The Good Daughters of Isaan (20) – A heavy burden: migrant, wife and worker in the global care sector

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By Patcharin Lapanun

The transnational marriages of Isaan women is a phenomenon that has received much interest and criticism from all quarters of Thai society. Some of these perspectives are reflected in this series, “The Good Daughters of Isaan.” 

The majority of Thai women in transnational marriages live overseas with their husbands, for example, in Europe, Australia, and the US. The Ban Na Dok Mai study of a village in Udon Thani found in 2008 that 77.4 percent of the 159 women surveyed moved abroad with their husbands. 

In many Western countries, these women constitute the bulk of marriage migrants. In Denmark, for example, Thais are the largest group of migrants from Southeast Asia; of the 12,974 documented Thai migrants in Denmark as of 2020, 83 percent are women, and the majority are married to Danish men. 

Academic Pattaya Ruenkaew suggests that there were 57,078 Thai migrants living in Germany in 2011. Of that number, 87 percent were women and 68 percent of these women were married to German men. Widowed or divorced Thai women who continued to stay in Germany made up 14 percent. 

While marriage is the avenue of migration for these women, their lives in the destination country go far beyond the duties of a housewife. Once abroad, the majority of them enter the labor market (formal and informal) to earn an income, which is crucial for their economic and social independence. It also allows them to send remittances back to their families as per the role of “the good daughter” to fulfill cultural obligations.

Apart from taking care of their husbands and children as unpaid domestic care providers, many also opt to work as paid care workers. They find employment as cleaners, as carers for the elderly, children, and the sick, and in massage shops or in the food industry. Women with the requisite skills and knowledge have the opportunity to take on work with higher pay and social status such as nurses, interpreters, Thai food caterers, etc.

The experiences of Sommai Khamsingnok and many other Thai women who appear in the documentary, Heartbound – A Different Kind of Love Story, clearly show that there is much overlap between the roles of wife and carer for these migrant women.

They enter the workforce through conditions which commodify them as caregivers, because of the “care deficit” in Western societies. Shouldering part of the overall responsibility of social reproduction, namely, the ability to provide care for those who need it, the migrant women play an important role in the destination countries. In a way, they free local women in these countries from the care responsibility and enable them to enter the workforce themselves. Migrant women are therefore supporting the economic development and competitiveness of those countries. 

At the same time, the work that these women do is important to their families and the development of their home countries, too. In the Philippines, remittances sent back by overseas Filipinos are a significant portion of the national GDP.

The transnational migration of women who work as cleaners, as carers for children and the elderly, is a phenomenon that has been steadily increasing since the late 1990s. It has played an important role pushing the academic field of migration studies to pay more attention to gender and the experiences of women as well as the economic importance of care work which so often falls to females in society. 

However, it cannot be denied that the outlook is ridden with inequality in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity. In many cases, these migrant women shoulder the double workload of unpaid care work in their homes as well as paid employment in order to send remittances to their families in Thailand. 

It’s not only a double workload that they have to contend with. A study by Nicole Constable on Filipina women working as maids in Hong Kong shows the sheer extent of the adapting, bargaining, and surrendering they have to do when living with their employers. These women have to exercise skill in navigating their lives abroad while also meeting the expectations placed upon them by society in their home countries. 

Mignon Duffy, a feminist academic, proposes that the work that these women perform can be categorized into two types. The first is reproductive care, which comprises housework and social reproduction. This work requires relatively little skill or knowledge and attracts accordingly low levels of compensation. Most are migrant females with limited education, skills, education, or legal status. The second type is nurturance care, or care work that requires interpersonal, social, emotional, and relational sensitivity, which tends to be the preserve of Western women. 

In order to perform care work in richer countries, migrant women must leave their families behind in their origin countries, including their dependents who tend to be left in the care of the woman’s parents or other relatives. In some cases, they may themselves hire migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Lao or Myanmar to help care for any children they have left behind in Thailand, creating a phenomenon called a “global care chain.”

Studies on the global care chain are numerous. They used to focus mainly on social reproduction in the household, especially work which can be described as motherly care, but have more lately focussed on other work that is outside the household context. 

Nicola Yeates, who has done important work in studying care workers, argues that in understanding the global care chain, the following points ought to be considered. 

1. Give importance to different types of work, such as work relating to health, education, religion, and sex work, all of which cover unskilled and skilled labor.

2. The focus should not be limited to work in the household context but should include other institutions in society which present their own individual conditions for care work. Examples include child nurseries, elderly care facilities, and health facilities (including massage establishments). 

3. Importance should be given to the various forms of care work that women are involved in, both paid and unpaid, both inside and outside of the family context. It should be understood that the women shoulder many responsibilities in and outside of the family in order to make family life and relationships work.

4. The nature of care work includes emotions, ties, and close relationships which are very hard to quantify economically. Therefore, better frameworks for studying and analyzing the complexities of the global care chain should be developed. 

5. The care-giving and care-receiving process is connected to gender, class, and race, and the inequalities thereof. Whatever the particulars may be for each context, women almost always end up being the disadvantaged party. Analysis should therefore take into account the experiences of the women involved in this kind of work. 

Pattaya Ruenkaew research has focused on the stories of Thai women living in Germany, most of whom were married to German men. It shows the diverse ways in which these women earn incomes–as cooks, massage therapists, cleaners, interpreters, and Thai language teachers, to name just a few ways. The women are flexible in their approach to work, and adapt to the shifting circumstances of their lives and their families while abroad.

The experiences of these Thai women reflect the connection between transnational marriage and being a transnational “care worker” in their destination countries. Together, these experiences paint a picture of struggle, of how hard they are willing to fight, and of their agency in overcoming the inequalities they are presented with in the work that they do.  

At the same time, the stories of their lives abroad show how global care workers have become intertwined with the experiences of these women, both in their destination countries and in their relationships with their families in their countries of origin. This is especially true when it comes to the duty of being a “good daughter” and the societal expectations of them to provide a good life to their parents. 

It is clear to see that women are instrumental in care-giving, both in the family context where the women live with their foreign husbands as well as in the context of their families in their country of origin. They are also instrumental in providing necessary care to people who are not their relatives in order to earn extra income and maintain some personal independence, as well as to send money back home to “care” for their parents.

Teasing out the overlap between the various forms of work that these women do  –including their management, adapting, and bargaining in various contexts–elevates transnational marriage beyond the question of what the emotional or material motives are for marriage may be. It transcends the question of whether the women are victims or perpetrators.

Instead, it reveals the complexity and intertwined factors between labor migration and transnational marriage between the labels of “wife” and “worker,” and between being a “good daughter.” Similarly, it reveals the stigma of being somehow tainted by the commercial sex trade that dogs these women from near or afar, as a result of the impressions made upon Thai society during the Vietnam War era. 

Coming to an understanding of transnational marriage through the prism of these women’s experiences, both at their origins and their destinations, helps us to ask the right questions in order to receive the right answers, answers that may be quite different from the same old explanations to which society has been accustomed. 

Edited and translated by The Isaan Record

Note: The views expressed on The Isaan Record website are the views of the authors. They do not represent the views of the organization, its editorial team or any of its partner organizations.

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