Immigrant Workers at Home: Hired Hands Hold Family Bonds

By Michelle Chen Sep 05, 2009

In American households, the divide between the home and the workplace is always evolving, and immigrants are shaping that evolution more than we know. Immigrant women workers today form a pillar of the middle-class family. As nannies, housekeepers and other domestic workers, their status is defined by the strangely intimate nature of their work combined with structural discrimination. A new study presents their hidden plight in a new light: as a driver of the advancement of the mothers they serve. An economic study by Heinrich Hock of Florida State University and Delia Furtado of the University of Connecticut analyzes the immigrant labor market in household services (primarily child care, cooking, and housekeeping) and its impact on college-educated non-immigrant women. Predictably, they found that when privileged women have a cheap source of help at home, they gain freedom in other aspects of their lives. The research suggest that “inflows of low-skilled immigrants resulted in a higher rate of childbearing in this population of high-skilled women living in large urban areas.” In addition, this immigration flow “substantially reduced the work-fertility tradeoff facing educated urban American women”—in other words, it enabled working women to balance career and family duties. So immigrant workers help lift white-collar mothers toward that coveted work-life balance. But back at home, work remains the same as it ever was: hard, endless, and never fairly compensated. The difference for domestic workers, of course, is that they are still outsiders in the home, culturally and professionally. And when overworked and exploited, they end up tending to other people’s families at the expense of their ability to care for their own. Immigration generally serves as a human subsidy for the host country’s economic development. Domestic work shows how the process plays out on the household level. Another study by Univ. of Connecticut sociologist Amanda Moras argues that the availability of domestic labor can be “liberating” to well-off women, but at the same time deepens and reshapes racial and gender inequalities. The tension between a nanny’s twin roles as low-paid employee and family caregiver creates a sticky social dynamic:

there has been both a racialized and gendered hierarchy of who assumes this work and paid domestic work is a reflection of this gendered and racialized division of this labor…. the responsibility of waiting on children and husbands is placed upon domestic workers. These arrangements are not necessarily challenging sexism but rather shifting the burden of sexism from middle-class women to their employees. In effect, this reproduces the demeaning and sexist aspects of housework and reaffirms women’s subordination.

Nativists accuse immigrants of ruthlessly competing for “American” jobs. But the labor market for diaper changing isn’t looking too cutthroat these days. It seems that educated urban women are freeing themselves from housework through the servitude of a new female underclass. Or maybe not so new. As Domestic Workers United points out in their historical overview of the sector, during the slavery era, the lifestyles of privileged households fed off the sweat of captive labor. Anti-immigrant rhetoric invokes slurs like “anchor baby” to suggest that immigrant women have children in America in order to leach off of resources that should go to native-born families. But domestic workers turn that image of parasitism upside down. In their everyday struggles, these women take little away from citizen families; they only take care of them. h/t ImmigrationProf Image: LaborFest