Gender, Labor, The Economy

Barbara Ehrenreich has co-edited a new book: Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. I haven’t read it yet, but she outlines some of the key themes of the book in an exchange on Slate (scroll to the bottom). I was particularly struck by this quote:

There’s another, far more heartrending, child-related problem here. What about the nanny’s children? As far as I can recall, this issue never comes up in Caitlin’s article, but it was this issue that inspired Arlie Hochschild and me to compile Global Woman. We were moved and appalled by stories of Filipina nannies in Hong Kong or L.A., and Sri Lankan nannies in Europe and the Gulf states, who may go for five years or more without seeing their own children. If a mother’s working outside the home is potentially hazardous to kids, as Caitlin sometimes seems to suggest, what about her working thousands of miles away for pay that rarely allows a visit home? In her essay in Global Woman, Arlie talks about this transfer of loving care—from Third World to affluent First World kids—as a new kind of imperialist extraction—not of gold or rubber, this time, but of love.

The reason this resonated with me was that a friend of mine made a very powerful and moving film about exactly this topic. Her name is Nilita Vachani, and the film is called When Mother Comes Home for Christmas… Here is the description from the web site (there is no direct link, click on the link for Nilita and then go to films”):

Josephine is an illegal migrant worker from Sri Lanka who lives in Greece taking full-time care of little Isadora. Josephine’s own children have been left to a less fortunate fate in the home country, bartered between reluctant relatives and orphanages.

Finally Josephine gets her much-awaited work visa, and after an absence of eight years, is able to travel to Sri Lanka to visit her children. The meeting lasts a brief month. The camera travels with Josephine, capturing the complicated feelings of loss and longing, expectation, desire and disappointment that are the inevitable companions to this transitory union.

It is a truly heartbreaking film, as it becomes more and more clear that Josephine’s relationship with her children has been reduced to the money she sends home from Greece. Something has been damaged by her long absence that can’t be made up for by money and material possessions alone. Equally disturbing is footage of a Sri Lankan training program for maids (Sri Lanka’s number one export!) in which, in addition to learning how to use a vacuum and a microwave, they are taught how to put a condom on a banana…

The film would be an excellent choice for anyone teaching the book in a class!

(Link to slate article via Ampersand.)

UPDATE: It seems that the book actually begins with a discussion of Nilita’s film!