Dr Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta and Nishi Verma, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)
A recent increase in female labour migration across Asia has triggered a surge of interest in how the mother and wife’s absence for extended periods of time affects the left-behind family, particularly children, in labour-sending countries.
In this light, the Gender and Impact Studies Centre (GISC), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi Post News and Gen Dev Centre for Research and Innovation organised a joint talk on ‘Migrant workers and Childcare in Thailand and Myanmar‘ by Prof Kyoko Kusakabe, Professor at Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.
Prof Kyoko begins by saying that women as migrant workers have been discussed a lot, but the issue of social reproduction has been gravely neglected. Moreover, most of the literature reviews only talk about transnational families and distance mothering, the plight of children left behind by migrating parents, but there is a lack of discussion on the care arrangements for children who travel with migrant workers and the childcare strategies of migrants at the place of destination.
It is often believed that migrating parents send school-aged children back to Myanmar to be taken care of, but the reality is somewhat different as having children at that place of destination actually affects the migrant worker’s capability of earning money. Hence the impact of childcare management is quite significant, which needs to be looked upon.
While highlighting complications in childcare arrangements, she says childcare arrangement depends on the contested power structure that surrounds the migrant workers. It is a result of reciprocity and obligation between migrating children and grandparents. It is a reciprocal, asymmetrical, and multi-directional exchange of care. Thus, looking at childcare arrangement sheds light on what kind of position the migrant workers are in.
Prof Kyoko states various challenges faced by migrants on childcare in the place of destination; these are lack of established support network, poverty, need of earning money, high cost living in the place of destination. And, mainly, the thinking that housing and childcare is the sole responsibility of the women is the problem’s root cause.
Further, she says that Thailand is becoming a hub for migrant workers due to the increase in the demand for work and labour shortage. Thus, the country facilitates workers from neighbouring countries to work in accordance with it. The Thai government, since 2004, opened registration to facilitate neighbouring countries workers to come to work in Thailand. Also, 80% of migrant workers in Thailand are from Myanmar and the rest from Cambodia and Laos. She points out an important issue that Thailand prohibits migrant workers children in the country. However, the study shows that only 20% of migrants leave their children under 15 years of age back home.
While highlighting childcare patterns, she says, many of the children are being taken care of by the migrant women themselves. In these situations, they quit the job to have children at the place of origin and then return to work. Further, most migrants not entitled to maternity leave and in places where the migrant community is strong, migrant workers can have children at the place of destination. It is like a self-care child nursery, but it is not allowed by all workplaces. There are also times when women switch to low paying job to balance childcare with work.
There are instances where the husband is doing childcare at the destination, and because of this, the husband stays at home to take care of the children and quit the job. There are also examples of childcare by other women kin and relatives. There are multiple scenarios in which women relatives move to the destination and take up childcare. The kin or relative are not mostly happy to live in a given situation.
In these cases, most of the places already have labour shortage, because of which it is often not possible to send the relatives or kin back to their place of origin. Though many people pay one-third of their earnings for childcare, sometimes it becomes too daunting because of the cost. The most popular childcare arrangement is to leave the child in the place of origin with other women relatives. In this case, remittance becomes an obligation for women as they fear that the children will not be fed well.
On the border of Myanmar, there is a practice of leaving the child with the monk in the temple. The child stays with the monks till he attains a certain working age. Also, in the cases where they leave the child alone at the place of origin, community people keep an eye on the children but do not take their responsibilities. Labour law in Cambodia and Myanmar stipulates that workplaces need to establish day-care centres, but these day-care centres lack maintenance and hygiene and thus are avoided by migrant workers. Further, those working in Fisheries in odd hours do not fit with the opening hours of childcare centres. Moreover, the high fees of such centres leave migrant workers with limited options.
She also points that childcare patterns change depending upon the location; the people living in border areas prefer taking childcare by themselves, whereas people living in Mae sot prefer paid caretakers due to the large migrant community and easy availability of paid caretaker at affordable price. On the other hand, migrant workers living in Bangkok finds child paid caretaker too expensive and prefer sending children back home.
Prof Kyoko concludes by stating that the very heavy responsibility of childcare which is solely on women, is a major issue. Moreover, the variety of childcare arrangements are complicated as without public support; women struggle to find a person where she can “delegate” care and delegation of care does not change the division of labour.Thus, a proper childcare arrangement for migrant women needs to capture more varieties as maternity leave and creches cannot solve the problem.
Not only there is a need of changing the expectations on the role of women along with different values and preferences – shaped by identities, expectations and norms, economy, practices, etc. but there is also an urgent need for support from employers for providing better working conditions and housing to migrant workers.