Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy

Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Editors

New York: Henry Holt and Company, Metropolitan Books, 2003. Hardcover. 328 pp. ISBN: 0-8050-6995-X.

Reviewed by Paula Smith-Vanderslice

This book may be ordered online through Hunger Notes bookstore.

Global Woman describes with firsthand insight the global patterns of relationships among people struggling to survive in the domestic service sector and in the illicit sex trade. The editors are among several others who have authored essays within, including Cheever, Salazar Parrenas, Hondagneu-Sotelo, Rivas, Anderson, Constable, Zarembka, Brennan, Lan, Gamburd, Bales, Hung Cam Thai, and Sassen. Robert Espinoza outlines current migration trends with the most recent data available through maps and charts, as well as listing other migration route detail as text. Valuable contact information including website addresses is given for activist organizations involved in assisting women in fighting low wages, poor working conditions, trafficking, domestic violence, problematic immigration status, and other human rights violations. As a suggested “read,” this book is to be considered along with others in the Hunger Notes subspecialty of women in developing countries as its main focus, as there is only brief mention of food issues in a few essays.

In speaking of domestic work, Ehrenreich in her essay discusses her own experience cleaning floors while working with The Maids International in the United States, a company that is part of the trend of corporate-run cleaning services. She says, “It’s a different world down there below knee level, one that few adults voluntarily enter.” With the increase in two-earner households of both genders between 1965 and 1995, and the increase in feminist conscience, women’s and men’s housework is measured in hours per week. With the decrease in cleaning hours spent by the woman of the house, men were still found to spend only 1.7 hours per week by 1995 in scrubbing, vacuuming, and sweeping, whereas women still spent 6.7 hours per week performing these particular chores (p.89). Ehrenreich shows how rather than a relaxation of standards of cleanliness in the home taking place, the equation is expanded with an increase in number of people required to do the household job, and the creation of outflow of cash. Money is paid to another female, a “cleaning lady,” to fill in the gap caused by the female earning wages outside her home, somehow perpetuating gender oppression in the identification of females with this employment classification.

Where do the women come from who willingly fill in for other women in homes not their own, and why? This question is answered in this book. The general domestic worker migration pattern globally is from the poorer nations to large cities in the developed Northern Hemisphere. In many cases, those traveling, whether thousands of miles or merely across country borders, need to cross a language barrier, as well. According to Hochschild, many of these women cannot make ends meet at home for themselves and their families (p.16), so they travel abroad to work, reluctantly leaving their children, husband, and culture, specifically for the purpose of making money and sending much of it back home. Their poverty pushes them to where they are being pulled, to fill in that gap for the woman who works outside her home in the rich country (p.8). An analogy is made between the First World as the “old-fashioned male,” pampered, entitled, unable to cook, clean, or find his socks, and the Third World, as the “traditional woman” within the global family, patient, nurturing, and self-denying (pp.11-12).

With greater numbers of domestic workers than ever before in human history migrating long distances, legal residence records must be kept accurate so that hidden abuse cannot occur, such as is detailed in Global Woman. In the United States, this responsibility is and can be better met by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which takes up the slack for international agencies, including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and United Nations. The latter three are required by law to keep their issuing of A-3 and G-5 visas confidential, for the privacy of the employer, who in these cases is an employee of these organizations, someone who has worked in developing countries and knows the economic situation of their domestic worker firsthand, an arrangement that should not lend itself to private abuse. The largest group of visa holders by far, the B-1, are prohibited legally from transferring from one employer to another, but the State Department does not keep records of the location of B-1 visa holders. Thus, it is practically impossible to locate a worker at risk of exploitation or enslavement, including unwanted sexual relations, especially when the worker cannot speak the developed country’s dominant language and is afraid to leave the employer, according to Zarembka (pp.145-46). Compounded with suffering in silence for fear of loss of legal status and subsequent deportation are the daily suffering of employers’ violation of promised rules. These violations include extending the worker’s day to 16 hours, wages lower than minimum wage, forcing employees to sleep with the family dog, violence, and confiscation of passports (p.147). In these ways, hope of a better quality of life, equality, and trust in human relations in the developed country is destroyed, creating a negative emotional deficit, rather than a reward, for the domestic worker, who has brought ‘caring,’ a positive emotional quality, as part of her package.

More deeply disturbing is the case of sex workers worldwide, who have even less human rights built into their contracts. One example given in depth by Bales is what occurs with conditions in Thailand. Geography has defined land use, and culture, for the hill tribes of the mountainous north. Historically, those without good land were forced to view their children as commodities in bad times, such as when a harvest failed. The custom was to sell a girl, never a boy. Since 1977, government policies have created an unprecedented lag in the economy of the mountainous north relative to the industrialization of the rest of the country. The price of consumer goods is met by an old source, where “one girl equals one television.”

Recent research in Bales’ study shows village girls’ naïve attitudes about what prostitution entails. A girl is lured into prostitution without really knowing what it is, because it is removed from village life. The girl thinks she is helping her family’s living conditions when a brothel’s agent draws up a contract with her parents, and that by example of the slightly older, young woman visiting her home, she also will be wearing nice clothes and have money. “The results of this thing called prostitution are good, she thinks,” says Bales.

The reality of the debt burden induced by her pimp is too overwhelming to ever repay, because the original rules of the contract are bent. Enter money again coupled with lack of regulation of his part of it by the pimp, this regulation being within his power, on how much he controls as a percentage of the girl’s earnings, as long as the brothel gets its share (p.213). The girl is coerced, through beatings and rape at first as punishment for trying to run away, into having sex with 10 to 18 men per night, and later her expectation of the same is reinforced. The girl earns an equivalent of U.S. $15 per customer, or Thai 400 baht. The emotional cost to the girl is so devastating that over time and repeated exposure she becomes resigned to her fate, reduced to surviving it. One 15-year-old girl, a sex worker for a year, who is called Siri, mirrors this resignation in her comment to Bales when he tells her how pretty she looks in a photograph, how like a pop star, when she replies, “I’m no star; I’m just a whore, that’s all” (p.209). What hope can she have for a future with a chance to develop and use any other talent?

Greed for profit in the illegal prostitution trade results in the youngest looking and most pretty girls, like Siri, demanding a higher price. For those who cannot get a higher price for sex, their debt increases at a more precipitous rate. Even at Siri’s rate of 400 baht, she must have sex with 300 men per month for her room, which costs 30,000 baht, and for her food and drink, for medicine fees including HIV-testing, and for fines incurred if a customer is displeased. She is required to send 10,000 baht per month home to her parents, keeping this part of the original contract, and visit with family on holidays, both of which serve to keep her locked into prostitution, and a personal debt. With the increase in new relative wealth in Thailand over a shorter period of time than anything ever experienced in the Western world, and an ingrained cultural more in the dominant society there after the Thai kingdom connoting status among males if a man has sex with more than one woman, the demand for girls is always there and has increased in recent years (pp. 214-15).

A lesson to be learned from reading this book is that we in the developed world should ‘care’ to be grateful for assistance from domestic workers from poorer countries, and not carelessly dismiss circumstances that most of us have not personally grappled with in our home and family lives. In my opinion, to physically or even verbally abuse these women is indeed a transgression of what should be any individual’s universal human rights, especially to people who are developed world actors, educated to understand the concept of human rights, together with freedom. Any less humane behavior than the basic mutual civil respect we show our fellow citizens in our own developed world countries, which should be reciprocated, is contemptible, not indicative of our best possible human condition. With respect to sex workers, speaking honestly as a woman I find that the situation mentioned above suggests nothing more than wanton exploitation of one’s female resource within one’s country, and not for individual want of their product, sex.

Reading this book, I was depressed and angered at Siri’s emotional and physical plight, wondering what the odds are that she would escape infection from the AIDS virus, and death. I also imagined what other options were not available for her and could be. Why run away, if you could escape, when within your own country there was either no helping institution you could turn to, or you didn’t know of it, or know where to find it, or any country border you crossed would bring much of the same fate for a teenage girl, a female, not a male, and without an adult’s rights? With respect to sex workers and domestic workers, all global players from the country level to the individual need to assess their needs on a micro scale for adjustment to reasonable moderation in behavior so that the key word ‘caring,’ an emotional factor, is not lost from the human condition, which is what this book suggests is happening when degradation of the human female, either hidden or not, in private or in public, supplants it. I urge reading of this book by men and women everywhere, for the insight and factual scope of what is happening to Global Woman in various parts of the world brought by several perspectives of authors of both genders.

Paula Smith-Vanderslice, B.S., is copy editor of Hunger Notes.

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