanny with a good network can be more self-confident and can change employers more easily. If she's new, or if she lives at her employer's house, she is completely dependent.

According to sources inside the German Social Democrats (SPD) political party, the ILO convention has already been agreed to internally by the German parliament. Once it's ratified, people with legal residence status in Germany will be able to turn to their local unions for assistance. But for those without papers, the situation will remain difficult: they will continue to avoid going to the authorities for fear of deportation.

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