Münsingen is located in Thailand, Tel Aviv in the Philippines!?

Münsingen, a small municipality in central Switzerland, is located in Thailand – “Münsingen liegt in Thailand” – was the title of a Swiss Television coverage on the outsourcing of caregiving to elderly to Thailand in 2003.[1]

For about a decade now, the relocation of elderly people, patients with Alzheimer´s disease, those infected with HIV, or well off alcoholics to Asia, particularly Thailand, has been an emerging practice at least in Switzerland and Germany.[2] The main argument is the high cost of decent caregiving in these countries, as people concerned report. Said in a more humane-centred way, people cannot afford the cost of caregiving to their relatives in the desired quality in their home countries. This is of course embedded in a wider and general phasing down of social benefits, paralleled by an overall change in the social fabric. Especially ‘western’ societies are moving away from – extended – family-structure and the attached cohesion, towards more individualistic life plans. The international division of labour has thereby made its way into a rather intimate facet of life that has previously been dealt with locally, by the family, a network of friends, or a system of social security. However, a fact seems to be that both the cost and the quality of caretaking is so much better in other places that it is worth relocating people to the other side of the world. Suddenly, borders seem to disappear and Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, becomes a Swiss or a German place, and Münsingen a Thai one, folding together two otherwise far apart places.

While this practice certainly introduces a new dimension, the employment of foreign workers, be it for domestic help or as carerers for sick or elderly people, has a long tradition and is common around the world. Women – and less so men – from the so called Global South are brought to wealthy countries, mostly by shady agencies, to do these jobs, the. Although the foreign workers are (supposed to be) protected by laws and (supposed to be) paid, this is probably the most clear and obvious example of ongoing slavery.

I vividly recall the gatherings of Philippine domestic helpers on Sundays in Hong Kong. Significantly, or ironically, the area around HSBC, “The world´s local bank”[3], used to be the main spot of their weekend-congregation. It can also be seen as an amusing, or sad, detail that the then apparently most expensive building in the world offered a design that attracted the most poorly paid employees of a `World City´. I am not sure, however, if this was the intention of `Sir´ Norman Foster, the architect. To add another detail, the 35.000 tonnes of prefabricated steel and aluminium modules that give shape to the building were shipped in from the UK.

HSBC - the world´s local bank

Source: http://www.hsbc.com.cn/1/2/commercial-banking/international-banking/global-network

philippinian domestic workers underneeth HSBC headquarters hong kong

© borderlandlevant

These thoughts have been setting the context for an observation here in Tel Aviv. Predominantly along the beach promenade and on Kikar Rabin, the square where then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, many, obviously Asian, caregivers can be seen pushing wheelchairs of elderly Israelis. IRIN, a UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, reports on its website that around 55.000 such foreigners currently work in this sector in Israel.[4]

philippinian care givers at rabin square

© borderlandlevant

It is not hard to sense the atmosphere in which this relation of people from two groups at the margins of society – migrants and elderly – takes place. While the caregivers arrange to meet fellow colleagues on their daily time outside, so that they can have a chat or communicate with their relatives back home, the elderly remain dismally in their wheelchairs. The caregivers speak in their own language and have a laugh, while the elderlies appear indifferent, ignoring the nice scenery of the beach, or a bright, sunny day in the city. The two are sharing the same space and are close but seem to be far away from each other. For the Asian caregivers, the company of compatriots might bring a notion of the Philippines or Sri Lanka to Tel Aviv, while the Israelis seem to have lost `their´ Tel Aviv. The former are cut off from their home by having had to migrate and play their role in a place that is not their familiar environment. The latter´s role in society is no longer appreciated and they are not able to participate in the social life of their own city in a way they used to be. This phenomenon is therefore a real-life example of complex sociospatial relations and a more intricate existence and practice of borders than lines around states.

Balibar´s borderland[5] is only one expression of a more diverse approach towards space and the processes that shape it and are being shaped by it. In another explicitly Israeli context and on issues around the Bedouine´s struggle for legitimacy, Oren Yiftachel speaks of `gray spaces´ as “between the ‘lightness’ of legality, safety and full membership, and the ‘darkness’ of eviction, destruction and death”.[6] The issues of legality and eviction, raised by Yiftachel, can easily be translated into the main concerns of migrant workers in Israel. They are needed and brought here, but live under harsh conditions and are under constant threat of being sent back. Homi Bhabha, emphasising the importance, but also the potential of difference, situates this sociospatial hybridity in a `third space´.[7] Negotiation, translation and hybridity, Bhabha´s main features regarding `third space´, are without a doubt active elements in the appropriation of space in Tel Aviv, be it for the Philippine workers or for elderly Israelis and for many others.

[5] Balibar, E 2009, Europe as Borderland, Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 27(2), 190-215

[6] Yiftachel, O 2009, Critical theory and ‘gray space’ – Mobilization of the colonized, City 13(2-3), p 240

[7] Bhabha, H 2004, The Location of Culture, Abingdon: Routledge

All rights reserved: Sigi Atteneder, 2013