The hidden lives of migrant women workers

I saw Alan Grossman and Aine O’Brien’s film ‘Promise and unrest’, the story of mother and daughter Noemi and Gracelle from the Philippines, and was reminded, yet again, of the hidden lives of thousands of migrant women care workers in post-Tiger Ireland.

Noemi came to Ireland when her daughter Gracelle was seven months to work as a care worker for an elderly person in Dublin. She is one of many domestic and care workers who have become a feature of Ireland once independent and enterprising Irish women returned to the workplace in their thousands, requiring enterprising and independent migrant women to take their place – the assumption being that this is ‘women’s work’. These women have to leave their children in their country of origin to be looked after by their families while they look after Irish families, sending money home for the upkeep of their families and their children’s education.
It is an extraordinary film which should be watched by all.

Filmed over five years, it traces Gracelle’s life in a small Philippine village and Noemi’s life in Dublin, allowing them to tell their own stories –they have written their scripts independently of each other, enabling them to be honest about the pain of separation, the hardship of the work, and the anger of a young girl, left to the care of her aunt and grandparents, who also feature in the film. While working in Dublin and sending money home, Noemi keeps a tight watch over her family’s life back home, paying for her father’s medical care and her sister’s education.

After several years working in Dublin, Noemi succeeds in her application for family reunification and brings Gracelle to live with her. For the young girl, Ireland  is a dream place, but when she arrives, she has to share the confined living space with her mother and her flatmate. It is cold and not always hospitable as she struggles with her school work. When Noemi loses her job and risks becoming undocumented, she joins the MRCI campaign to change the work permit regime – and is now reinstated in a job, complete with work permit.

The film is a story of care, and a story of women, but also a story of migrants who are obliged by economic pressures to seek work half way across the world so that their families can have necessary medical care, build a new home, get material goods they otherwise could not afford. Yet the Philippines – which encourages its citizens to work abroad, as remittances play a huge role in the country’s economy – is not portrayed as poverty stricken, but rather as a beautiful country, whose people smile as they struggle, struggle as they smile.

Most importantly,  the film is a reminder that migrant workers – about whose plight we do not hear much these days as Irish people are, understandably perhaps, preoccupied with Ireland’s crumbling economy – are here to stay. They work hard, they lead transnational lives between their home countries and Ireland. Their contribution cannot be ignored, yet their existence – particularly now – remains under the radar,  hidden. And interestingly, although they demand, and deserve, equal rights with Irish workers, many of them, and their children, see Ireland as a transitory stop. Gracelle, who is studying for her Leaving Cert, says she would most probably not go back to the Philippines, nor stay in Ireland, but go elsewhere to search work. Yet she would probably continue to send money home, even though she does not have to.