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The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
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Issue: 8.1: Fall 2009
Guest Edited by Gisela Fosado and Janet R. Jakobsen
Valuing Domestic Work


Gisela Fosado

The extreme and grotesque cases of domestic worker exploitation periodically make newspaper headlines: "Couple Held Two Servants Captive for Years, U.S. Says," "Ex-Teacher Maude Paulin Convicted of Forcing Slavery," "Diplomatic Immunity Leaves Abused Workers in Shadows."[1] The daily, commonplace devaluation and exploitation of domestic workers, however, is often unnoticed by many of us who have learned to accept the status quo. Imagine if your middle-class buddy suddenly faced termination without severance pay or unpaid holidays, vacation or sick days in her job. What if she worked 70-80 hours per week with pay below the minimum wage and without compensation for overtime? What does it mean that so little attention is paid to the fact that an entire sector of labor is structured in this draconian fashion? And what would our society do without the labor of the countless women, predominantly women of color, who, as our contributors note, make all other work possible?

Part 1 of this issue, entitled "Invisible Work," focuses on recent framings and representations of domestic work by scholars who push us to make the power dynamics in this sector of employment more visible, and who show the pervasiveness and depth of the problems related to care work and other types of domestic work worldwide. These scholars analyze the way we understand the sexual division of domestic labor, how race and nationality affect this work, the ways other sectors have positioned themselves in relation to domestic work, as well as representations of domestic work in recent documentaries.

The essay by Jennifer Klein and Eileen Boris gives us a glimpse into the mechanisms by which in-home care work was bracketed from worker protection legislation over the second half of the twentieth century. They provide a lens onto the path by which we ended up with so little protection for domestic workers. Saskia Sassen's essay presents a context where domestic work becomes more visible, as is the case in leading sectors within "global cities." She analyzes the growing inequalities that are becoming an essential part of "advanced economies," but also the ways in which global cities open up opportunities for marginalized sectors to organize and mobilize.

Sassen's contribution is followed by Arlie Russell Hochschild's work on the global trend to hire immigrant women for care work in the industrialized world and the deepening of inequality through what she and others have called the 'global care chain.' Hochschild notes that, "A typical global care chain might work something like this: an older daughter from a poor family in a Third World country cares for her siblings (the first link in the chain) while her mother works as a nanny caring for the children of a nanny migrating to a First World country (the second link) who, in turn, cares for the child of a family in a rich country (the final link)". Pei-Chia Lan's contribution gives us an example of the care chain that Hochschild analyzes in her piece. Lan looks at the changing dynamics in East Asia as wealthy families in countries such as Taiwan are increasingly reliant on immigrant labor for domestic work as a way to push women into the workforce. She argues that 'guest worker' programs in these countries "have maintained the status of migrant workers as disposable labor and as transient residents," which further exploits these women.

Wendy Kozol's review essay looks at six recent documentaries on domestic workers across the globe, which "make visible both the ideological and structural forces that maintain domestic work as a poorly paid and undervalued racial, gendered, class-based and increasingly transnational labor practice." We close Part I with Christine Bose's writing, summarizing some of the work she has done over the past few decades on the undervaluation of both paid and unpaid domestic labor and their interconnections, as well as the beginnings of her forthcoming collaborative work on migration for marriage and its relation to the demand of reproductive and domestic labor.

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© 2009 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 8.1: Fall 2009 - Valuing Domestic Work