Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

LABOUR-ARGENTINA: Overqualified Immigrants Work as Domestics

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 10 2000 (IPS) - Argentina has received a heavy flow of female immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru in recent years, most of whom end up working as domestics, even though many of them have post-secondary education.

That is one of the most startling findings of two studies by the Buenos Aires-based Ecumenical Support Service for Immigrants and Refugees, which assists immigrant women who are the chief or sole support of their families.

“Although women comprise half of all migrants worldwide, and represent a majority of the immigrants in Argentina, there are few studies focusing specifically on female immigrants,” Violeta Correa, the coordinator of the Ecumenical Support Service and co- author of the study “Women Immigrants in the City of Buenos Aires”, told IPS.

Female immigrants remain largely invisible here, and when they are counted, they are put in the category of “dependents” or “economically inactive”, even though in the case of women from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, a majority have come on their own in search of better incomes, Correa pointed out.

In neighbouring Paraguay and Bolivia, domestics earn 20 to 40 dollars a month. In Argentina, they can earn 500 dollars a month, although the cost of living is much higher. However, immigrant women often find jobs in private homes that also provide room and board.

The flow of immigrants from Peru, meanwhile, can be broken down into two distinct stages, according to sociologist María Ines Pacceca. The first wave was made up largely of men who came for professional training and higher education from 1960 to 1990. But since the late 1980s, Peruvians have come mainly in search of better jobs, and most of them have been women.

Pacceca’s study, “Peruvian Immigrants in the Metropolitan Area”, also sponsored by the Ecumenical Support Service, points out that runaway inflation, high unemployment and the increasingly precarious nature of the labour market in Peru drove many women to seek better conditions abroad in the 1990s.

Fifty-three percent of Peruvian immigrants in Argentina are women, 79 percent of whom came on their own.

Of the 180 Paraguayan, Peruvian and Bolivian women interviewed for Correa’s study, 53 percent were single, 60 percent had children — although the children lived with their mothers in only one-third of the cases — and 59 percent had post-secondary schooling.

But despite their generally high level of education, 68 percent of the women worked as domestics, a sector in which jobs are still abundant in spite of the otherwise scarce opportunities in today’s Argentina, where unemployment stands at 15 percent, and under- employment is also soaring.

The female immigrants’ higher level of education puts them at an advantage over the Argentine women seeking work as domestics.

“Immigration, which mainly involved men up to the 1960s, has taken on an increasingly female face, and the roles women play in that phenomenon must also be re-analysed. Up to the 1960s, women had never headed a major flow of migrants, but they do today, and to a great extent,” says the study by Correa.

Efforts to give greater visibility to the issues and concerns specifically facing female immigrants have given a glimpse of some of the difficulties suffered by these women when they decide to leave home to “try their luck”.

Correa pointed out that work as a domestic has certain advantages: it is easily learned, requires no prior experience, generally includes a solution to the problem of housing, and can be a safe option for even the youngest female migrants.

The downside, however, is that it does not serve in any sense as a stepping-stone to a better-paying job, nor does it provide any opportunity for social ascent.

The studies by Correa and Pacceca both found that the migration process “devalued” the educational levels and past training of the women, who tended to be overqualified for the jobs they performed.

Those who did not work as domestics had found jobs in textile factories, worked as street vendors (especially Bolivian women), as nurses, or taking care of children or the elderly in private homes or institutions.

One of the women interviewed by Correa was 29 years old and had only to write her thesis in order to finish law school. But in 1996 she came to Argentina to work and save money for the materials she needed to complete her degree. Since then she has been working as a domestic, and has come no closer to graduating.

Other respondents were lab technicians or high school teachers who are now working as domestics or in small textile factories.

The two studies underline that unlike the Europeans — mainly Italians — who flooded into Argentina in the late 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, immigrants from Peru or from neighbouring countries like Paraguay and Bolivia have virtually no prospects of labour mobility and social ascent.

One of the reasons for that difference is that the European immigrants arrived during Argentina’s period of greatest prosperity, and they also cut ties with their homelands and did not send money back — which Pacceca attributes to the enormous distances involved — but instead poured all their energies into creating a new life in the Americas.

Since the distances involved are much shorter, Latin American migrants in general, and especially women, hold onto the dream of saving money to send home for their children’s education or for building a house, in order to eventually return to their country of origin.

Nevertheless, few actually make that dream come true. As the women explained in the interviews, conditions here are tough, their savings simply vanish if they lose their jobs and fail to find a new one immediately, rent is high, and it takes some time to cover the heavy costs of the paperwork legal immigrants must complete.

However, the researchers found that female immigrants are very reliable when it comes to sending home remittances, especially when there were children in the picture.

The women who had left their children behind in the homes of their grandparents said they suffered their absence terribly.

“I’m always thinking of bringing her here,” Ana Gutierrez, a 36-year-old Peruvian who has worked here for five years as a domestic, told IPS.

Gutierrez came to Argentina because her ex-husband was not helping support their daughter.

Gutierrez visits her daughter once a year. In her room there are signs of a tie that remains strong despite the distance: a kind of improvised altar on her nightstand contains photos showing how her daughter is growing, alongside cards with religious images.

“I call her every week to find out how she’s doing. I send her to a private school, which is better than the public schools. Sometimes my mother says my ex-husband came by to try to take her with him, but before I came here I did everything necessary before a judge to guarantee that he would not be able to take her to live with him without my consent,” she adds.

“I often think about bringing her here. My mother says ‘Ana, she is already seven years old, and has to be with you, because you’re her mother’. But I tell her let’s just wait two more years to see if I get settled a little bit better.”

Ana now has a Bolivian boyfriend, and believes that if they find stability as a couple, she could bring her daughter to live with them in Argentina. In the meantime, she only sees her daughter 15 days a year.

The woman Ana works for sometimes comments that she is so affectionate with the children of the household that it is hard to understand how she could have left her own daughter behind. “But of course she believes that I’m doing the best thing for my daughter that any mother can do: working,” Ana adds.

 
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