Pandemic Borders

Hero nurses, untrustworthy domestic workers, and vilified sex workers

In times of pandemic, women migrants are facing restrictions on their mobility and the devaluation of their labor.

Maria Cecilia Hwang Rhacel Salazar Parreñas
17 November 2020
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Picture by Utrecht Robin/ABACAPRESS.COM/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures

Limitations to women’s mobility are aggravated during this global pandemic. As sending and receiving states curtail the cross-border movements of migrant women, particularly nurses and sex workers, and as employers limit the mobility of migrant domestic workers outside their home, they justify these mechanisms of control through the deployment of what Patricia Hill Collins calls “controlling images.” These images include the view of migrant women as disease carriers, heroes of the nation, and untrustworthy workers.

Restrictions against women’s mobility have been a defining feature of migration policies. Women now account for nearly half of all international migrants. Yet, as more women relocate to another country to join family members, study, and work, our research shows that they also face migration restrictions that target them specifically. For example, domestic workers, who are mostly women, are subject to minimum age requirements in key labor source countries such as the Philippines. The Philippine government also prohibits the migration of sex workers, who are also mostly women, because of their status as “undocumented workers.”

Virus carrying” sex workers

The first restrictive national legislation against migration was the US Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the entry of Chinese women to the United States. This Act ended open borders across the globe. Its enactment was motivated by the inane assertion of the American Medical Association that Chinese persons “carried distinct germs to which they were immune, but from which whites would die if exposed.” Due to their concentration in prostitution, it was assumed that Chinese women were more likely to transmit unwanted germs and disease to white men.

The control of sex workers based on the assumption they are disease carriers continues and is magnified during the current pandemic. Bans on tourists by countries with visa-free entry policies, including Southeast Asian and EU countries, have, by extension, halted the mobility of many sex workers who had been able to migrate only through the use of tourist visas because sex work is not considered legitimate employment. For instance, sex workers from the Philippines who used to work in Hong Kong as visa-free tourists are now trapped at home without any source of income.

Further limiting sex workers’ ability to work is the closure of nightlife and adult entertainment venues in many parts of the world and the ban on sex work during the pandemic, even in countries like Germany where prostitution is legal. Although countries like Japan have extended financial aid to sex workers, migrant sex workers are often precluded from receiving government assistance.

Nurses as heroes of the nation

Workers who have come to be known as “essential” have been touted as “heroes” of the pandemic. “Essential work” refers to work that is necessary to meet basic needs for human survival and well-being. As an employment category, it includes a vast array of jobs that entail the provision of transportation, health care, food and agriculture, security, janitorial service, and domestic work. Among these workers are nurses and domestic workers, many of whom are migrant women from the Philippines.

How has their labeling as heroes impacted their labor and migration? In March, the Philippine government imposed a temporary migration ban on healthcare professionals, including nurses, thus essentially forcing them to make personal sacrifices in delaying their migration to alleviate the shortage of health workers in a country that overproduced qualified nurses just a few years prior. Yet, the recognition of nurses as heroes has not improved their working conditions. Nurses in the Philippines reported working longer hours and without adequate personal protective equipment; many have yet also to receive the hazard pay promised by the government. Worst still, nurses are vilified as disease carriers. In Australia, nurses have been advised not to wear their uniforms outside of hospitals after health workers reported being spat on, while those in Canada and the United States have faced eviction.

Untrustworthy” domestic workers

For domestic workers, the pandemic has exacerbated the historic devaluation of their labor. Many find themselves with two undesirable options: increased hours without compensation or decreased hours without severance pay. With middle-class families left financially strapped by the economic collapse triggered by the pandemic, domestic workers are likely to be fired at will by employers. In Lebanon, workers from Ethiopia and Nigeria have been abandoned by employers at their embassies and left without compensation for their return to their origin countries. This expendability extends to their counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore, and New York. If not fired, domestic workers are likely to find their labor demands increased without adequate compensation.

Aggravating the economic devaluation of domestic work during the pandemic is the controlling image of them as “untrustworthy workers,” which employers use to morally justify denying workers a day off, imposing a curfew during the day off, and selectively limiting their mobility outside the home. Domestic workers in Hong Kong complain that employers expect them to run errands, but prohibit them from interacting with other domestic workers as they fear doing so would expose them to the virus. In Singapore, employers retaliate by withholding the salary of domestic workers who insist on a day off. Finally, employers have little qualms demanding that domestic workers switch from live-out to live-in work so they may control their movements outside the home.

However, as reported by migrant advocacy groups in the United States, employers usually fail to adequately compensate workers for the extended hours that go with live-in work. During the pandemic, it is not unknown for domestic workers to see their daily schedules increase by four hours per day.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has heightened the control of state and society on migrant women workers who are also facing the persistent problem of the devaluation of their labor. As migrant women workers are forced to make sacrifices for the sake of public health, we should make sure that they receive adequate remuneration. More importantly, we must ensure that these state policies and labor conditions do not become permanent features of women’s labor migration experiences.

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