ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Outsourcing Love

Lisa Caviglia ( is researcher, lecturer and coordinator of the Masters Programme in Global Studies at the Institute for Asian and African Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

Studying the lives of Nepali women who care for the elderly in Cyprus leads a researcher to reflect on her own life as a migrant.

During my current ethnographic research on transnational migration from Nepal, I encountered situations that led me to cast an eye on my own family circumstances. This reflection, in turn, suggested that examples from one’s life and experience can, at times, complement fieldwork.

As part of research that I began in 2015, I am following the journeys of women who leave Nepal to become domestic workers and carers in the European fringe: Cyprus. I am documenting their stories, hoping to humanise the numbers about migration and trafficking that appear in the media and in academic discussions. As anthropologist Parvathi Raman has argued, statistics at times render the populations in question as a uniform group. To counter this homogenisation, I have tried to highlight how migratory flows consist of many individual and diverse narratives.

Moreover, in documenting the daily lives of these workers, I have been partly spurred by the ideas of anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, who highlights the importance of including the details of mundane life in ethnographic representation. I have used this approach before, as outlined in my forthcoming book, Sex-Work in Nepal: The Making and Unmaking of a Category.

This book is based on my doctoral fieldwork in Nepal, carried out in 2009 and 2010. During this time, I got to know one woman well over the course of a year, but I am withholding her identity to protect her privacy. Strong-minded and entrepreneurial with, alas, a soft core, she had been robbed of her savings by someone whom she had thought was a good friend. As a result, in early 2015, she moved to Cyprus to work for a family as a domestic worker and carer. The new job, she hoped, would allow her to make up for what she had lost, to support her family and to save.

Anthropologist Paul Stoller argues that a researcher can enhance the quality of ethnography by forging deep relationships in the field, a view that resonates with me. In my research, therefore, I attempt to follow his approach, which includes engaging with informants continually and over a long period; using the senses, and situating one’s life and context in relation to that of one’s informants. This is why I have been travelling to Cyprus regularly: to follow the story of this long-term informant and friend. In doing so, I also try to make connections between my life and my world on the one hand and the context I am investigating on the other.

During my three research stints to the island state and through regular remote contact, I have gained insights into the life of my key informant. The woman signed a four-year contract, but soon realised that her hopes of improving her life were misplaced. She cares for an old-age pensioner and a whole household. She feels that her monthly pay of 300 euros is inadequate compensation for the long hours she puts in. But even more frustrating to her is being on call around the clock while her watchful employer monitors all her movements.

After relocating to Cyprus, she often thought about returning home before her contract ends. But as the months passed, she became used to her work and new environment. Today, she does not see any other options and hence lingers in a less-than-ideal condition because she lacks better options.

Switching Perspectives

Like my informant, many Nepalese women move to Cyprus to find employment in domestic work and care, servicing middle-class families. They can remain in Cyprus only if they have a job, which makes them vulnerable as employees. The domestic workers I have met in urban Cyprus seldom had good things to say about their employers.

But I also caught a glimpse of the view from the other side when I spoke about my research with a local employer. She told me how her partner had once lost the person who had been taking care of his now 101-year-old mother for a year. She had left abruptly and moved to another country. “She got all her papers and fled, leaving us in shock,” the woman said.

The old woman was shattered when her carer left, feeling abandoned and helpless. The carer had left during Easter celebrations, when there was more than the normal amount of housework, so the family had to quickly find someone else to care for the elderly woman, a difficult task during the festivities. As a result, the carer’s departure threw the family’s lives temporarily out of gear. “I keep telling the new girl, please let me know if something goes wrong,” the woman said. “I tell her, if you want to leave let me know and we will help you. Don’t just run off.”

The woman told me that many other employers had undergone similar experiences. Stories of abusive bosses must, therefore, partly be nuanced by the testimonies of employers who, while clearly not as vulnerable as the migrants, may also feel let down. It appears that migrant workers who quit without notice leave the families they serve with a sense of injury and disappointment that goes beyond the logistical difficulties they must also deal with. While some employers recognise the poor working conditions of migrant carers, as they do in this case, they are also weighed down by their own daily struggles, burdens and needs. This might lead some of them to ignore the asymmetry between their standard of living and those whom they recruit.

My own family, whom I try to visit regularly in Italy from my new home in Germany, gives me further insight into the issue. Fortunately, my parents are still up and (almost) running. But my aunt is about to complete a century, and needs almost constant care. Recently widowed, she had employed a woman who moved to Italy from Latin America. During one of my visits, however, the woman had gone home on leave and a substitute was taking care of my aunt. Both my family and my aunt were on edge about this. “Let’s see whether she comes back,” one family member had whispered to me.

I was able to gather insights about my family situation from a comfortable distance. From what I could gauge, the carer appeared to be happy, and I felt that my family did its best to ensure that everyone treated her well and that she was comfortable. Be that as it may, her work was arduous because my once fearlessly independent aunt has turned extremely fearful of solitude with age and is unable to cater to her basic needs. None of us would be able, and possibly not even willing, to take on the task of caring for her around the clock. As it turned out, after spending a year and a half with my aunt, the woman eventually left. Another carer from the same region is now looking after her, in addition to a small army of my relatives who are closely engaged with logistics and other matters concerning my aunt’s well-being.

On one of my recent visits home, my aunt kept telling me that she feared being abandoned. She also seemed disappointed that her family had outsourced the task of caring for her to someone outside. “Why don’t you stay here?” my aunt even asked me once, while showing me the room where her carer now sleeps and where I had spent some nights myself as a child when my mother was recovering from cancer. “I will pay you! Leave your job and come here.”

She wanted to have me close by, as a representative of the familial love she now longs for. In spite of the affection I feel for my aunt, in the span of a few seconds, I imagined what my existence would be like caring for her, and temporarily the problems in my life seemed petty in comparison. I then wondered what would happen when my parents are not “up and running” any more. My temporary job far away from them as well as my sister’s family expenses will probably not allow us to pay someone much more than the low wages that migrant workers are now earning in Europe in relation to the amount of work employers expect them to do. Furthermore, as in Cyprus, in Italy state support for old-age care is minimal. Will my sister and I also have to resort to tapping into what Nicola Yeates calls “global care chains?” I cringe at the thought.

Furthermore, as much as I would like to think that I would shrink from such work only because of financial and career considerations, I know that my personal needs, desire for a certain lifestyle and my own migrant aspirations might also play a role. I might therefore be pushed to outsource the performance of love, first to my sister, who lives near my parents, and she, in turn, in order to fulfil her need for time and rest from her own life’s work and household demands, might wish to delegate a part of this job to someone outside the family. “Love,” sociologist Arlie Hochschild has said, is the new “gold” extracted from the “other,” just like a newly discovered precious resource.

In doing research on migration, especially of carers, therefore, I need to think about the consequences of my own experience as a migrant. I need to reflect on the privileges I enjoy as well as the constraints that I face as I go from one temporary position to the next in a currently unfavourable and increasingly competitive academic market.

Many stories and circumstances characterise the lives of those involved in care work and migration. Taking into account the realities of both employing families and the carers they employ in their homes, we come to appreciate the existence of a spectrum of inequalities that, although significantly different in extent, reveal shared experiences and challenges, as sociologist Nicola Mai has suggested. Those who are in a position of relative privilege are hence at times forced to or choose to alienate themselves, even if not intentionally or entirely, from the suffering of others.

Many scholars studying migration, therefore, far from being objective and neutral observers, have a subjective position and can themselves be involved in a spectrum of exploitative relations of the kinds they study. While these relations are dictated in large part by a broader script that includes global inequalities, state policies, infrastructure and markets, they are also influenced by a desire for upward mobility, both on the part of the subject and the investigator.


Updated On : 13th Sep, 2017


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top