For as long as Canada has existed, immigrant and migrant women (and occasionally, men) came to work as live-in care workers to provide care for Canadian families. Programs that bring migrant caregivers into Canada are popular because of the strenuous demands of domestic work and childcare, the entry of more women in the workforce, and the absence of a national child and elderly care policy in migrant-receiving countries.
These labor ‘export’ programs are popular in migrant-sending states like the Philippines because they are important ways to bolster national revenue and, for migrant caregivers and their families, a way to meet household needs through the remittances that migrants send.
Despite the contributions that migrant caregivers provide to families (including their own and their Canadian employers), and to the Canadian and Philippine state, migrant caregivers’ own needs get sidelined. Migrant caregivers, in fact, are oftentimes seen as acting in service of other people’s interests. Media articles and policy discourses on migrant care work, for example, tend to show that the value of migrant caregiver programs rests primarily on the savings and convenience that such programs provide families because employing a migrant caregiver is generally cheaper than paying for daycare or elderly care through a long-term-care home.
Organizations that center migrant caregivers are thus so essential in giving migrant caregivers the opportunity to just be. In my book, Care Activism, I look at the Canadian migrant caregivers’ movement, tracing their history in Canada and the important interventions that they make in the policy process. I show, for example, that every single policy change designed to give migrant caregivers more security occurred as a result of migrant caregivers’ concerted activism. For example, migrant caregivers only received the right to apply for Canadian citizenship following a period of activism in the late 1970s.
More importantly, however, the book shows that caregiver organizations are crucial not only because of the policy changes that they have helped engender but also because they provide “communities of care” for migrant care workers (Francisco-Menchavez 2018). In these communities of care, migrant care workers bear witness to each other’s journeys and provide support for each other in ways that migrant-sending and migrant receiving states and other advocacy organizations cannot or will not. In the excerpt below, I discuss everyday forms of care activism for migrant caregivers.
Excerpt from Care Activism: Migrant Domestic Workers, Movement-Building, and Communities of Care by Ethel Tungohan. Copyright 2023 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.
Listen to a conversation with Ethel Tungohan about Care Activism, available now on all major podcast platforms.
Migrant Care Work
Recognizing migrant care workers’ engagement in everyday care activism first requires acknowledging how exploitation is built into the very structure of migrant care and domestic work. Understanding this context might help explain the motivations behind everyday care activism. A receiving state such as Canada ties migrant care workers’ work permits to their employers, which means that migrant care workers’ ability to continue living and working in Canada is dependent on their employers. This component of the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP) and the Caregiver Program (CP)—and, in fact, of Canada’s different temporary labor migration programs—is at the root of worker exploitation. Having tied work permits means that migrant domestic workers are captive labor: workers are reliant on their employers’ goodwill to stay in Canada. All of the migrant care workers I have spoken to seek Canadian permanent residency for themselves and their families. Because Canada’s LCP and CP require that workers complete a two-year work contract with their employers before they can apply for Canadian permanent residency, employers’ power over migrant care workers is magnified.
In instances of employer abuse, the labor protections enshrined by Canadian federal and provincial governments that mandate safe working environments and that create a “bad employer” blacklist are ineffective because migrant domestic workers risk jeopardizing their ability to stay in Canada if they report their employers after immigrating: since their employment status is tied to their employers. Reporting workplace abuse may even result in their deportation if they are unable to find new employment. Although migrant care workers can switch employers, many are reluctant to do so, because finding a new employer is not easy. Many employers are hesitant to assume the costs of filing the sponsorship fees with the federal government. In fact, migrant care workers have told me that they have offered to pay their employers directly for these sponsorship costs just so they can transfer employment and consequently meet the requirements for permanent residency. Relatedly, another barrier preventing migrant care workers from seeking better working conditions is the reality that leaving their employers will prolong the permanent residency application process.
Workers who were initially hired through recruitment agencies are especially susceptible to abuse (Larois et al., 2020). There have been cases of migrant care workers who, upon coming to Canada, found themselves “released upon arrival”; that is, they found that they had no employers when they came to Canada because recruitment agencies had fabricated the names of these employers or had listed themselves as employers with no intention of hiring these workers. When put in this situation, migrant care workers found themselves having to work for the agencies’ clients, sometimes doing so for free, because recruitment agencies claimed that prospective employers wanted to see if the workers were a good fit first. Recruitment agencies take advantage of migrant care workers’ financial need and their desire to attain Canadian permanent residency (Larois et al., 2020).
Moreover, since care and domestic work are so intimate and breed close familiarity with the personal details of people’s daily lives, many employers feel the need to employ not just a worker but someone who can be “part of the family,” thereby obscuring the line between employers and workers. Being seen as a family member does not necessarily translate into better treatment. As Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis (1997, 11) note, migrant domestic workers are asked to “take on many stressful ‘family responsibilities’ and burdens of a family that is not their own” while being unable to enjoy the benefits adult family members receive. Migrant domestic workers are frequently infantilized in the workplace in ways that adult family members frequently do not have to experience. They oftentimes live in a state of hypersurveillance, during which employers monitor workers’ appearance, their food choices, their schedules, and even their activities during their days off (Pratt 1997; Constable 1997; Bakan and Stasiulis 2005; Tungohan et al., 2015). They have to perform a great deal of “emotional labor,” as Premilla Nadasen, citing sociologist Arlie Hochschild, observes: domestic workers “were evaluated by their ability to be cheerful, caring, and compassionate… [T]hey were expected to listen to and comfort employers, nurture children, and project an upbeat yet deferential personality” (2016, 91).
Indeed, sending and receiving states, employment agents, and employers are complicit in encouraging the dehumanization of migrant care and domestic workers. Not only is the job difficult, demanding, and poorly compensated, but these stakeholders bolster the belief that they are entitled to have control over migrant care and domestic workers’ personhood. From sending states such as the Philippines’ deliberate marketing of its nationals as being efficient yet loving “supernannies,” to receiving states’ invasive policies requiring potential migrant care and domestic workers to pass multiple medical tests, to agencies and employers using arbitrary criteria such as age, skin color, and physical appearance when sifting through applications (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005; Chin 1998), migrant care and domestic workers find themselves objectified to the point where their individual qualifications as workers become moot.
In addition, many scholars have pointed to the arduous nature of migrant care and domestic work. The boundaries between work and home are blurred. Even when migrant care workers were done with work for the day, they were, in practice, expected to continue working because they were still in their places of employment. The absence of privacy makes it hard for migrant domestic workers to feel at ease even during their time off. Cases of sexual harassment are pervasive and difficult to escape, because migrant domestic workers are compelled to live and work in their employers’ households. Migrant domestic workers who differ from their employers on the basis of their religion and their culture may find that they have to hide both. Some employers, for example, asked that migrant domestic workers not cook specific Filipino dishes because the employers did not like the way the food smelled or looked (Tungohan et al., 2015). Because migrant domestic workers are constantly hungry as a result of these restrictions, the communal act of eating and sharing food, which I discuss later, becomes a revolutionary act.
The multiple responsibilities that migrant domestic workers have to juggle go beyond providing care for their charges. Although the terms of the LCP and the CP in Canada specify that domestic workers are only supposed to undertake domestic tasks that are related to their caregiving responsibilities, such as “light” housekeeping and “cooking,” in practice, migrant domestic workers are expected to do the majority of the housework (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005).
I participated in a research study that included thirty-two focus groups with domestic workers across Canada. My research collaborators and I discovered that migrant caregivers were being asked to work in their employers’ restaurants, clean their employers’ family members’ houses, and undertake tasks that were not specified in their employment contracts (Tungohan et al., 2015). They suffer from societal perceptions that care work and domestic work are not “real” work, which may be a reason why some employers ask that workers do additional work. A common observation among the women I interviewed, for instance, was how employers “requested” that they do other tasks while they are “watching” their charges. As Adela, who came to Toronto under the LCP in 2007 and has lived apart from her children for ten years, stated, “My employer always asks me to do things like polish her silver or scrub the floors or even clean her chandeliers. ‘Since you’re just watching [my mom], why don’t you go ahead and do this?’ And I can’t say no. How can I? I need to get along with her because I live with her.”
The reality that migrant care work and domestic work are stigmatized for being low-status racialized and gendered labor presents an additional challenge. Although discrimination against migrant and care workers is arguably more visible in locations such as Hong Kong, where local residents resent the “colonization of public spaces” during domestic workers’ days off and have occasionally fought to ban domestic workers from certain public spaces (Tillu 2011), the same stigma certainly exists in Canada (Tungohan et al., 2015). For instance, one woman who participated in the research study cited above talked about how the lack of access to public space led her to aimlessly walk around the city for hours, eventually finding refuge in a bus shelter (Tungohan et al., 2015). And even though there are no public spaces where migrant domestic workers are explicitly banned, subtle manifestations of discrimination against Filipino migrant workers enhance feelings of discomfort. Luisa, who came to Vancouver under the LCP in 2008, discussed why she decided to rent a room in an apartment with a friend on Sundays: “Canadians are supposed to be ‘nice,’ but you can tell when people are treating you differently because they think you’re a nanny. It’s tiring to always be on your guard. Sometimes, you just want to relax. So we decided to rent this room so we have time to be by ourselves without anyone watching us.”
Because most of the women in the LCP and the CP have college and university degrees, with many having previously worked in white-collar professions in the Philippines (Kelly et al., 2009; Banerjee et al., 2018), migrant domestic workers contend with experiences of deskilling and deprofessionalization. Such experiences are exacerbated by the fact that the Canadian government does not permit current domestic workers to take courses from community colleges that would have allowed them to maintain or upgrade their professional skills and that would also have helped them transition out of care work once they are done with the LCP and the CP. “I was a nurse in the Philippines and then a nurse in Saudi,” Luisa said to me. “And now I am a nanny. Is this why I went to school and worked for so many years?”
Everyday Forms of Care Activism
Migrant domestic workers counteract the challenges they face daily by engaging in the politics of the everyday. Rather than accepting their living and working conditions and the negative discourses that accompany migrant care and domestic work, using everyday acts of resistance enables migrant domestic workers to fight back, even in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Although migrant domestic workers engage in the politics of the everyday in multiple ways, I now focus on three actions: practices of transnational hypermaternalism, individual workplace rebellions, and participation in public events that enable migrant domestic workers to take up space and counter negative perceptions of migrant care work.
For migrant mothers and, especially, for migrant youth, being able to “make it work” does not mean that they condoned family separation. For them, their experiences drove them to become care activists: they wanted to ensure that current and future communities of migrant care workers and their families did not have to undergo the same hardships. As I explored in the preceding chapters, the fundamental desire to care for each other and for an imagined community of migrant care workers compelled their advocacy work.
Migrant care workers’ tied work permits inhibit their ability to ask their employers to respect workers’ labor rights. The live-in requirement that was in effect until 2014 prevented migrant domestic workers from being forthcoming with their employers. For many migrant domestic workers, following the Tagalog adage of pakikisama, or “getting along well with others,” made the most sense. As Tessa said matter-of-factly, “I see my employers every day. They’re not just my employers, but they are also my housemates. So maintaining peace in the household is important.” When asked whether pakikisama was a point of pride for her, Tessa explained how the ability to get along with different types of people was one of the reasons Filipinas made good care workers, which she saw as a point of pride: “Filipinos are good at adapting and getting along with different folks. They prioritize pakikisama, which makes us good workers.”
Yet migrant care workers also engage in covert acts of workplace microrebellions in order to protect their interests. Among the myriad strategies migrant care workers employ, the women discussed “playing dumb” when their employers give them a difficult time about their supposed responsibilities. For example, Luisa pretended that she was allergic to dogs when her employers initially asked her to walk their three dogs as part of her daily duties. Migrant care workers also described going above their duties to perform tasks that their employers did not expect in order to ensure that they remain in their employers’ good books. For instance, Patricia told me that she once alphabetized her employer’s library without being asked to do so to curry favor with her employer. In other cases, workers described feigning incompetence and/or poor health to get out of doing certain tasks. For instance, Ely, a migrant caregiver who worked in Toronto and whom I interviewed in 2009, described how she pretended to be dizzy when her employers asked her to clean their swimming pool.
While one could see these actions as proof that workers are not being straightforward and, at least in the first and third cases, that they are shirking their responsibilities, further analysis shows that these women were finding creative ways to ensure that their interests are protected. Luisa and Ely were aware that the tasks they were being asked to undertake were not part of their contracts, which specified that live-in domestic workers are only meant to undertake “light housekeeping” (and even then, live-in domestic workers are only supposed to do household tasks related to care work, such as cooking food for their charges). They were reluctant to confront their employers directly about the fact that they were being asked to undertake tasks unrelated to their contracts because they did not want to potentially jeopardize their working relationships and thus make themselves vulnerable to being terminated before they finished the LCP’s required two-year live-in requirement. Patricia was aware that it would be in her interests to make her employer grateful for her hard work, which to her also meant that her employer would be willing to treat her better. Patricia also discussed how taking a keen interest in her employer’s life and providing emotional support was a way for her to ensure her job security. Even though performing acts of emotional labor added to her workload, Patricia felt that this was not too onerous. “By making myself indispensable, I make sure that I continue working,” she reasoned.
Migrant care workers also use workplace microrebellions when facing hostile work situations. Because they were reluctant to confront their employers directly, workplace microrebellions are an opportunity for migrant caregivers to seize a bit of agency in situations that would otherwise feel unbearable. Tessa’s first employer refused to pay her overtime pay and demanded that she clean the houses of her employer’s relatives, which were clear violations of her employment contract. Tessa did not want to complain and risk prolonging the time she was separated from her family. Instead, she opted to covertly show her opposition to the way she was being treated through her use of humor. “In Tagalog, my employer’s first name sounds very close to aswang [vampire], so I call her aswang, and she thinks I am just calling her name.” Tessa admitted to me that this was petty, but having the ability to laugh at her employer made her feel empowered.
Adela also covertly resisted her employer’s occasionally inappropriate labor demands using humor. Adela was a prominent member of the migrant caregiver activist community and was assertive. She was keenly aware when her employer was violating the terms of her labor contract, which clearly specified that her only responsibilities pertained to care work and not housework. Yet her employer expected her to do the entire household’s laundry, made frequent requests that she “just watch” the employer’s child (without pay) when she needed to “step out” of the house when Adela was off the clock, and did not pay Adela overtime wages. “I believe in justice,” Adela joked, “but I also believe in just tiis.” Putting a humorous spin on “justice” by combining the words “just” and the Tagalog word tiis, which, loosely translated, means “withstanding tough situations,” Adela described what was an arduous work environment humorously and ironically, thereby making it more bearable.
When I asked her why she did not just ask her employer to stick to the contract, Adela responded that she was not going to risk alienating her employer and getting fired. “You can’t just fight all the time. You have to accept your situation. And you have to laugh at it. If you can still laugh at it—and at them— then you’re still OK,” Adela explained. The subversive use of humor is similar to Francisco-Menchavez’s (2018, 25) observations of how migrant domestic workers in New York ironically discussed their job responsibilities as involving “paper work,” that is, the literal use of toilet paper to clean their charges and paper towels to wipe floors, scrub toilet seats, and other household tasks, and as being “CEOs,” that is, responsible for cleaning, ebak-wiping (ebak is Tagalog for “poop”), and organizing their wards’ day-to-day needs.
Not only did these darkly humorous interpretations of their jobs allow migrant care workers to covertly reverse the power hierarchy between themselves and their employers, they also strengthened the bonds that migrant care workers had with each other. Narrating these stories and sharing jokes allow migrant domestic workers who are also experiencing the same challenging work environments to bond with each other. Through shared humor about work, specifically about instances of workplace microrebellions, situations become bearable. In fact, after witnessing and taking part in countless hours of shared jokes about ways that migrant workers secretly defied their employers, I see these shared moments of cathartic joy as the glue binding together communities of care. The migrant women who celebrate and commiserate with each other become dissident friends, witnessing, affirming, and uplifting each other. These moments allow migrant care workers to recuperate their dignity after facing dehumanizing workplace situations.
Through workplace microrebellions, migrant care workers carve out spaces to strategically resist their working environments. Such microrebellions include currying favor with their employers to ensure better future treatment, “playing dumb,” feigning sickness, and engaging in dark humor. Through these tactics, migrant care workers show care for themselves. Rather than accepting as given their current situations, they fight back in subtle ways. Sharing these stories with each other, including jokes, also enables stronger bonds of community with fellow migrant care workers. Collective feelings of catharsis allow migrant care workers to feel more empowered.
Pageantry as Everyday Care Activism
Everyday care activism involves making visible migrant care work on migrant care workers’ own terms. As I mentioned in the introduction, migrant care workers are placed in a paradoxical situation of invisibility and hypervisibility. They are invisible in that their labor largely remains unrecognized. That they remain out of the public eye because they work in private households heightens their invisibility. Yet migrant care workers are also hypervisible. Stereotypical depictions of “nannies” abound. For instance, existing media coverage of migrant care workers has fixated on notions of migrant care worker distress and abjection. There are also stereotypes of nannies as greedy husband-stealers.
To counteract these competing imperatives of being both invisible and hypervisible, migrant care worker activists seize back narratives of migrant care work. By depicting the complexities of their lives as migrant care workers, they add nuance to existing portrayals of migrant care workers. More importantly, their knowing participation in these actions engenders feelings of care and solidarity with other communities of migrant care workers. These actions thus become a vital part of everyday care activism.
On July 15, 2017, while I sat in the audience at the Miss Caregiver 2017 beauty pageant, I took note of the excited buzz of friends, family members, and migrant domestic workers around me. With most of the audience members dressing up for the occasion, the atmosphere was festive. Many were taking group selfies. A few groups were carrying bouquets of flowers to present to the contestants afterward. I overheard a few people in the crowd—some of whom were conspicuous because they were some of the few non-Filipinos present—introduce themselves as employers of some of the contestants who wanted to show support.
While sitting there, I too was excited. I eagerly awaited the beginning of the show. Having previously watched three Miss Caregiver beauty pageants, I was familiar with the proceedings. The candidates would be introduced, and then there would be different competitions, such as the costume, evening gown, talent, and sportswear (in lieu of swimwear), followed by a question-and-answer portion. Whereas the first Miss Caregiver beauty pageant in 2006 was held in a modest assembly hall, Miss Caregiver 2017 was held in the cavernous and brightly lit auditorium of a private, all-boys Catholic school in midtown Toronto. And whereas the first Miss Caregiver was given a modest crown, Miss Caregiver 2017 and the other finalists were bedecked in shiny tiaras, capes, and sashes. Miss Caregiver had become an established event, accruing more sponsors and more contestants over the years.
At 6:33 p.m., the lights dimmed and a video began. Immediately, the room became silent in anticipation. The structure of the video was similar to those shown in other beauty pageants: the contestants posed, smiled, and talked to the camera to introduce themselves. The difference here was that all of the contestants highlighted their migration journeys to Canada.
“I am a single mother of three kids. I first went to Kuwait to work as a domestic worker, and then I came to Canada. I joined Miss Caregiver because I wanted to widen my social circle and meet other domestic workers. When you’re a caregiver, you don’t really have time during the week to develop your skills and have fun,” declared contestant number 3.
“Because the proceeds of Miss Caregiver will go toward a charity in the Philippines, I decided to join the pageant. I want to give back to the Philippines. Miss Caregiver is great because it allows domestic workers to be part of the Philippines even when living far away. I also want Canada to know how loving and how wonderful domestic workers are—I want to show Canadians that we give back to our community. Before coming to Canada, I was an OFW [overseas foreign worker] in Hong Kong. It was hard, but God was with me the entire time,” stated contestant number 6. She went on to say, “My family used to own a big business back home, but then because of economic problems, our business shut down. I had to become the breadwinner, so I became a caregiver. I am proud that I am a caregiver and that I can support my family. I joined Miss Caregiver to be a role model to other domestic workers. I also want to support other domestic workers.”
After these introductions and the singing of both the Canadian and Philippine national anthems—performances of nationalism that are commonplace in many Filipino migrant community events that I have attended—a noted Filipino pastor and migrant community activist took the stage. During his remarks, he spoke about the caregiver program as a “nation-building program” and emphasized that domestic workers, as “community activists and as heroes,” should be proud of their contributions to Canada. “Domestic workers are a part of Canada,” he intoned. “Thank you to Canada for allowing us to come here.”
Following the pastor’s remarks, each of the different portions of the beauty pageant proceeded as usual. The theme for Miss Caregiver 2017 was global warming, which gave the contestants creative license to make sure that their costumes adhered to the theme. Bedecked in gowns made out of recycled paper and boxes, brightly painted in hues of red and green, and, in some cases, shaped to resemble melting snow (to represent the melting polar ice caps), birds, and plants, the contestants—to thunderous applause from the audience—strutted up and down the stage. The sportswear portion saw many contestants wearing sporting gear bearing the logos of Canadian sports teams. One contestant, wearing a Blue Jays jersey, enthusiastically swung a bat back and forth to roars of approval from the crowd. I noted that no one wore sportswear that bore the logos of Philippine sports teams. This portion of the beauty pageant seemed designed to show how thoroughly the contestants had adapted to Canadian cultural norms, of which loyalty to Canadian sports teams was an important part.
It was, however, the talent and question-and-answer portions that elicited the most emotional reactions from the audience. During the talent portion, contestant number 1 did an interpretive dance that was meant to symbolize love, longing, and sacrifice. Behind her, the projector flashed pictures of Filipino migrant workers at the airport carrying their luggage, a migrant woman kissing her baby farewell before going through airport security, and a painting of different migrant workers—including a woman pushing a wheelchair—standing in front of the Philippine flag. The poignant song lyrics included the following refrain: “Hold on…put your trust in God…follow your dreams…dream, just dream.”
Contestant number 6 used colored sand to create a picture of a flower, which she described upon finishing as representing the ambition, beauty, and strength of domestic workers. “Love,” she stated, “is not what we do for ourselves but what we do for others.” Similarly, during the question-and-answer portion, the contestants drew attention to migrant domestic workers’ strengths. One contestant, for example, talked about how domestic workers always “gave back” to their communities. By invoking domestic workers’ ambitions, the love that they showed to their families in the Philippines and their employers’ families in Canada, and their contributions to their communities, the contestants gave public tribute to what they saw as migrant domestic workers’ positive attributes. At the end of the pageant, the winners were announced, with all of the contestants receiving an award. Aside from Miss Caregiver and first and second runner-up, the organizers bestowed awards for Miss Leadership, Miss Charity, and Miss Serenity. While these awards—which have, in the past, included Miss Obedience and Miss Congeniality—may be criticized for invoking gendered stereotypes of “good” female traits, it was important for the organizers to ensure that everyone won something. The goal of the pageant, after all, was to uplift migrant domestic workers.
That the Miss Caregiver beauty pageant has in the span of eleven years become an established event among certain communities of migrant domestic workers was impressive. Founded by the Fil-Core Support Group in 2006, Miss Caregiver was not only intended to be a one-time event for its contestants but also meant to create leaders within the community. As Fil-Core Support Group’s founder, Judith Gonzales, stated when talking about the history of the beauty pageant during the event, “We wanted domestic workers to realize their power and to be agents of change.” Because contestants for Miss Caregiver had to undergo weeks of leadership training, the hope was that all contestants, not just the winner of the beauty pageant, would be equipped with important advocacy skills.
When the Conservative government was in power in Canada, the Fil-Core Support Group was able to award the winner of the beauty pageant a trip to Ottawa, where they got a personal tour of the House of Commons and a one-on-one meeting with former immigration minister Jason Kenney, during which they had the opportunity to discuss issues facing migrant domestic workers. For instance, one of the judges for the 2017 beauty pageant was Miss Caregiver 2010, who used her platform to campaign to clear the backlog in permanent residency applications.
The winner of Miss Caregiver had an important platform to represent community issues not only to different Filipino and migrant community members in different community events but also in an official capacity with senior government officials. At Miss Caregiver 2017, members of Parliament and a Filipino-Canadian Senator were present during the proceedings. When they were addressing the domestic workers present, these politicians praised not only their commitment to their jobs and to Canada but also their ability to support each other.
In addition, Miss Caregiver was a fundraising event for the Fil-Core Support Group. Unlike other migrant caregiver beauty pageants, which required migrant domestic workers to pay a hefty entrance fee, Miss Caregiver was free for contestants. Contestants were only asked to help sell tickets, the proceeds of which went either to a charitable organization in the Philippines or directly to a caregiver needing funds to pay for medical care.
Other migrant caregiver organizations in Canada have helmed beauty pageants. In 2011, for instance, Migrante-Canada’s chapter organizations in Toronto organized a Mother-of-the-Year beauty pageant. Migrante-Canada is an anti-imeriaist, transnational grassroots organization that does not shy away from overt political actions.Iit is important to note here that the types of activities that organizations engage in to shift harmful discourses on migrant domestic work depend on their ideologies. Hence, Mother-of-the-Year, in contrast to Miss Caregiver, was more overtly political. There were no elected politicians invited. No platitudes were given to Canada for being generous in opening its doors to domestic workers. The audience members consisted almost exclusively of migrant domestic workers, migrant activists, and their allies. The judges did not consist of community “dignitaries” and politicians but included migrant activists and allies, all of whom were women.
Though Mother-of-the-Year had the same beauty pageant events, minus the swimwear/sportswear portion, the talent and question-and-answer portions showcased the contestants’ more political mindsets. One of the contestants, for example, performed a skit showing her taking care of her charge in Canada while attempting to communicate to her children in the Philippines. During her performance, she showed how hard it was to be forthcoming with her children about the realities that she was facing, instead answering that she was “fine” when asked. Based on the emotional audience response, it was clear that this performance touched migrant domestic workers who could perhaps relate to the need to “protect” their families from the hardships of their circumstances abroad. The answers to the questions presented the contestants’ more critical standpoints compared to those of Miss Caregiver contestants. The contestants shared the same narratives of family sacrifice and caregiver resilience as the Miss Caregiver contestants but also tied their situations to the ongoing problems of economic strife in the Philippines and to neoliberal capitalist structures that created labor export programs in the first place.
Despite these ideological differences, the Miss Caregiver and Mother-of-the-Year pageants showed that the bonds of community that domestic workers form with each other and with the audience members of primarily fellow migrant domestic workers made these beauty pageants cathartic events. Echoing Alisha Ticku’s (2017) and Sarah Mahler and Patricia Pessar’s (2001) observations regarding the power of dreams, ambitions, and cognitive processes, migrant beauty pageants give migrant domestic workers the opportunity to dream about life beyond the mundane. At least for an evening, domestic workers are given the chance to shine in a glamorous setting, to showcase their talents, and, more crucially, to share with other contestants and the audience of domestic workers their struggles and their triumphs while living abroad.
During the question-and-answer portion of these pageants, it is common for contestants to describe their experiences of family separation, their resilience and heroism in experiencing and overcoming adversity while living abroad, and their ambitions for the future. These answers resonate deeply with the audience of domestic workers. Having a public expression of their private challenges validates their experiences and can even legitimate their decision to work abroad.
In fact, the use of beauty pageants as a tool for community building and caregiver empowerment is pervasive in other countries. When I was in Hong Kong in July 2017, my respondents told me that there were several beauty pageants focused on migrant domestic workers in the city. One of them was Hot Mommies 2017, which my respondent told me was a way to recognize the sacrifice of migrant mothers living apart from their families while also drawing attention to their beauty. My respondent also told me that the sexualized name of the beauty pageant was also deliberately tongue-in-cheek. The documentary Sunday Beauty Queen, which follows a character named Chairman Leo, a queer domestic worker who organizes beauty pageants for Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, as well as three of its contestants, highlights how pageantry became an antidote to the frequent drudgery of care and domestic work. By presenting positive representations of migrant domestic workers, migrant beauty pageants present migrant care work in a more empowering light.
An inadvertent consequence of such positive representations may also result in migrant domestic workers flouting immigrant communities’ class biases. For example, class divisions exist between more established members of the Filipino diaspora in Canada who arrived in the 1970s as permanent immigrants and Filipino immigrants who arrived in later waves in the 1990s and 2000s and who came, in part, as migrant domestic workers (see, e.g., Eric 2012). Hence, there are Filipino community members in the first group who are ashamed of the way migrant care work is associated with Filipinos; consequently, beauty pageants that draw public attention to Filipino migrant domestic workers are shameful. Beauty pageants for migrant domestic workers have become part of the public landscape, enabling migrant domestic workers to make their experiences visible and public. Pageants offer a way for migrant domestic workers to disavow classist mindsets. As queer theorists who discuss the profound impacts of queer beauty pageants and pride parades show, finding ways to celebrate identities that have historically been marginalized is a way of taking back control of mainstream narratives that malign these identities.
Care Activism: Migrant Domestic Workers, Movement-Building, and Communities of Care is now available from University of Illinois Press.