Introduction: From the Empirical Study of Care Labour to Feminist Care Ethics

  • Nina SahraouiEmail author
Part of the Thinking Gender in Transnational Times book series (THINKGEN)


France is a country with rights. So give me my rights. A little bit of rights, because in a way I’m doing something for France. (…) Who will do it? It’s not François Hollande [former French President elected in 2012] who will do it, it’s not his wife, it’s the miserable care assistants. What I do, it’s not little, it’s really something. (Fouzia, 43, Algeria, Paris)

Fouzia had been living in France for 12 years when I met her. She came to France from Algeria and had been working for a couple of years as a care assistant in domiciliary care at the time of the interview.

France is a country with rights. So give me my rights. A little bit of rights, because in a way I’m doing something for France. (…) Who will do it? It’s not François Hollande [former French President elected in 2012] who will do it, it’s not his wife, it’s the miserable care assistants. What I do, it’s not little, it’s really something. (Fouzia, 43, Algeria, Paris)

Fouzia had been living in France for 12 years when I met her. She came to France from Algeria and had been working for a couple of years as a care assistant in domiciliary care at the time of the interview. We met in a Parisian hospital: Fouzia did not have much free time for herself, and the only moment she could dedicate to an interview was when the older woman she took care of was being looked after by other healthcare professionals in the hospital. We talked for about two hours in the busy hallway of the hospital where a small cafeteria served visitors, hospital workers and, more rarely, patients. Fouzia seemed to enjoy talking about her job and conveyed overall a sense of satisfaction and pride. She appeared to be highly engaged, with each story she told she reflected on what constitutes good care and shared with me the challenges she was facing to achieve the standards she had set herself. The pride she took in her daily work was, however, disregarded by her friends, family and society at large. Fouzia’s trajectory differs in one significant aspect from most of those portrayed in this book. A former ministry employee in Algeria and a former bank employee in France, Fouzia decided to change her profession after the death of her mother in Algeria, guided by her sense of guilt over not having been able to take care of her. Being in this profession out of choice, Fouzia met with incomprehension from her family, friends and sometimes even the relatives of the older persons she took care of. She felt the importance of her work was not recognised, neither by those close to her nor by the state through its policies. Fouzia lamented her low earnings and the absence of supplementary health insurance, which meant that many medical treatments were only partially covered by social security. She deplored the lack of access to further training, which was contrary to the life-long learning opportunities enshrined in French labour law, as well as the absence of paid leave. These are the rights Fouzia referred to in the opening quotation, and their absence constituted for her the symptom of society’s disdain for her work. Fouzia ironically spoke of the ‘miserable care assistant’ to contrast that figure with the actual importance of her work that in spite of being invisible to most people, including her close ones, indisputably mattered: ‘it’s really something.’

By exposing this paradox with anger, Fouzia’s statement encapsulates the research endeavour of this book. While families increasingly need to rely on paid care to provide for the needs of older relatives, the work of sustaining life is devalued, marginalised and widely disregarded. In the context of ageing populations, increasing participation of women in the labour market, frequent geographical mobility within families, growing marketisation of care provision and, most importantly, global inequalities, migration and paid care work tend to be increasingly connected in western European societies. This growing reliance is furthermore inscribed in broader gender inequalities and racialisation processes.

Projections of the old-dependency ratio hint at the size of the challenge that providing older-age care represents for the future of European societies. The old-dependency ratio (i.e. population of 65 years and over to population of 15–64 years) is estimated to increase by 48% in the UK, 50% in France and 125% in Spain by 2050, reaching 45%, 46% and 48%, respectively, according to 2015 Eurostat figures. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the number of foreign-born people working in residential care grew by 44.5% between 2008 and 2012 in European countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2013). Older-age care represents one of the few sectors experiencing labour shortages; urban centres are especially affected by these shortages and the reliance on migrant and minority ethnic labour is likely to grow. Against this background, working conditions in the sector remain characterised by low pay, long hours, job instability, health implications and lack of career advancement opportunities. The significant role of migrant and minority ethnic workers in the older-age care sector, symptomatic of the multiple inequalities faced by these workers, is related to the workings of various fields of policy, from the restructuring of European welfare states to migration and employment policies (Williams 2011c). Since the care industry is meant to expand, and the role of migrant workers within it is expected to grow, researching migrant and minority ethnic care workers’ experiences contributes to deeper understandings of this central challenge for European societies.

1.1 From Feminised and Racialised Domestic and Care Work to Private Residential Care: Ruptures and Continuities

The role of migrant workers in the care industry has been mostly explored in the literature on migrant domestic workers. While residential older-age care remains under-studied in comparison with the domiciliary setting within migration and care studies, theoretical paradigms developed within this literature significantly contributed to this book. Major works in the field include Anderson’s Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour (Anderson 2000) and Servants of Globalization by Rhacel Parreñas (2001). In the former, Bridget Anderson uncovered the ways in which migrant women performing domestic work find themselves positioned within multiple tensions. The commodification of domestic work and the role of migrant women within these processes reveal how class and ‘race’ play out within gendered hierarchies. In the latter, Parreñas problematised the global role of migrant domestic workers, notably through the concept of ‘international division of reproductive labour’ in her study of Filipina domestic workers in Los Angeles and Rome. The literature has been further developed through monographs, like Black Girls: Migrant Domestic Workers and Colonial Legacies by Sabrina Marchetti (2014), and case studies, such as those brought together in the collective volumes Migration and Domestic Work: A European Perspective on a Global Theme, edited by Helma Lutz (2008) and When Care Work Goes Global: Locating the Social Relations of Domestic Work, edited by Mary Romero, Valerie Preston and Wenona Giles (2014). To wit, an important body of literature provides country- and city-specific knowledge about migrant and minority ethnic care workers in the care sector. In the UK, a pioneering report published by COMPAS researchers in 2009 sketched out the contribution of migrant care workers to the care sector (Cangiano et al. 2009). In addition, a series of publications on this theme by Shereen Hussein, Martin Stevens and Jill Manthorpe analysed the relative position of ethnic minority and migrant care workers in the sector (Hussein et al. 2011; Stevens et al. 2012). Sondra Cuban’s (2013) volume offered an ethnographic insight into domiciliary and residential care and a detailed analysis of processes of deskilling. Haren Christensen and Ingrid Guldvik (2014), in their comparative study of migrant care workers in Norway and in the UK, focused on care work with disabled persons and shed light in particular on deskilling through migration policies and power relationships in the work setting. Studies on the role of migrant workers within care in France have so far focused on domiciliary care (Lada 2011). Several specific difficulties emerge when studying the role of migrant and minority ethnic workers in the care sector in the French context. The categorisation of ‘social care’ familiar to the British context, or that of ‘cuidados’ in Spain, has no direct equivalent in France (Martin 2008). Care is most often apprehended in academic work through the proxy category of ‘services à la personne’, which encompasses all services performed as paid economic activity in private households. While it mostly concerns care and domestic work, this statistical category also includes activities such as gardening. This makes it difficult to group together all care-related activities and renders the care sector as such statistically invisible (Jany-Catrice 2013). Finally, two major sector-specific publications offer rich context data on the work of migrant care assistants in Spain (IMSERSO 2005) and in the autonomous region of Madrid more specifically (Rodríguez Rodríguez 2012).

This book draws in particular on the theoretical framework of a transnational political economy of care (Williams 2011a, b) that highlights the intersection of various regimes as defined by Fiona Williams: ‘a country’s care regime intersects with its migration regime and its employment regime which provides the institutional context that shapes the experiences of both migrant women employed in domestic/care work and their employers, as well as the patterns of migrant care work to be found in different countries’ (Williams 2014, p. 17, emphasis in original). The edited volume by Bridget Anderson and Isabel Shutes, Migration and Care Labour Theory, Policy and Politics (2014), offers for instance ethnographic insights into case studies on care and domestic work, while contributing to the theorisation of the role of migrants in paid care. In addition, the literature on migration and social reproduction is mobilised to conceptualise the political economy implications of my findings. Gendered Migrations and Global Social Reproduction by Eleonore Kofman and Parvati Raghuram (2015) offers an overview of the theoretical developments in this field. Such a global perspective is also adopted by the literature on ‘global care chains’ (Hochschild 2000; Parreñas 2001; Yeates 2009), a major research theme within studies on migrant care and domestic workers.

On the whole, the literatures briefly presented above tend to focus overwhelmingly on migrant care workers and rarely include minority ethnic workers in their analysis, with the exception of several studies conducted in the UK (Cangiano et al. 2009; Stevens et al. 2012). A focus on migrant workers serves the purposes of illuminating the global politics of migrant labour and of shedding light on the relationship between the ‘care deficit’ in the so-called Global North and the feminisation of labour migration from the so-called Global South. I argue that these analytical lenses, while important, conceal the role of minority ethnic workers in the sector, and thus the post-colonial continuities and the underpinning racialisation processes through which bodies are categorised, not exclusively in articulation with the migration status. Among participants in this research, minority ethnic workers represented a significant share of the workforce in London and in Paris but not in Madrid, reflecting national differences in terms of migration history and policies. With a primary focus on migrant workers, the design of this research nevertheless included minority ethnic workers in order to grasp differentiated patterns of racialisation. The book thus contributes to the existing literature on migrant care labour by illuminating both the commonalities and the divergences that govern racialisation processes and their material implications for migrant and minority ethnic care workers.

Furthermore, the literature on migrant domestic workers and the global politics of domestic work does not place its primary focus on the care industry. While migrant workers in the domestic sector came to epitomise the multiple inequalities faced by migrant women from the ‘Global South’, less emblematic sites of work remained somehow on the margins of this field of literature. Situated in the ‘private’ sphere of the home, research into the experiences, trajectories and role of migrant domestic workers often leaves out an analysis in terms of the industrialisation of care and the content of care work in this specific context. This book, owing to a focus on migrant and minority ethnic workers within marketised older-age residential care (and to a smaller extent in domiciliary care), addresses questions that have attracted less attention in academic scholarship. The institutional context of residential care offers valuable insights into the intersection of migration, employment and care policies. This monograph thus provides cross-national understandings of care work within private residential older-age care, while empirical academic research conducted in these settings tends to concern single-country case studies (Rodriquez 2014; Molinier 2013). What is more, a focus on the marketised sector of older-age care uncovers central but under-researched implications of a shifting political economy of care, notably the increasing corporatisation of care in Europe beyond processes of commodification (Farris and Marchetti 2017).

1.2 A Distinct Theoretical Endeavour: Building Bridges Between the Empirical Study of Care and Feminist Moral Philosophy

Beyond these specific gaps that this monograph contributes to address, the theoretical endeavour undertaken is altogether distinct from most previous research on racialised care workers’ trajectories and experiences. Over the course of the empirical research, the more narratives I heard from participants, the more I sensed the need to deepen the initial gendered political economy framework I had started with. This theoretical framing proved to be key in thinking about intersecting policy fields and their interwoven implications in the lived experiences of racialised care workers. Yet, care workers’ voices questioned these oppressions in a singular manner, one that the study of the mechanisms that lead to labour market segmentation or the analysis of migration policies that foster arbitrariness at the workplace level did not account for. There was something in their narratives that transcended their position as racialised care workers, that revealed something about the whole of society, but that at the same was expressed from their specific standpoint. I started to familiarise myself with the literature on the ethics of care and its developments within feminist moral philosophy while I was conducting interviews; the longer I was on fieldwork the more it resonated with the voices of research participants. I had initiated this research with feminist methods of enquiry, notably Dorothy Smith’s institutional ethnography (see Chap.  2), which already emphasised the specific epistemological standpoint of participants, but feminist moral philosophy illuminated dimensions of the empirical material that would have otherwise been neglected or silenced. It provided me with the tools to hear what research participants formulated in new ways and to distinguish patterns that I did not expect to find. All along, it has been a very grounded experience, with narratives guiding me in this theoretical journey. Even though much food for thought had been provided by the later elaborations around a feminist ethics of care conceptualised by philosophers and political scientists (Tronto 2013; Sevenhuijsen 1998), reading Gilligan’s initial contribution, derived from interviews with girls and women in the context of studies in moral development, felt particularly close to heart. Her work enabled my own analysis in its current form in that ‘voices’ were central to her book and the theoretical reflections were anchored in empirical studies. Further to Gilligan’s contribution, moral philosophers and political scientists (Held 2005; Tronto 2013; Slote 2007; Engster 2007; Robinson 2011) have fruitfully engaged with her research from various perspectives, from political theory to international relations to philosophy of ethics (see Chap.  2). It is however striking, how, over three decades after the publication of Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982/2003), the academic fate of ‘an ethic of care’ has remained disconnected from empirical enquiry in spite of Gilligan’s own methodology. Some researchers in social policy have attempted to apply care ethics to their fields (Sevenhuijsen 1998; Hankivsky 2004; Mahon and Robinson 2011), yet their methodologies did not include ethnographies that would have provided a voice to this ethics. One exception to this is the ethnographic study of a care home published in French by Pascale Molinier (2013), who contributed, along with the philosophers Sandra Laugier and Fabienne Brugère, as well as the political scientist Patricia Paperman, to introduce feminist moral philosophy around care ethics in French academic spheres (Molinier et al. 2009; Brugère 2011; Gilligan et al. 2013).

This book thus proposes to combine the gendered political economy of older-age care from the standpoint of racialised care workers with the philosophical lenses of an ethics of care (Gilligan 1982/2003; Tronto 2013) and by doing so to contribute to a nascent field of literature (Mahon and Robinson 2011; Molinier 2013). As mentioned above, this task is carried out from the standpoint of racialised care workers whose position is here considered as constituting a privileged standpoint for the emergence of knowledge, as argued by feminist standpoint theory in reference to the notion of epistemic privilege (Smith 2005). Adopting this standpoint is also informed by the aspiration of a feminist democratic ethic of care (Tronto 2013) to give voice to those actually providing care within society.

1.3 Chapters’ Overview

Participants’ trajectories are mirrored in the themes that the book progressively explores as their experiences in the older-age care sector unfold, from entering it, to experiencing various dimensions of care work, to moving up or out of the sector and finally to considerations around social reproduction. Alternatively, the book can be read thematically, in terms of the theoretical conversations the chapters develop, bringing empirical perspectives into the theoretical debates within the care ethics literature and relying on the latter to revisit sociological concepts explored in this research.

Chapter  2 recounts the research journey that resulted in this book. I first outline the feminist methodologies that inspired the research design and describe how fieldwork was concretely conducted in London, Paris and Madrid. I then turn to the analytical frames developed by Fiona Williams for a transnational political economy of care and that I here draw upon to analyse the intersections of migration, employment and older-age care regimes. This chapter equally traces the academic genealogy of the care ethics literature relevant to this book in order to clarify how my research is inspired by feminist moral philosophy and what, in turn, it contributes to specific developments of care ethics.

Chapter  3 summarises relevant contextual elements of the gender, migration, care and employment regimes in the three countries and sets the scene for the political economy analysis developed in the following chapters. While presenting similar features of gendered and racialised labour market segmentation, the three cities and their national contexts present nevertheless significant specificities regarding each type of regime. Following Williams’ regime characterisation, Chap.  3 provides an overview of the policy contexts of participants’ trajectories and experiences, distinguishing cross-nationally some of the main similarities and differences further explored in the rest of the book.

Chapter  4 scrutinises how participants in this research first entered the older-age care sector. I start out by assessing the role of intermediaries across the three cities. The chapter then considers how specific policies impacted differently participants’ trajectories into and within older-age care. A typology of these routes into the care sector is presented according to participants’ motives for taking up a care job. I examine in this chapter how labour market segmentation occurs empirically against the background of different sets of intersecting regimes. Drawing on participants’ trajectories and secondary data, in the final section of the chapter I focus on a cross-national analysis of the discrepancies of utilitarian migration policies that these insights uncover.

Chapters  5 and  6 examine the concept of precarious employment and work within older-age care combining an approach in terms of political economy and care ethics. After inscribing the analysis of precarious employment in the context of neoliberal economies and care marketisation, Chap.  5 examines participants’ experiences of precarious employment through job stability, levels of earnings and rights at work. It highlights how processes of employment precarisation transfer socio-economic costs onto workers and demonstrates the limitations of the usual indicators mobilised in the study of economic precarity. The chapter emphasises the crucial relevance of the meanings that participants attach to their situations beyond general indicators for apprehending the lived experience of precariousness.

In Chap.  6, the very content of care work is brought to the fore in order to analyse work precariousness. Building on existing literature on precarious work and drawing on the care ethics literature, the emotional and physical implications of older-age care work are analysed. This chapter interrogates the concept of emotional labour on the basis of participants’ everyday experiences as illustrated by their narratives as well as their discourses around the role of emotions. It equally draws on feminist moral philosophy to account for the complexities encountered in participants’ narratives around the ambiguous role of emotions in care work. The chapter argues for a renewed understanding of care work inspired by participants’ narratives and conceptualised in conversation with specific tenets of the care ethics literature.

Chapter  7 focuses on participants’ perceptions and experiences of racism and discrimination at work; it differentiates between the position of migrant and minority ethnic workers and explores the structural conditions that foster such abuse as well as participants’ coping strategies. The cross-national comparison reveals how intersecting inequalities are inflected by diverse institutional practices and how these are symptomatic of different forms of institutional racism embedded in three national contexts. The chapter questions the function of anti-discrimination policies in contemporary neoliberal polities considering participants’ daily experiences of racism and their perceptions of such legislation as beyond reach. I interrogate how care ethics’ relational ontology can serve to productively transform limited understandings of racism.

Chapter  8 investigates participants’ professional mobility and aspirations. I first interrogate the articulation between citizenship acquisition and professional prospects on the one hand and between professional training in the care sector and social mobility on the other. This chapter explores whether racialised care workers intend to remain in the care sector and what they aspire to, both within and outside the older-age care sector. It proposes on this basis a typology of participants’ professional aspirations that uncovers how they perceive the opportunity structures available to them. The cross-national analysis enables the identification of differentiated outcomes produced by distinct regime and policy intersections.

In Chap.  9 participants’ own caring responsibilities are scrutinised. The chapter studies how care activities outside of their employment are distributed and managed in their daily lives. It explores how by being employed to sustain the social reproduction of families—and thus that of societies—in the Global North, racialised care workers find themselves at the crossroads of a double outsourcing. European migration regimes tend to deny workers’ own caring responsibilities and needs, creating gendered inequalities that are further exacerbated by the social implications of precarious employment and work. Bridging care ethics literature and the empirical study of care work is crucial, the chapter argues, to combat care’s marginalisation and achieve better distribution of care responsibilities in society.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced StudiesEuropean University InstituteFirenzeItaly

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