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Calling home: How mobile phones allow migrant parents to keep in touch

Updated Tuesday, 2nd August 2011

The Philippines economy relies on emigrant workers; increasingly, those workers are relying on mobile phones and web messaging to keep in touch with their growing children.

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Laurie Taylor:
Allan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh is a delicious depiction of parent/child relationships and that came to mind - I couldn't keep it out of my mind - as I was reading a new piece of research in the journal New Media and Society called Mobile Phone Parenting: Reconfiguring Relationships Between Filipina Migrant Mothers and Their Left Behind Children.

And the co-author of that article with Daniel Miller is Mirca Madianou, who's a lecturer in sociology at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. Hello Mirca.

Let's just set the political and economic scene to begin with. Migration is critical isn't it for the economy of the Philippines?

Mirca Madianou:
Oh it's very critical. I mean, just to give you a sense of the scale of the phenomenon - over 10% of the Filipino population live and work abroad ,and since 2006 the annual deployment has exceeded one million people per year - and that was an official government target.

And this suggests that rather uniquely in the Philippines migration is a state policy - it's an official policy - and that's because of the economy depending on so much on remittances.

Laurie Taylor:
What sort of figures are we talking about in generating for the economy? It generates billions of dollars?

Mirca Madianou:
In 2009, I think these are the latest figures we have, remittances reached 16.5 billion US dollars, so the Philippines is one the top three remittance receiving countries globally. Crowds in New York gather to celebrate Philipine Independence Day Creative commons image Icon asterix611 under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license Celebrating Phillipines Independence Day in New York

Laurie Taylor:
So is the government particularly encouraging women to emigrate?

Mirca Madianou:
It's also because of the huge demand for care and domestic labour in what we call the global north, in countries like the UK, so there is a sort of convergence of factors.

So, yes, the government promotes migration and given that there is a big demand for care workers women very often tend to be the ones who migrate. So in recent years women outnumber men.

Laurie Taylor:
You're looking specifically at mothers among those female migrants. Tell me about who you spoke to because I know that you interviewed people here, and you also travelled to the Philippines to interview the children and other people other there.

Let's start off with the people that you spoke to here.

Mirca Madianou:
We spoke to, mainly, women living in Cambridge and London and the population in the UK is mainly nurses and domestic workers, so we tried to balance our sample in that way.

So we spoke to nurses who have arrived in the UK mainly following the systematic recruitment of the NHS after '99, 2000. That stopped at about 2006.

And then we also spoke to domestic workers who have arrived in previous decades, sometimes from the 1970s, and usually coming from stints in the Middle East.

Laurie Taylor:
Your paper is about mobile phone parenting. Let's go back to the time before mobile phones existed. What sort of connections did these mothers have with their children back home in the Philippines?

Mirca Madianou:
Well, for women who came here in the mid-1970s and up until the mid-1990s the main mode of communicating was through letters and also audio cassette tapes - they would record their voice and send that through the post.

Phone calls were very expensive, and very infrequent because of that. Also because very often the family in the Philippines never had a landline, so it was almost like a daily excursion to go and receive that phone call in the nearby village, in some cases.

So communication was very infrequent and as a consequence there was some frustration that women were losing touch [with], or losing control of, their households.

We have come across lots of stories of deceit - women going back to the Philippines after three or four or five years and not really meeting the situation they were expecting to find, the children were wearing the same clothes as they were wearing when they had first left, so they found that their remittances were being abused.

Laurie Taylor:
Now with mobile phones they can pay much closer, and much more attention - much more immediate attention, as well. So it's not surprising that these are being adopted with enormous enthusiasm.

Just give me an example of how enthusiastic or how popular these mobile phones are.

Mirca Madianou:
For a lot of the migrant women in the UK the mobile phone was their first phone, if they're domestic workers they don't actually have access to a landline of their own and if they're nurses, because of their long shifts and so on, again the mobile phone is like a lifeline in some cases.

The other thing is that mobile phones were very often the first phones for the family back home.

Laurie Taylor:
Costing them a lot of money though isn't it in some cases - £200, £300 a month?

Mirca Madianou:
Yes in some cases it can exceed £200 a month, but usually we would say it's about £150 a month for UK migrants. But it's a very important resource for them.

Laurie Taylor:
We'd expect, wouldn't we, that mothers are rather pleased with this but I just wonder exactly what the children feel. You went back and talked to the children, were they so delighted to be interrupted in their activities by mum phoning?

Mirca Madianou:
Well I think you're absolutely right, I mean what was unique about our study is that we actually had the perspective of both ends of the relationship and the children were much more ambivalent than the mothers.

So while the mothers felt that the mobile phone was allowing them to reconstitute their identities as mothers, the children very often experienced this frequent communication, sometimes constant communication, as a form of monitoring or surveillance.

And that was particularly the case with children who had not been in touch with their mothers for many years, so they were very young when their mothers left and the communication at that time was very infrequent - and suddenly the mobile phone arrives and this mother, who had only been sending occasional letters once a month, is now calling every day or texting many times a day and asking questions like 'where are you' or 'are you doing your homework 'and so on.

Laurie Taylor:
We should mention of course that many of these children are being primarily looked after by grandmothers, because as you point out men in the Philippines typically don't take very much in parenting at all.

But just to add in one other thing is the arrival of Skype, the possibility that you can sit in front of a computer and that you can actually see the children - mothers could see their children, and talk to them while they're looking at them and do it for considerably less cost than mobile phones.

Mirca Madianou:
Absolutely. If both ends of the relationship - so both left behind family and the migrant mother can actually have access to webcam and Skype, which is the most common application or Yahoo Messenger in some other cases in the Philippines, this has revolutionised communication in the family context, especially for those mothers who have young children because young children cannot really connect very well with a disembodied voice over the phone, so the visual aspect makes a huge amount of difference both for the child who can engage but also for the mother who feels enormously rewarded that the child can actually recognise her as the mother.

And we have examples of women who left children that were as young as one month old and the children were actually recognising their mother as the mother.

Laurie Taylor:
And of course the wider aspect of this work that you're doing is it shows the way in which technology not simply facilitates migration, but possibly causes it in some respects.

Mirca Madianou:
Yes, well perhaps causing it, but also I think shaping patterns of migration because hat we found in our fieldwork in the UK is that migrant women would often say that now that I can mother at a distance, now that I can maintain this close connection to my family back home by leaving the webcam on for eight hours in a row, by texting several times a day, by perusing social networking sites and so on, I can stay in England for a few more years and I don't have to go back until later on. And so a pattern of migration might be influenced .

Laurie Taylor:
Christena Nippert-Eng, over in Chicago I know that you were particularly interested in this research, would you just like to briefly comment on what you've been hearing from Mirca?

Christena Nippert-Eng:
Yes, I have to agree with Mirca 100% on her interpretations but also point out that this is absolutely not unique to Filipino mothers and their children, that these same patterns of increased demands for our attention, of the increased need to find a way to prevent people from constantly barraging you with demands for your attention, with all of these interesting implications and then the cycling back, that Mirca talks about, it doesn't matter if you're talking about a boss and an employee, or co-workers or parents here in the States, we have exactly the same thing and the underlying principle here is the distribution of power between those individuals and how that winds up being reflected in the uses of these technologies.

Laurie Taylor:
Last word Mirca?

Mirca Madianou:
Absolutely, I couldn't - I do agree very much with what Christena has just said. And of course the phone is not just a blessing, it's also a huge burden for both the mothers and the children. So we have to always remind ourselves of that.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4 on July 11th, 2011

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