Researchers under the direction of Ito Peng,sociology professor at the University of Toronto, have a gargantuan task ahead of them: they are studying the migration decisions of workers who care for children, the elderly, and the disabled, and doing so on a global scale. They will investigate what Peng calls “shifts in national and global policies” that encourage  the workers to take their expertise across international borders.

Over the next five years, nine researchers will uncover where these mostly female workers are moving, why they are moving, how they are moving and what the consequences of these migrations are in a research project called Gender, Migration and the Work of Care. Knowledge-sharing across eight thematic studies will inform data gathering and analysis for the overall research project.

SSHRC Partnership Grant awarded the researchers $2.85 million to pursue the project. The studies will focus on migration patterns of care workers in the Asia-Pacific region — including South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore — as well as Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand. Some projects will delve into how cultural values shape a country’s need for care, while others will uncover personal experiences of migrant care workers and their families back home.

Peng, Director of the Centre for Global Social Policy at the University of Toronto, has also conducted several studies on social policy and migration with research groups at the United Nations. She recently told the Global Migration Research Institute about how her latest multi-pronged project seeks to understand how and why care workers are on the move.

Gender, Migration and the Work of Care project leaders include: Ito Peng (Sociology, specializing in comparative welfare states, University of Toronto), who is creating a framework that will be used to analyze care and migration patterns; Soyna Michel (History – US and gender history, University of Maryland) and Rianne Mahon (Political Science – gender and global social policy, Balsillie School of International Affairs and Wilfred Laurier University), who are looking at international organizations’ policies for migration and care (UN, World Bank, OECD and ILO); André Laliberté (Political Studies – China, University of Ottawa), whose team is looking at the migration of domestic and international care workers in China; Susan McDaniel (Sociology – ­family sociology and social demography, University of Lethbridge), who is studying effects of labour and market conditions on care work supply and demand; Deborah Brennan (Social Policy – family sociology and social demography, University of South Wales), who is leading a project on care worker migration within Oceania region; Rachel Silvey (Geography – human geography and Indonesia, University of Toronto), who is studying care workers’ migration patterns and sending country conditions; Cynthia Cranford (Sociology – gender and sociology of work, University of Toronto), whose team will compare care worker profiles in Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles; and lastly, Monica Boyd (Sociology – gender and migration, University of Toronto), who is investigating foreign temporary workers and foreign temporary worker policies in Canada, including those in the Live-in Caregiver program.


Let’s talk about your research project. Where did the idea come from?

The idea for this research project came from our collective research experiences in the areas of care and migration. All the researchers in this project have been working on different dimensions related to the topic. We know that more and more countries in the global north are experiencing a care deficit as a result of the need for and expectations of women to go out to work. Mothers are no longer able to devote time to care for their children and daughters and daughters-in-law are no longer able to care for their elderly parents and relatives. We don’t have enough people that are willing to work as careworkers, so this is drawing a lot of women primarily from the global south to migrate to provide care.

In this partnership research project, we are looking at how the reorganization of care is creating the migration of care workers, and how these migrations from—normally the global south to the global north—are influencing, and in turn, are influenced, by social policy, by the kind of political economy, and by the changes in family and gender relations.

What makes this project different from other migration research?

The traditional mainstream migration research looked at mainly male migrants.Women were often considered as wives and dependents of male migrants.

I think since about a decade or so ago, feminist scholars have begun to say, ‘You know what? Women are also migrating and they’re migrating in a very different way.’ Indeed, today, just as many women are migrating for work, on their own, as men.

What’s unique about this project is that we’re bringing together two sets of research that have been running parallel with each other but never quite intersected with each other: that of care and migration. There is now significant research on care and on migration, but very few that look at the two, and particularly from the perspective of gender. So, we’re looking at this very interesting intersection of gender, care, and migration.

Is it just that researchers are starting to notice this trend now or was it always happening before?

There are two things happening. First is that, clearly, in terms of the numbers, the migrant care workers have really increased and it has to do with changes in socio-economic contexts and national policies.

In countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, 95 per cent of foreign workers are women. They’re looking after elderly people, looking after disabled people, or looking after children. In all these countries, the numbers of workers have multiplied by five to 10 times over the last 10 – 15 years. This is because these countries have implemented policies, such as special tax relief and foreign domestic worker grants—Taiwan has actually implemented Live-in-Caregiver program since 1992, though it’s very different from that of Canada’s—that encourage families to hire foreign care workers. These countries now depend on these foreign domestic care workers.

The second is that more and more scholars have begun to pay attention to this phenomenon as foreign care workers are becoming more visible in public, in public debates, and in media.

How do government policies work in the North American context?

In the North American context, there is a significant South-North migration. In the US, for example, there are a lot of people coming from Latin America, many of them undocumented. So you’ve got already a pre-existing supply of people willing to work for low wages in personal care service and related fields. That, in turn, lets the government off the hook in terms of providing public care for the elderly or children.

So, you’ve got the receiving country side of the story. But then at the sending country side, governments in many countries are motivated to send out care workers because of the remittances they send back. In the Philippines, for example, the remittances make up close to 15% of their GDP. This is a significant proportion of their national economy. So they create narratives like calling migrant care workers the ‘national hero’. In our project, Rachel Silvey in the geography department is working with her collaborators in South-East Asia to analyze this from a sending country perspective. So, they’re shadowing migrant care workers who leave from the Philippines and Indonesia to see where they go, why they go where they go, and how they navigate their global care migration. Their research shows that a lot of migrant care workers — the Filipinas and Indonesian women ­—migrate many times before they land in their ideal country to work.

From where does Canada take most of its care migrants?

They could come from many, many places. So, in the case of Canada, we don’t have specific policies about care workers except for the Live-in Caregiver Program. Most of the people who come in through the Live-in Caregiver Program are from the Philippines. But we do use a very wide net for the temporary foreign workers program that also captures potential care workers. But we don’t really know what happens to people once they arrive here, what kind of work they end up doing. And for that matter, we don’t have very good research about what happens to the Live-in Caregivers after they complete their 2-year work requirement—do they move onto other kinds of work? Do they continue to work as caregivers, and why? We don’t really know. So, one of the research projects, led by Monica Boyd, looks specifically at that.

If the researchers are informing one another, it probably makes gathering data easier.

Yes, we are excited about being able to collect, organize and share data and analyses. We also have 13 institutional partners who are also working with us by helping us in data gathering and analysis. I am hoping that the project will enable all of us to work together closely. So far, it seems to be working. Also, we probably have one of the largest funding grants because we wanted the scope of each project to be quite extensive. The grant gives us resources to collect and analyze data, and to work together.

What does the SSHRC grant pay for?

The bulk of the money is actually going towards hiring and training graduate students to assist with the research. We have about 20 graduate students working with various researchers in this project right now.

The rest of the money is spent on project coordination, data gathering, running of the eight thematic research, website and information dissemination, and other research related projects like Research Associate program and Doctoral Affiliate program. A lot of the research requires either qualitative surveys — interview surveys, interviews, participant observations – or quantitative analysis. These types of in-depth research cost money.

If there is a general hypothesis or major finding in your research so far, can you tell US what that is?

In terms of my research within this research project, which is about developing a framework for understanding gender, care and migration, we find that there is a noticeable shift in the understanding of care from a private family responsibility to a commodified, outsourceable activity as a result of structural and policy changes. And this is happening throughout the Asia Pacific region, the focus of this research. I hope to develop a more coherent conceptual framework that would integrate the idea of care regime with that of migration regime.

Also so far most of my analysis is very much receiving country focused, meaning more focused on demand side story. I think where I need to work a little bit more is to understand to what extent care work is also shaped by the supply side. In other words, by the availability of workers in countries that are promoting care work. I think it’s an important factor, but I don’t have enough data yet.

Who do you think would be most interested in this research?

At the global level, I think policymakers would definitely be interested. Places like the UN, ILO, the World Bank, OECD — they would be all interested in this.

National governments also would be interested in the research. We are partnered with Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada. They wanted to partner with us because they are very interested in our research. They believe that our research and analysis will help them make better policies. They, in fact, are two of our biggest partners in terms of their contribution.

Immigration and migration is one area where there’s a lot of policy interest in Canada. The current federal government is really interested in that, but they’re not necessarily interested in care workers, per se. These are a less visible group even though it’s important. I think it’s probably because it’s not the most sexy policy area right now.

Why do you say that?

Right now, the kind of research that is getting attention includes things like the skills mismatch. We have lots of people getting a university education, but not getting the job and the argument is that it’s because there’s a mismatch between students’ skills and what employers are looking for. These are the kinds of things you hear government policy saying: you know, there are too many people studying humanities and social science and not engineering, so maybe we should redirect students to study in areas that are more practical, etc. etc..

Also, care issue is not getting as much policy attention because Canada’s population is not that old yet. In Canada, we’re beginning to clue into this idea of the need to care for an aging population but we haven’t really seen what it means. So, this is one of these future issues that is easy to put aside for now when we have much more immediate concerns.

Are there specific recommendations or policy changes that you hope this research project will influence?

I think this research really shows the different kinds of inequalities, and the global interdependencies. The reason why we have global migration of care workers is because of serious inequality between global north and global south. It’s not that women in the global south really want to leave their countries and work as care workers or think that they are better at care work than women of the global north. It’s simply because of the economic inequality between north and south that force women in global south to migrate out as care workers. This research also shows that given our global social and economic conditions, the global north needs global south, and vice versa. So we need to think about policies, at national and global levels, that will address the issues of inequality, labour standards, gender quality, and global governance on labour migration.


This interview has been edited and condensed.