Global care 'chains and drains': Women, migration and care work

Care work, whether paid or unpaid, remains disproportionately carried out by women. With more and more women participating in the paid workforce and working non-standard hours alongside men, a care crisis has emerged globally. Who is caring for those that need it now? Who will provide care in the future? In this guest post, Emeritus Professor Fiona Williams from the University of Leeds explains the 'chains and drains' of global care and presents some alternative policy solutions that favour gender equity and workers' rights.


Care is a global issue. Half of the world’s 190 million migrants are women many of whom migrate from the poorer regions into paid care or domestic work, looking after children, older people and households in richer nations. In parallel to these ‘global care chains’ is the ‘care drain’ – the transnational recruitment of nurses and doctors from developing countries to work in health services in the developed world. The care industry is big international business as providers move their operations across the globe, and, in a counter-movement, financial organisations transfer an annual $500 billion of migrants’ remittances back home. How is it that care has become a transnational commodity? And what are its consequences?

What’s behind the connection between migration and care work?

  • First, the global increase in women’s involvement in the labour market. In developed countries social policies are increasingly based on ‘labour activation’ – getting all adults, women and men, into work. Women work out of necessity as much as rightful choice. In the poorer regions of the world, structural adjustment policies, the destruction of local economies, unemployment and poverty have pressed women into a greater breadwinning role.
  • Second, care has become a central social, political, and economic concern. How can responsibilities for care be reconciled and paid for when women are employed? In the richer regions an ageing society and declining fertility have made these questions critical, along with pressure to cut back on social expenditure costs. These issues of a ‘care crisis’ are no less pressing in developing countries where women are expected to care and earn with very little infrastructural support. Migration into domestic and care work is one way in which women can find earning opportunities even although that intensifies the care needs and responsibilities of those left behind.
  • Third, the employment of migrant care and health workers has become a way in which richer states and their citizens meet their needs for care and work/life balance at lower cost.

While this might look like a symbiotic relationship, in effect it reproduces profound problems.

To begin with, across most developed welfare states, the private market has become a central feature of care provision. Families are given vouchers or tax credits to help them buy in services, or local authorities contract out contract out domiciliary services, nurseries and residential homes to the private sector. In both cases, there has been a worsening of pay and conditions and consequent labour shortages. And where care labour has historically been undervalued and underpaid as ‘unskilled’ women’s work, it is performed by those with least negotiating power. This is where migrant labour steps in. Tighter migration rules increasingly leave workers with fewer citizenship rights and vulnerable to exploitation.

While the immediate problem women face in trying to combine paid work with household and care responsibilities can be resolved by paying women from poorer classes or countries to do that work, this ultimately detracts from creating the conditions that encourage men to share domestic and care work and reduce gender inequalities in the home.

Added to this, states have become global employers recruiting their health care staff from poorer countries. Australia, the UK and the US host the largest numbers of migrant nurses to fill labour shortages. In Norway, for example, almost a quarter of workers in health and community services come from abroad - increasingly the poorer countries of Poland, Latvia and the Philippines. Overall, this situation perpetuates geo-political inequalities in draining care and health resources from poorer countries.

Is there an alternative?

  • Global strategies include in 2010 the International Labour Organisation’s convention for the rights of domestic workers and the World Health Organisation’s endorsement of an ethical code for countries to follow in the recruitment of migrant health workers. These are important but there are bigger challenges.
  • Migration has become a political football with governments getting tougher on migrants whilst turning a blind-eye to their dependence on these workers. Humane global and regional migration policies are a priority.
  • Both developed and developing countries follow a neo-liberal logic of policy-making that focuses on productivism, that facilitates markets, that draws women into the labour market on ‘male’ terms where care has to be fit around paid work. Instead, fit work around care: a shorter working week for all. Recognising care as a collective social good means prioritizing the needs of care providers and care receivers in political and economic strategies, it means making it visible in national accounts of productive activity.

These constitute one of the three prongs of global justice. The global financial crisis has forced us to confront growing inequalities. The global environmental crisis compels a review of the planet’s resources and economic growth. The global care crisis obliges us to re-examine the devaluation of those everyday activities that are central to human flourishing.

For more information, follow this link to the Centre for International Research on Care, Labour and Equalities (CIRCLE).

Posted by @corr_lara