But tell me, where do the children live?

Maria Olvera with Valory, one of the two grandchildren she is raising in Altadena, Calif.

Where do children live?

Some children live at home. Sometimes, the families are their own extended families. Often they are their grandparents’ homes. Sometimes the parents have been taken by illness. Other times, the market has insisted that mothers and fathers travel extraordinary distances and stay away for long periods of time. And sometimes the parents have been deported.

Other children live in family homes that are worksites and worse. These children might be domestic workers, and they live as strangers in their own domiciles.

In Burkina Faso, for example, children, especially girls, work as street vendors, or hawkers, and as domestic workers.  Legally, domestic work is considered “light work”, and so children officially can begin working in households at the age of 15. In fact, children, mostly girls, begin as young as 7. Almost half of all children in Burkina Faso work, and proportionately the girls outnumber the boys.

The local Red Cross has a child labor project that is trying to help child domestic workers. Other local NGOs also are trying to help child domestic workers. How? The NGOs are offering girls training in cleaning and housekeeping, and, occasionally, reading, writing, and sewing.  The Red Cross is sending stern, `blunt’ text messages to government officials, employers, traditional leaders, teachers, business owners and housewives.  Here’s one example: ““Employers: domestics have the same rights as your children. Stop under-paying them; stop subjecting them to mistreatment, sexual violence, and long hours”.

Who are the children? They are typically described as children “from rural areas where there are few work opportunities”, and so they are sent, or some would say trafficked, to the cities, in this case Ouagadougou or Bobo-Dioulosso. They have the same rights as your children? Hardly. `Your children’ go to school. `Your children’ inhabit days and lives that aren’t measured by wage scales and work opportunities. `Your children’ are … your children, and their opportunities are the opportunities of childhood. These children are not `your children’. If they were, their situation would not be described in terms of lack of work but rather lack of school.

But tell me, where do the children live?

In the United States, one of every ten children lives with their grandparents. Close to three million children live with a grandparent or grandparents.  Close to three million grandparents are the primary caregivers to the children living with them.  Of the three million grandparents, 62%, or a little less then two million, are women. While the primary caregiver grandparents are disproportionately African American and Latina, the numbers are increasing, rapidly, among White grandparents as well. Of the primary caregiver grandparents, 65% are either poor or near-poor.

This development is considered a social trend. For Latina grandmothers, it is often complicated by another `social trend’: deportation. For example, Maria Olvera takes care of two of her grandchildren. Their mother, Maria Reyes, was deported, returned to Mexico, where she now lives, on the border in Tijuana. Their father died in 2008. Maria Reyes has four children. The other two stay with an aunt nearby. The four siblings come together daily, to encourage a sense of family.  Meanwhile, Maria Olvera is herself undocumented. A survivor of domestic abuse, she helped authorities locate and prosecute her abuser. Now she waits to see if she can obtain a U visa. Meanwhile, she has little or no formal rights or claims to the children.

And if Maria Olvera looks around, she will already know another `social trend’ that legal scholars are just beginning to discover and document: the deportation of grandparent caregivers, and in particular of grandmothers. Parents gone, grandparents under threat, where do you think the children live? Limbo.

The illegal but common child domestic workers of Burkina Faso, the grandchildren of undocumented grandparent primary caregivers in the United States, live formally, officially … nowhere. They are shadows. As nations design and implement so-called austerity programs, the world of shadow children expands as it grows more thickly populated. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is anticipated that, as a result of so-called austerity budget cuts, 300,000 children will be shoved into poverty. Like a bird, child poverty is set to soar.

But tell me, where will the children live?

 

(Photo Credit: Sarah Reingewirtz / San Gabriel Valley News Group)

Call them, simply, workers

Yesterday was May 1, 2011. Around the globe, millions marched. Among the workers marching were sex workers, domestic workers, other denizens of the informal economy. Today is May 2, 2011. What are those workers today? Are they considered, simply, workers or are they `workers’, part worker, part … casual, part … informal, part …shadow, part … contingent, part … guest? All woman, all precarious, all the time.

Categorizing workers as part of a somehow other-than-formal work force and work space naturalizes their exclusion and subordination. Why should they have full rights when they’re not full workers? Minimum wage? For `real’ workers, yes. For live-in domestic workers? Not yet.

Why should informal workers have full `protections’ when they’re not full partners in the social industrial contract? They didn’t sign on. They’re informal. How could they have? They were coerced, trafficked, seduced, forced into their current jobs. They must have been. Otherwise, how could they have accepted such abysmal working conditions? The logic is impeccable … and wrong.

Over the weekend, sex workers in South Africa and India brought the lie of the informal economy logic to light. In South Africa, three Cape Town sex workers are suing the State for harassment. They say they were repeatedly taken into custody and held for forty-eight hours, after which they were released without being charged. The three women argue that when they were arrested, they were not `on duty.’ They were not arrested as sex workers but rather as women who at some point or another have engaged in sex work.

This some-point-or-another is the main insight of The First Pan-India Survey of Sex Workers, a major study of sex workers in India, released on Saturday, April 30. Over the past two years, Rohini Shani & V Kalyan Shankar surveyed three thousand women sex workers from fourteen states.

They found that poverty and limited education matter, but not in the way many expect. Poverty and limited education push girls into labor markets early on, often at the age of six or so, but not into sex work. The largest principal employment sector for the very young was domestic labor. The majority of women waited until they were somewhere between 15 and 22 before entering into sex work. That means women had been wage earning workers, for nine to sixteen years before they entered into sex work.

Over seventy percent of the women said they entered sex work of their own volition. For the vast majority, income was the reason. Sex work pays better than domestic labor, agricultural work, daily wage earning or so-called petty services.

In other words, from the perspectives of the sex workers, sex work is one of a number of `livelihood’ options, as Shani and Shankar conclude: “Sex work cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, for there are other occupations as well which fit into the category of `possible livelihood options’ before sex work emerges as one of them. Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions. For those coming from the labour markets, they have experienced equally harsh conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

From South Africa to India and beyond, the sex worker story centers on the fluidity of identity. In South Africa, three women argue that sex work is a job. It’s not an identity, it’s not permanent. Like any other job, when the worker leaves work, she gets to become herself … again. As herself, she has rights, including the rights to dignity, security, and the preservation of freedom.

In India, the researchers learned that context counts. They had to accept women’s multiple work identities if they wanted to depict and understand women’s choices and situations. As women sex workers described their working lives, they moved fluidly among various occupations, often in the same time period. For Indian women struggling in an unforgiving economy, no occupation is an island entire unto itself.

South African sex workers suing the State, Indian sex workers discussing their lives have something to say to workers, trade unions, researchers, and allies everywhere. Sex workers are not like workers nor are they labor lite. They are workers. While it may be true that none of us is free until all of us are free, they tell us that none of us can talk about women workers’ freedom until all of us recognize the fluidity of women workers’ identities. But for now, as a start, call them, simply, workers.