On labour migration and reproduction in the time of COVID-19
Violet in Personal Protective Equipment.
Feminist scholars have long used the concept of ‘social reproduction’ to signal the daily processes and structural dynamics required for the continuity of society, economy, and life. Referencing procreation, the reproduction of labour and social systems, and the practices of socialisation and the meeting of human needs, under capitalism, social reproduction is strategically undervalued. Over the last several months, as previously ‘low skilled’ work has been re-classified as essential, the uneven relationship between capitalism and those forms of labour deemed secondary to its operations has been acutely revealed. Almost entirely rhetorical, this re-classification has not been met with elevated status or improved conditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in long-term care facilities, with those requiring care and those providing it most vulnerable to coronavirus infection, serious illness, and death. Concurrently, compelled to work in unsafe, congested work sites or interfacing with the public, farm workers and service workers find themselves at increased risk.
Central to the agricultural, care, and service sectors, migrants are vital reproductive workers. Yet, grounded in capitalism’s sexual division of labour, and the violences of colonialism and neoliberal imperialism, they are consistently rendered precarious. In Canada, this is amplified by the regulatory framework through which migrant labour is managed. Decades-old, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) establishes the criteria for worker recruitment and determines the conditions of their labour. Of particular importance, the Program binds workers to their employers by tying residency to employment. Given the social and economic disparities prompting labour migration, temporary legal status heightens worker vulnerability to a range of abuses, including wage-theft and extortionate rental practices. In these ways, the threat of deportation embedded in the TFWP increases the profitability of labour by providing new opportunities for exploitation. Where migrant workers in agriculture, care, and service are concerned, this is exacerbated by the devalued pre-condition of their work.
Violet was one of 72 Filipino migrant workers recruited by a rural hotel in Manitoba between 2009 and 2014. A service worker, her waged labour assumed a number of reproductive qualities. Reflecting the Philippine’s protracted history of migration, Violet’s mother was a domestic worker in Hong Kong. When she retired, Violet became the family breadwinner. Remitting her wages first from Korea and then Canada, Violet safeguarded her family’s survival, renovated their home, and supported her siblings' education. Preparing and serving food at the hotel’s restaurant, while she was there, Violet met the daily reproductive needs of guests. Facilitated by the TFWP, her labour added value to the hotel, while simultaneously ensuring the viability of the rural regional economy. An important departure from the near-ubiquity of migrant labour-exploitation, however, most of the hotel’s migrant workers eventually became permanent residents through Manitoba's Provincial Nominee Program (MPNP).
Illustrative of Canada’s decentralised approach to immigration, the MPNP is one of eleven sub-national programs meant to redress specific provincial and territorial demographic and economic needs. Their legal status no longer tied to their employment at the hotel, many of these workers sought out new jobs. Still, most remained tied to food service and hospitality, while others transitioned to domestic or institutional care labour. This trajectory is revealing of Canada’s racially stratified labour market, that sees specific groups of workers concentrated in food production and provisioning, service and hospitality, and care sectors. Even with the threat of deportation resolved, then, racialized migrants continue to be on the front-lines of reproductive work. In the current crisis, migrant and immigrant workers, regardless of their status, continue to shoulder the burden of under-resourced systems. As the weight of this burden grows heavier, the manifold risks associated with COVID-19 are downloaded to workers. Tracking transnational circuits of kinship, mutual care, and familial obligation, these risks are then redistributed globally to communities of origin and non-migrant family. Pre-pandemic, over coffee, Violet once offered the following insight about her work at the hotel: ‘a sandwich’, she said, ‘is never just a sandwich’. What happens here, in other words, no matter how small, has implications there.
Following this pattern, after four years at the hotel, Violet became a home-care provider, eventually retraining as a Registered Practical Nurse. As a nurse in the context of COVID-19, Violet’s localised reproductive labour has taken on new urgency. At the same time, her elderly parents unable to leave their home and her brothers laid off from work, Violet’s commitment to family in the Philippines has accelerated, as have the anxieties and uncertainties that accompany transnational family life. Despite her post-secondary training, the reproductive nature of her work and its nominal worth according to the logics of capitalist political economy, continue to limit her capacity to meet her own needs in Canada and those of non-migrant kin in the Philippines. And yet, she manages, working in the services of loved ones, strangers, and a system that generates and depends on her precarity. Indeed, even as Violet is a Canadian resident, she remains suspectable to the vulnerabilities endemic in so many labour migration scenarios – these have been exacerbated by the pandemic, despite a growing recognition of the necessity of her labour.
Like so many, Violet has long supported the social reproduction of kin and community, society and economy, and human life in the short- and long-term. The discursive and material separation of reproductive life purposes from those deemed productive has engendered a system hostile to human existence. COVID-19 has demonstrated this, bringing into sharp relief the dual character of social reproduction under capitalism: essential to survival, social reproductive work is under-valued.
That this work is regarded as immaterial, however, represents more an ideological sleight of hand than truth. The degradation of cooking, cleaning, and caring obscures the necessity of social reproduction, while its feminisation rationalises the low-status and poor conditions associated with it. Compounded by systemic inequalities of class, race, and citizenship, the devaluing of reproduction reinforces the social relations and hierarchies upon which capitalism depends. Nevertheless, inadequately resourced, the cost of reproduction is effectively deflected away from capital, and absorbed by those responsibilised for its completion: women, often racialized, and migrants.
Catherine Bryan is an anthropologist who studies migration, social reproduction, and political economy. Her current work focuses on agricultural and fish processing in Nova Scotia, and the encounters between local and migrant workers. She is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work in Halifax, Nova Scotia where she teaches social policy, critical theory, and research methods.