4. Intersectionality at work
4.5. Concluding remarks
The intersectionality of labour in the case of au pairs not only involves the various categories that are usually invoked, such as class, gender, race and ethnicity, but also sexuality, religion and migrant status/visa status. Furthermore, the ability, willingness or need to carry out emotional and affective labour – either through carework or through the negotiation of the unexpected loss of social status that au pairing seems to involve, should also be taken into account.
The concept of intersectionality has the potential to draw these elements together and see them as interchanging and co-constitutive in producing the au pair. However, it is the situated practice of this particular type of migrant domestic work that provides the framework for the marginalisation of au pairs.
By looking at the meanings of the various categories, I have indicated what enters into the practice of au pair work while keeping the focus on au pair work as the structuring principle. I have also drawn attention to the way in which the range of different categories and the ways in which they interact shape the labour and the labouring body. Thus, with ‘intersectionality at work’, I have tried to capture the cultural meanings of cleaning and caring, as well as the mental and physical costs of carrying out such labour. Important here are also the symbolic and concrete links between home and nation, wherein negotiations in the home are symbolic negotiations over the borders of the nation as well as migration policies that specifically shape a migrant domestic worker’s room to negotiate in the (employer’s) home.
In addressing intersectionality at work, I have discussed how work must be taken into account as both a site and an activity in which inequalities take a specific form. I have also shown, through the articles of this thesis as well as in the arguments above, how the working body can, in theory, be anyone, in the sense of being marked by a range of categories. In other words, what is most important is not the individual categories that can be assigned to individual au pairs (i.e.
female, white, middle-class), but rather the site of work that acquires meaning through association with certain categories and the hierarchies these categories are part of. When au pairs are imagined to be Filipinas and Filipinas are racialised in particular ways, au pairs are also racialised. Meaning is transferred from the status of the category to the activity, and when the activity gains meaning through associated categories, the activity also makes the associated categories stick to people performing the activity. Yet when this happens, it always takes place in a particular time and place and is shaped by existing social inequalities.
By analysing cultural representations, as I do in the article ‘Framing the au pair’, it is possible to see how subordination is produced and maintained, culturally.
The concept of intersectionality is particularly useful partly because of the place of origin – namely political activism and law. Speaking through categories is troubling as their point of reference is highly unclear, and I have no desire to secure the meaning of ‘gender’, for example. Yet it still seems to me that it is necessary to do so, at least to some extent, when addressing processes of marginalisation, because we need words that carry some sort of political meaning to describe whatever processes of marginalisation are happening in a specific site.
When I draw on the concept of intersectionality, it is partly because the categories I refer to retain some of their political weight due to intersectionality’s roots in political activism and law. It is also partly because, inherent in the concept, there is the presumption that no one category can be isolated from the others, but each interacts with and is produced alongside other categories; in other words, what, for example, ‘gender’ is or means is an empirical question that
must be analysed in each context, with attention to other possible categories that may intersect with the situated production and meanings of gender. At the same time, gender, to stay with the example, is part of a larger (geographical/ideological) system of symbolic references that give it political meaning.
In drawing on commonly used categories such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion and sexuality, I have tried to show how a certain type of worker is produced and maintained through representations that feed into this larger system of symbolic meaning, and how these representations legitimise continued subordination. Race, ethnicity and gender intersect in the au pair scheme and produce a worker that is imagined to have cleaning and caring capacities that all women are presumed to have. At the same time, her foreignness is ‘othered’
through a process of racialisation and ethnicisation that intersects with class, producing a female worker who accepts cleaning and caring tasks under very poor working conditions that, most notably, lack proper pay. The way in which these categories intersect contributes to producing migrants in a precarious situation, who, in Norway as well as in many other places, must deal with a strict migration regime. Within this migration regime, and within the homes of the host families, au pairs’ religion may add to their possible imagining as persons who belong or persons who do not belong. Heterosexuality may also play a part, not only as a possible route to citizenship but also as part of the fantasy of au pairs and the eroticisation of unequal power hierarchies that I discuss in the third article of this thesis.
In discussing the way in which au pairs are constructed as a particular type of (non-)worker through looking at the ways in which the aforementioned categories intersect, I have hoped to produce knowledge that is both situated and political. The discussion above relates to a larger question – not of au pairing, per se, but of what au pairing does to the bodies that work in the home and, by
extension, what marginalised labour does to the labourers, as well as what effect it has in the wider society.
In the following part, I turn the focus towards methodology and the particular path that the research questions I asked in the beginning led to. Moving from the levels of lived knowledge of working in the domestic sphere and the meaning of transnational migration, to representations and cultural meanings of domestic work and carework, led to a complex approach to methodology that I map out in the following pages.