In the migration literature, greater attention is paid to migrant workers than to the households they leave behind. I have come to the realization, however, that to fully comprehend the impact of migrant domestic workers, in addition to understanding the problems associated with their work, it is essential to examine the changes they bring about for their households of origin.
I recently conducted field work for the 'Livelihood Strategies and Wellbeing of Migrants in Low-Paid and Insecure Occupations in Urban Ghana' project, part of the Migrating out of Poverty programme in West Africa. The research team tracked the origin households of migrants engaged in domestic and construction work in Accra via an earlier quantitative survey carried out in Tamale in Ghana's Northern Region. A selection was identified for the in-depth follow up discussions of the qualitative research.
We carried out the fieldwork during the scorching sun, dry winds, low humidity and dust of the Harmattan season, arriving later than promised one night at the home of Hawa (46) in Walewale, a small town on the road between Bolgatanga and Tamale in Ghana’s Northern Region. Hawa sat behind her sewing machine with pieces of cloth she had cut earlier. She had already finished the two school uniforms brought by her customers that morning and looked tired after the day’s work.
Hawa used to be opposed to female migration because of its association with a high level of unwanted pregnancies. But her husband’s death left her alone with six children, in a region with few employment opportunities, so she had to allow her primary school educated daughter Adiata (24) to go to Accra to look for work. The decision to migrate was taken by both Hawa and her daughter. As Hawa noted, “We all decided one evening that she should go to Accra and look for job so she can support the rest of us here.”
Studies indicate that women migrant workers often remit a greater proportion of their earnings than low skilled men migrant workers and are often more stable and consistent remitters. Since leaving Walewale Adiata has remitted at least GH¢120 ($34.85) a month to her mother. Hawa said that her daughter sometimes also sends the family clothes and foodstuffs via friends travelling to Walewale. Hawa appears to be doing better than her neighbors. She and her children live in her late husband’s house. Its three rooms are roofed with zinc while the other homes in the neighborhood are thatched.
“Look at my roof… Hawa said, proudly pointing to her house...she continued “It was thatched previously before by husband died. The little money I receive from Adiata, my daughter in Accra was used to roof it. She has helped a lot; I want to build one house over there from the money she sends before she returns” (Hawa, Walewale).
Adiata is one of the many domestic workers in Ghana. Estimates from Ghana’s 2010 Population and Census data indicate that about 66,570 Ghanaians between the ages of 15-64 years are employed in this sector. They work in private homes outside their places of habitual residence. Often referred to as modern day slavery, their duties include cleaning, cooking, looking after children, trimming lawns, and driving cars. They usually lack familiar or community support mechanisms and are often exposed to poor wages, delayed or non-payment of wages, very long hours of work, and no break periods or rest days.
However, Adiata is one of the few domestic workers employed under better conditions. When she first arrived in Accra she had a difficult time and slept in a slum shack in Agbogloshie shared with four other female migrants. She became a Kayayei - a form of manual employment carried out almost exclusively by females in Ghana involving the transportation of goods on their heads to and from markets - in Agbogloshie market. While in this role she met a woman who first became one of her regular customers, buying food stuffs from Adiata in the market. She later employed Adiata in her home as a domestic worker and Adiata now lives in her home. For Adiata, employment as a domestic worker is far better than the situation she found herself in when she first arrived in Accra.
Many studies portray the kind of work done by domestic workers as demeaning, dirty and exploitative. Yet as I listened to Hawa and other mothers like her, I realized that the story of Adiata, the domestic worker, provides a powerful illustration of migration as a means of moving out of poverty. Adiata has contributed to the upgrading of her family’s home and money she sends every month is used by her mother to cater for the needs of her other children.
It is evident that migration has been pivotal in shaping the family’s lives. Like Adiata, most of the domestic workers from this region have become the breadwinners of their families left behind.
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