Care work is a crucial part of our society. From families requiring aged home care to parents seeking childcare, the need for care weaves through our lives. Organizations such as the International Labour Organization have called for the need to explore the condition of work for care workers and what it takes to build a resilient care economy, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. For many countries, the solution to the care shortage is to bring in migrant carers to fill the gap. But after all that is said and done, what happens when care receivers do not welcome or accept the work of migrant care providers? And what does this mean for these workers?
While migrant labour is essential, migrants in care professions are often denied respect, fair working conditions, and dignity in their work. Researchers have emphasized the unique nature of care work – care requires a mutual, relational connection between a care receiver and the care provider. New research on the discrimination that migrant care workers face investigates this connection.
According to a 2022 study from Australia, the relational nature of care between migrant women carers and care receivers is far from rosy. The study consisted of 30 in-depth interviews with migrant African women working in care settings. The care settings included home care and residential care, and some workers engaged in both settings. The researchers find that migrant African women carers face a form of “everyday racism.” As the term suggests, racism is enforced through everyday experiences.
“This ‘everyday racism’ is framed simply as a preference for care that receivers have the power to weaponize over workers.”
For example, the researchers found that when migrant African women work in these settings, some care receivers believe that they do not have necessary skills to provide good quality of care. They devalue migrant care work based on implicit assumptions, such as that the care workers have poor communication and technical skills. In another example, care workers recounted how some care receivers explicitly use racial markers as the reason for refusing care, with comments such as “I don’t want an African caring for him.”
However, this “everyday racism” is framed simply as a preference for care that receivers have the power to weaponize over workers. Managers prioritize care receivers’ interpretation of what “good” care entails.
When “everyday racism” of carers becomes normalized, this is a cause for concern for all societies that need caring support. One of the co-authors of the research, Dr. Temi Olasunkanmi-Alimi, remarked on the consequences that occur when racism seeps into how care is perceived and received. She states that “if unchallenged, everyday racism reproduces social structures and hierarchies and has implications on stakeholders – organisations, leaders, policymakers in Australia and other global contexts – in terms of…harnessing the cultural competency of the multicultural workforce.”
Their findings also debunk the myth of a “post-racial” society—the argument that society does not judge based on race anymore, and meritocracy wins. However, the substitute in many incidences is a shift towards “cultural” markers: whether one can fit in with society by adopting to culturally acceptable practices. And this is not solely a problem in Australia. For example, in Canada, many immigrants looking for work have to show tacit soft skills to fit into Canadian cultural norms, such as through managing their ethnic expressions during job interviews. Emphasis is placed on how an immigrant candidate can “fit in” with the company culture. This becomes a barrier when the existing group might communicate one way and newcomers are expected to look and speak the same. Researchers note that “soft skills have become coded language for white favouritism in hiring practices.”
These findings have implications for Canada’s large immigrant workforce in care occupations, with immigrants estimated to compose 36 percent of all nurse aides and support workers. If “everyday racism” goes unaddressed, migrant carers will continue to be denied their capacity to give care. Dr. Olasunkanmi-Alimi sees implications of this research extending into tangible policy changes, adding that “research needs to focus on how aged care institutions can protect migrant African women from clients and coworkers’ racism by recognizing the existence and impact of racism and addressing them directly as breaches of anti-discrimination policies and workplace practices.”
“…many societies stress the importance of care work, yet simultaneously there appears a juxtaposition of how carers are actually valued.”
The work of care is hard. Beyond Australia, many societies stress the importance of care work, yet simultaneously there appears a juxtaposition of how carers are actually valued. Another implication of this research is that improving the working conditions of care workers require an intersectional approach – not all care worker experiences are the same.
From a workplace perspective, care institutions can invest in efforts to dispel “preferences” and enact measures to protect care workers from discrimination. Everyday racism enforces gendered and racialized practices that reduce the humanity of care worker. Greater attention and action are needed to make care work just, equitable and dignified.
 Lentin, Alana. 2016. “Racism in Public or Public Racism: Doing Anti-Racism in ‘PostRacial’ Times.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39 (1): 33–48.
Research brief prepared by: