The aim of this study is to explore the cross-border migration of Zimbabwean women who undertake various types of care work within the domestic sector in South Africa. The study seeks to understand the female labour migration within the context of global care work. It utilises the global care chain concept, which describes the employment of women and men to provide care in wealthy countries while leaving a care gap in their own families. The specific objectives of the study were as follows:
1. To examine the reasons for care workers’ migration to South Africa.
2. To investigate their work experiences in relation to duties, contractual agreements, hours worked, benefits including leave entitlements, employer-employee relations, and overall working conditions.
3. To examine the perceived macro and meso benefits and costs of the cross-border migration for care workers and the extent to which these impacts affect familial relations in Zimbabwe.
4. To explore the coping mechanisms and strategies employed by migrant care workers in navigating the challenges encountered in the course of their duties.
5. To examine women’s interpretations of their work experiences in relation to their position in society (or their position as migrant care workers in society).
This study drew on two theoretical concepts: social reproduction from a feminist perspective, and transnationalism. Social reproduction places an emphasis on care and describes the activities of maintaining life daily and nurturing future generations. Transnationalism involves migrants maintaining relations in both their home country and the receiving country.
Data was collected through a qualitative research design. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with key informants from four domestic worker recruitment agencies and 26 domestic and care workers in two cities, Johannesburg and Pretoria. Both cities are located in Gauteng, one of the nine provinces in South Africa and the country’s economic hub. The cities were chosen based on statistics showing that migrant inflows from outside South Africa were highest in Gauteng.
The leading findings were that Zimbabwean migrant care workers in South Africa faced exploitative working conditions as the majority of them were undocumented or irregular. They faced challenges in obtaining valid work visas due to the stringent immigration policies in South Africa. It emerged that without legal documentation, migrant care workers could not seek employment through formal channels such as recruitment agencies. They used informal channels such as social networks and the ‘market’. The study highlighted that these informal channels were risky and did not offer protection and safety to either the care workers or the employing families. Further, it emerged that migrant care workers were vulnerable to exploitation through poor working conditions that violated labour laws.
The findings highlighted that the benefit of migration for care workers was the opportunity to find employment, which enabled them to become economically active as income earners and financial providers. Through the income they earned, migrant women were able to send remittances in the form of money, groceries, and clothing to their families in Zimbabwe, reflecting transnational care practices. The study revealed that the migration of women was associated with social costs such as the emotional strain resulting from the separation of family members and the extraction of care resources by removing carers from the family.
In light of the transfer of care resources through their migration, migrant women had to make care arrangements to fill the gap. They found suitable caregivers in their extended families. They made use of the information and communication technologies of smart phones to maintain ties with their families.
The overall contribution of the study is that it gathered evidence to show that migrant care workers within the Global South are more vulnerable to exploitation largely due to unregulated migration processes when compared to South-North global care chains. This evidence supports the argument that employment conditions, migration laws and policies, as well as national labour standards can intersect to shape the status and experiences of migrant domestic workers.
Based on the findings of the study, the following recommendations for policy, practice and future research were made:
Recommendations for policy:
• Introduction of less stringent and affordable visa options for care workers.
• Strengthening of bi-lateral or multi-lateral agreements within Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries to allow both the sending and destination countries to establish safeguards to protect the employer and employees.
• Redefinition of domestic and care duties and responsibilities. This entails a distinct classification of roles and responsibilities for workers in this sector in policies and laws to ensure that employees are remunerated accordingly.
• Training of care workers to enhance their skills as well for the protection and security of care recipients and employers in general.
Recommendations for practice:
• There is need to ensure that migrant domestic workers enjoy same labour rights as other workers.
Recommendations for future research:
• Further study could explore the perceptions of employers to understand their motivations and the domestic employment relationship.
• Research that focuses on the experiences of domestic workers from other countries in the SADC region.
• Comparative study of migrant domestic workers and their local counterparts would be useful to understand whether the challenges they face are specific to the sector or are associated with their migrant status.