SNIS Annual Conference - Gender and the Global Care Economy

Tuesday, 11 October, 2011 - 09:00 to 16:45
Geneva - Auditorium Jacques Freymond - 132, rue de Lausanne

Video Summary of the Conference

The SNIS 2011 annual conference, “Gender and the Global Care Economy” took place on Tuesday, 11 October 2011, at the Auditorium Jaques Freymond.

Co-organised by the SNIS, the Graduate Institue (Program on Gender and Global Change) and the University of Geneva (Institute for Gender Studies), the conference was opened by Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, who gave a key-note speech on the question of globalisation and the importance of looking in the penumbra of overarching analytical concepts for a better understanding of the world.


The two panels of the conference, on the Gendered Migratory Care Economy, its Variegated Global Manifestations and Associated Socio-Economic Impacts on Workers and Host Societies and the Gendered Care Economy at Our Doorstep - Lobbying and Policy Making for Care Economy Workers in Europe, Switzerland and Geneva provided the theoretical framework used in the research of issues of gender and the care economy, and specific case-studies, illustrating a variety of questions that are encountered in the field.


The particularity of the conference was the fact of bringing together academics researching the aforementioned themes, practitioners, such as ILO staff, and activists involved with the everyday questions arising in the global care economy.


Keynote Address

Saskia Sassen’s contribution pointed out that academic analysis tends to focus and develop powerful categories, with strong explanation power; however, such categories have an area of “penumbra”, of shadow, which obscure processes that do not fit neatly into the categories, but are relevant to their focus. It is by looking at these dimly lit aspects and following their implications that academic research can become relevant and useful for policy formulation. Prof. Sassen provided two examples of concepts connected to gender and the global care economy, which, examined with their penumbra, bring forth previously unsuspected dimensions: remittances and domestic workers.

In the case of remittances, where the standard focus is on poor migrants sending money home, the fact that high-earners also send money home is generally neglected. However, introducing this aspect of remittances in the global picture, changes the geography of their flows, as well as economic models of growth based on this variable.


Similarly, in the case of domestic workers, looking away from the victimhood dimension uncovers structural arrangements that show they are capable of yielding significant power as managers and holders of family, office and company logistics.


Overall, Prof. Sassen’s leading point was the need to look at elements of received wisdom from different angles in order to get a richer picture out of the phenomena under examination.


The contributors to the first panel, Gendered Migratory Care Economy, its Variegated Global Manifestations and Associated Socio-Economic Impacts on Workers and Host Societies, went on to accomplish this type of operation, by showing new dimensions in topics that have been researched for the past thirty years.



Case-Study on Ivoirian “Little Helpers”

Thus, Dr. Melanie Jaquemin, presenting a case-study on Ivoirian “little helpers”, suggested that what traditionally is seen as child labour in the care industry, in particular cultural contexts can be a way of progressing on the social and economic ladder; they are part of informal structures that channel existent workforce.Dr. Jaquemin underlined the need for spreading the knowledge about labour rights and standards in countries with this type of work traditions, without, however, destroying what can be useful economic and labour network.



Lack of Social Protection

Prof. Rhacel Parrenas, from the University of Southern California, presented two emblematic stories of care-workers caught in the interstices of national retirement systems, which are not adapted to the global flows of workers, and therefore fail contributors who are not also citizens of the countries in which they work. As a consequence, they cannot benefit from social protection, which is often territorial and prohibitive in terms of minimum wages. This lead to the introduction of a point of discussion on the importance of portable rights.



Dr. Jaquemin underlined the need for spreading the knowledge about labour rights and standards in countries with this type of work traditions, without, however, destroying what can be useful economic and labour networks.  

Families and Households as Actors of the Global Care Chains

Prof. Parvati Raghuram contributed a reading on gender and the care economy that took the focus away from the more traditional economic aspects of it, and emphasising its affective, intellectual, cultural and responsibility dimensions. It is important to know that migrant care workers often leave their countries because of a situation of neglect and disempowerment in their families and close social contexts. Prof. Raghuram stressed that families and households are as much actors of the global care chains, as states, markets and volunteers. These are inextricably linked, and a change in one of them engenders changes in all of them. Also, the global care economy should not be studied in isolation, but looking at other global trends such as the brain drain arguments, migration and human trafficking issues. Only like this useful recommendations for policy could be developed.

Increasing Economic Inequality

Dr. Sahra Razavi, research coordinator at the UNRISD, made a compelling reading of the three presentations and papers featured on Panel I, stressing that the stories that were heard underline the increasing economic inequality that characterises the world’s social set up. The constant pressure for keeping prices down is carried in the care economy by the workers themselves. As migrant workers are the most needy, they feed chains of cheap labour. A potential way of addressing this issue is a coalition between care providers and care receivers that stresses the fact that there is more to care than its economic dimension, there are questions of health, emotional stress, education, and solidarity. Policy wise, some suggestions would be to establish transnational social welfare agreements, social security based on individual rights and to include the informal sector into basic social security systems.

Domestic Workers Legislation – the Cases of Spain and Austria

Dr. Martin Oelz presented the cases of Spain and Austria, comparing their domestic workers legislation. He talked about the indicators used, such as minimum wage, maximum working hours and social protection. Dr. Oelz stressed the importance of inspections in order to ensure the respect of laws and relevant conventions. With reference to the negotiations of the ILO convention on domestic work, he specified that migration issues were kept separate, underlying how sensitive this issue remains in terms of the global care economy.


Getting States to Ratify the ILO Convention

Esther Busser, Assistant Director International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) - Geneva Office, gave more details about the ILO Convention, and stressed the need for more lobbying in order to get states to ratify it. She equally mentioned the importance of research for centres like the ITUC, and the need for a more sustained relationship with academia in order to get access to this type of research.

Affected Migrant Workers

Laetitia Carreras, Ethnologist heading the services "early childhood, health and gender " at the Centre de Contact Suisses-Immigrés (CCSI), Geneva, brought two very telling examples of migrant domestic workers to the fore. In addition to the issues that had been highlighted in the first panel, she drew the audience’s attention to questions of stress and health problems that can affect migrant workers. Laetitia Carreras’ account humanised the featured elements in the specific context of Geneva.


Situation in Switzerland

Prof. Yves Flückiger’s presentation added further ideas about the Swiss case, explaining that, given the way in which the legal framework is structured, and enforced, this favours an informal sector for domestic workers. The lack of credible penalties does not help in this matter. The recent decision of the Swiss government to establish a minimum wage for domestic workers was political measure that is just one step forward. Other steps should be to put in place anti-discrimination laws, to make a differentiation between domestic workers and those providing personal care and between private households and private companies as employers.





Concluding the conference,
Prof. Delphine Gardey
and Prof. Elisabeth Prügl emphasised some of the main points of the conference:

  • the need for care to be taken and understood other than as an economic relationship

  • the importance of acknowledging the contribution of NGOs, IGOs  and academia in the formulation of appropriate policies

  • academia and the NGOs constitute spaces of freedom in terms of thinking and analysis, and therefore are able to propose bold frameworks for action

  • it is important for academics to assume a more active role in proposing policy options and offering readings of the facts in the field.