March 1, 2004

Two incomes, one family, no hope

Posted in · 9 comments ·

Immigration is a feminist issue. It will become more so in the years ahead. Irish women stand to gain disproportionately more than anyone else from ongoing immigration and should support the reduction of barriers to entering the country.

Immigration is now central to our societal balance.This is because of two of the biggest changes in Ireland in the past decade: the dramatic rise in the number of Irish women going out to work and the equally dramatic rise in the number of poor foreign women coming here to look after our children and clean our homes.

One can’t exist without the other, and it perplexes me that our female politicians in particular, do not protest more at the various bans, blockages and restrictions on the free movement of people that have become commonplace in recent years.Without Ireland’s army of immigrant nannies, childminders, babysitters and cleaners, the liberation of Irish women would be stuck in the “working mother quagmire” – the sticky, problematic and divisive area between being a good worker and a good mother.

Some may take umbrage at the idea that the “liberation” of Irish women to work and further their careers has been built on the “oppression” of other women, but unpalatable truths are a fact of life.The case remains that someone has to do what I’ve heard described as the “shit work” – shop for and prepare the hurried dinner,wipe up Johnny’s puke, clean the loo, change the sheets and remember to buy bin bags.

There are only so many hours in the day, and one certain path to divorce is for Mam to go out to work for 11 hours a day, commute and be expected to make perfect pea risotto with a smile in the evening. Something has to give on a practical level.

On a psychological level, immigrants may also be the essential gelling agent between many Irish women’s expectations and reality. Without poor foreign women to help, something deep in the society would also snap.

Due to rapid advances in education,young girls’ expectations have changed – and rightly so. Girls are told in school that they can have it all: a good career, fulfilling motherhood and a fine standard of living.

When I look back, it was totally different in the suburb where I was brought up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Less than 10 per cent of the mums went to work.The reality of suburban living was that most women’s expectations stopped at the front door.

Nearly everyone’s mother was at home at lunchtime and could be counted on to be on hand with plasters and TCP when we fell off the wall.Today, leased cars jam the same road every morning with young mothers trying to get out to work.Whether out of economic necessity, ambition, or whatever the reason, the guilt that the average working woman feels about not being the best mother runs deep.

More than 60 per cent of Irish women go out to work every day (which rises to 83 per cent for those in their 20s). It is government and European policy to increase this figure towards 70 per cent. (In fact, the ludicrously titled Lisbon Agenda that our EU presidency trumpets entails explicit targets for female participation as part of our overall economic aims.) At the same time as more young women are working,we are experiencing a mini-baby-boom, the echo of the original Irish baby boom that peaked in 1980.

For many young Irish mothers,the precise intersection of their two most passionate influences – their profound, almost physical love for their children and their fervent wish to make something of themselves beyond the hall door – is the exact spot where the foreign worker turns up for work each day.

This intricate relationship will become stronger over the coming years, for a variety of reasons. First, the number of educated women will increase relative to men. Second, there are two classes of women who make up the new workforce.

The first are the highly successful, professional women who now make up most of the graduates in law firms, accounting firms and in other professional services. In this group are a significant number of Irish women who are setting up their own businesses. Arguably, they have chosen to address the dilemma of working motherhood head on.

However, there is another distinct and much larger group of working mothers for whom long hours are not a choice but a necessity. In the recent past, the social status quo was entirely predicated on one wage being sufficient to keep the house going.This is no longer the case.

Probably the most significant social change affecting fathers in the past ten years has been the erosion in the real purchasing power of Dad’s wage. Mothers have to go out to work to keep the show on the road.Wages have not increased dramatically since the mid-1990s.

Wages have gone up by somewhere in the region of 50 per cent,while utility bills have gone up by nearly half that since 2000 alone, and house prices have risen by 300 per cent since 1996. In addition to – but quite apart from – the eclipse of the one-wage family,the other factor causing women to go out to work in such huge numbers is single parenthood.

OECD studies (Bosses and Babies 2003) have shown that this is the single biggest contributory factor to the impoverishment, both financially and educationally, of young Irish women.

Irish women are still paid less than Irish men. Many are in a poverty trap, and they fill an increasing number of minimum-wage positions. So the dilemma for the feminist movement is how do to get out of this cul-desac. Speaking as a feminist, this means that some extremely unpalatable issues have to be admitted.

The most crucial of these it to realise that the gains made by the liberation of women can only be solidified and enhanced by the labours of oppressed foreign women doing the shit jobs. Ironically, all through the ages, the standard of living of the aspirant class has been sustained by the work of an underclass – largely unseen, largely ignored and lar gely foreign. From ancient Rome to modern America and modern Ireland that is the case.

Let’s look forward a bit.

The government and the IDA keep telling us that we must move up the value chain to protect our prosperity from the likes of India and China.This means, in plain English, that we have to become better educated, smarter and more productive.This in turn implies more of us continuing to work long hours.

The more we move up the so-called value chain, the more Irish women who are now working out of necessity will graduate to working out of choice. However,the dilemma remains: who will look after the kids?

1970s feminist theory suggested that the men would share the burden equally with women, but the reality of working life for double-income families rules that out. (Obviously there are some exceptions, but this is the rule.)

If the greatest social advance of the last 30 years – the equality of women – is not to run aground under the pressures of childcare, expense and the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day, something has to come to the rescue.That “something” is immigrant women.

In Ireland, the sad solution is an influx of poor, luckless women, fleeing persecution, rape, famine and war.These women,who have often left their own children behind, may have just completed an expensive and dangerous journey, but they are not met at the docks and airports by a powerful political lobby of Irish women intent on bettering the lot of their oppressed sisters.

On the contrary,they are received by a host of professional working women who need their children looked after, houses cleaned and loos scrubbed at the lowest price possible.

This is a huge political and intellectual challenge facing feminism in particular, and the left in general. How to square the circle when the pursuit of equality and the further enhancement of women is based on the probable exploitation of their oppressed sisters?

As Dylan, an icon for early feminism, sang, “The times, they are a-changin’.”


  1. Michael O Reilly

    Its nothing new to hear the middle and upper
    classes in this country calling for more immigration and
    the reduction in restrictions. There is a simple reason
    for this, they see themselves as being net beneficiaries
    of increased immigration. The services that they require
    such as nursing childminders and cleaners will become
    cheaper because there are more people supplying them. It
    is mainly the working classes that feel threatened by
    immigration. The middle classes don’t feel threatened by
    immigration because in the short tradition of immigration
    in this country immigrants havn’t competed for their jobs.
    However this is about to change. The future government
    policy is to attract more immigrants from the accession
    countries of Eastern Europe and less from outside the EU.
    In an article I read recently these immigrants will most
    likely be young, female, well educated, and multilingual.
    In many cases these immigrants will be better educated
    than Irish people. What sort of jobs will these new
    immigrants be looking for hardly those of cleaners and
    childminders. They maybe willing to do these jobs for a
    short period until they find their feet but there real
    reason will be to compete for middle class careers such as
    laywers, accountants, teachers etc. In the past these
    professions have been able to apply subtle restrictions on
    entry such as needing to know Irish or having had to have
    passed Irish professional examinations. However in the
    future Europe will deem these restrictions illegal and
    these professions will have to be fully open to all EU
    citizens. So what will be the result of this be, it will
    result in a lot more competition for white collar jobs
    from young well educated Eastern Europeans just as it has
    resulted in more competition for blue collar jobs from
    Filipino nurses and Turkish construction workers. So to
    quote another proverb “Be careful what you wish for you
    might just get it”

  2. Helen Carty

    Dear David

    I notice that you are a big fan of inward immigration. I
    agree with you up to a point.

    However, it is a question of numbers not race. No country
    can cope with too rapid an increase in population too

    A question for you. Why would Ireland want to create jobs,
    houses and services in Ireland on a grand scale for
    individuals from other countries? Please do not assume that
    the jobs for immigrants will all be childminding.

  3. David Mc Williams

    Dear Helen,

    Thanks for the comment. On the issue of immigration, it
    seems to me that the biggest challenge for the rich world
    over the next twenty years will be people. Here there are
    three really big pressures. The first is how do we continue
    process women’s equality in opportunity and income which is
    critical. Second is how do we address the issue of other
    people who desperately want to come to the West and the
    third question is who will do “manual or shit” work as we
    get older and richer.

    At the intersection of these three issues, it appears, are
    migrants. So it is not so much that I am a fan of inward
    migration for its own sake. (In fact, there is no reason
    for a certain target of migrants to be a national policy
    objective at all as some dreamers seem to think) But it
    seems to be part of the overall solution to our dilemma,
    rather than a unique panacea.

    Thanks David

  4. Helen Carty

    Dear David

    I do not necessarily agree that the biggest challenges are
    the three issues you have outlined. However, assuming that
    they are, let’s look at each one.

    How do we continue to process women’s equality in
    opportunity and income? I am not sure that what we are
    exclusively trying to do is process women’s equality in
    opportunity and income. We are trying to provide workers
    for an expanding economy. That ‘women’s liberation’
    coincided with that was an accident of timing. However,
    let’s accept that what you say is true.

    Expecting all women (sometimes men) to be in paid
    employment with professional carers for their children or
    dependants is not the only way to process women’s equality
    in opportunity and income. It is also hugely expensive in
    terms of care.

    I believe that we should have a carer’s allowance. Instead
    of giving money to social workers, women’s groups etc., why
    not give it directly to the carers. Women (men) could use
    this money to provide direct care or it could be used
    flexibly to buy care. What is it about government that it
    mostly prefers to give money to intermediaries instead of
    directly to the individual needing it?

    While we currently get our economic liberation from
    employment, that is because it is how the system works. It
    is not necessarily for the best and there are social costs,
    which I believe should be considered when calculating the
    economic ones.

    The last question is – who will do the scatological jobs?
    This is connected with the first issue of women’s
    opportunity etc. Underlying both the first and last issue
    is how we value care in the western world. The answer is we
    do not value care. This is broader than just childcare.
    It is about caring across the board. This is a cultural as
    well as an economic issue. It is essential that we
    appreciate the value of care and not just economically. If
    we do not value care culturally as well as economically, it
    will cost us dearly in the long run. Let me give you an
    example. It now costs about Euro 110,000.00 to buy care an
    annual basis for an individual in a care home with a mild
    brain injury. The government will not pay families a
    reasonable care allowance to care for such an individual.
    If a family hands over care to the state, it (the state)
    will then have to pay a fortune to replace the family. Is
    this crazy or what? This happens right across the board
    from children to disabled individuals to the elderly.

    The second issue is how do we address the needs of the many
    people who want to come to the west. Like I said already,
    no country can cope with unlimited immigration. Ireland
    does not have the infrastructure. There is no point
    opening the doors to create instability here.

    What do I suggest? I suggest a two-part approach. The
    first part is organised and regulated immigration. The
    second part is inward investment into the countries that
    need it. The European Union is already addressing this in
    Eastern Europe. In other countries not benefiting from the
    European Union, I suggest a buddy system. Depending on
    size, we match up a developed country with a developing
    one. So, Ireland takes on a country of similar size. This
    would be subject to agreement on developing democracy and
    the rule of law. At the moment, so much of what is being
    done is fragmented and so much aid to Non-governmental
    Organisations and others is buying trucks from Toyota or
    being wasted.

    You are right that we are getting older, but assuming that
    we are going to continue getting richer could be
    presumptuous. We may not continue getting richer.


  5. David Mc Williams

    Dear Helen, you have raised a number of really iteresting
    issues here. I believe that you are spot on on your idea
    about not valuing care in general. Your idea of a buddy
    system is fascinating and I’d like to read more about it.
    However, we are where we are and we have a system which
    appears to have broad support, my question to you is where
    do you start to change it?

    Regards, David

  6. Helen Carty

    Dear David

    Thank you for your kind comments. There are I think
    several strands to your reply. You say we have a system,
    which has broad support. If you are referring to our
    domestic system in Ireland, then I agree. Apart from the
    well articulated reasons for this, I would like to add that
    I think there is a collective urge impelling a lot of what
    is happening in Ireland at the moment. There is almost a
    desperation to be ‘modern’ as if by being modern, we can
    assuage the pain and shame of the poverty of the past and
    challenge the jibes about our supposed backwardness. So,
    do not be too hard on the ‘Aga’ wannabees. We do not
    change the drive for modernism in Ireland at the moment.
    But, changing the culture and valuing of care could be
    achieved through the vehicle of the ‘modern’.

    As regards a buddy system for developing countries – unlike
    valuing care, where my ideas have come from Wolfsenberger
    (Social Role Valorisation) and my experience in litigation
    of distinguishing between the cost and value of care plus
    my own observations, my buddy idea is entirely my own. My
    vision would be to:

    1 Float the idea to create awareness
    2 Ideally have the UN adopt it
    3 Alternatively if just one country ran with it, it could
    be start a trend


  7. Wahid Idris

    Hello everyone,
    i have lived in ireland for 6 months now. I came from
    Islamabad here in search of work. What i found truely
    excites me. Islam is getting a foothold in your catholic
    ireland. Now we are few, however soon we will be much more
    and then there is no stopping us. Why cannot I not work as
    a school teacher here? This is illegal and when we are
    greater in number you cannot stop doing such jobs. Look to
    France or Germany or even Britain and you will see what
    awaits you…the future of ireland is as islamic as is the
    future of allof the european nations..

    Thank you my irish friends and remember GOD IS GREaT

  8. Jeniffer

    A great site where one can enjoy the thought of a great mind long departed. Cheers for the good work!

  9. Anastasya

    Thank you for being generous with your resources… I hope that you will receive more than you need for your time and
    energy. Keep at work!

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