1.1 The Scope of This Book

This book wants to offer a systematic, rich and clear overview of the international debate on the importance of paid domestic and care work in contemporary migrations, as it has taken shape in the last 20 years. As will emerge in the following pages, the employment of migrant women in home-based care and cleaning work offers a paradigmatic example of the strong interlinkages between phenomena relating to gender, labour and migration, at the individual and collective levels.

Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO, 2015) has estimated the number of migrants who work as cleaners or care workers in other people’s private households at 11.5 million; 73% of these are women or girls. These estimates attest to the importance of domestic and care work as a key to employment for women at the global level. This labour sector is particularly important in countries where the female population leaves to take up domestic work abroad, as is the case especially in Asia-Pacific countries, Eastern Europe and South America. Speaking of migration and domestic work also means that we have to elaborate on the reasons why, in wealthier and industrialized countries, increasing numbers of migrants are employed by private households in the sectors of childcare and elder care (Cox & Busch, 2018; Giles et al., 2014; Gottfried & Chun, 2018; Michel & Peng, 2017). The origins of these workers are very diverse: workers from the Philippines and Indonesia go mainly to other Asian countries, the Middle East, Europe or North America. For Eastern Europe, important origin countries are Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. Poland is at the same time both a country of origin (for women going to Germany and Western Europe) and a destination, especially for Ukrainians. In South or Central America, as well as in several African countries, we find mainly internal or South-South migrations. India is an interesting case, both as a locus of internal migration and as a sending country, with especially large numbers of women going to the Middle East.Footnote 1 In all these cases of international migration, phenomena related to domestic work overlap with different politics and systems of governance of migration, which vary from country to country, and over time.

In order to delve into the nexus between gender, migration and labour mentioned above, in this book I will explore four different dimensions of the experience of migrant domestic workers and related academic debates. First of all, I will describe the debate around care and domestic tasks, their importance in society, their political and economic organization, and the role of migrant women in the transnational industry that surrounds this unique market. Secondly, I will focus on the migration dimension, highlighting in particular the relevance of state policies in creating conditions of precarity and irregularity for domestic workers. However, the role of private actors such as agencies and intermediaries will also be considered. The following chapter will use an intersectional perspective to look at the inequalities and divisions that affect the experiences of migrant domestic workers, especially in their relationships with employers. The impact of economic (and health) crises will be also discussed in this chapter, as this puts further burdens on migrant domestic workers’ labour and living conditions. Finally, the book includes a shorter chapter about the question of labour rights for domestic workers, providing examples of strategies and campaigns conducted by migrant domestic workers (and their allies) in this respect.

1.2 What Is Domestic Work?

In this book I talk about migrants who are paid ‘domestic workers’ – also increasingly called ‘household workers’. But who are these workers? Broadly speaking, domestic workers provide personal and household care in the frame of a formal or informal employment relationship, which means that they work for one or more households (not their own) for a wage. Occupations and tasks considered to be domestic work vary across countries: they may cook; clean; do the laundry; iron; take care of children, adults, the elderly and the disabled; tend to the garden or pets; or drive the family car. They may work part-time, full-time or on an hourly basis, and may or may not live in the home of the employer.

However, domestic work is defined according to the workplace, which is the private household. Indeed, the defining feature of the work is exclusion from the labour rights and protections seen in other settings. As I will discuss, the private character of the employers (families, not businesses) and the space of the home (seen as a private matter), in addition to other aspects, such as the difficulty of measuring the outcomes of some of the tasks involved, are central elements that bring about the discrimination in these jobs.

The use of the term ‘domestic work’ proposed here is consistent with the definition adopted by the International Labour Organization which defines domestic work as ‘work performed in and for the household’, as in the Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, adopted in 2011.Footnote 2 The ILO definition is an attempt to bring together the very large variety of forms of domestic work that exists around the world. This usage is also consistent with the language used by the global domestic workers’ movement, providing a common English translation for the various local terms used in the different national contexts (see among others: ILO, 2013: 7). However, I am aware that the definition is not entirely accepted by local domestic workers’ organizations in all contexts. For instance, in India domestic workers’ organizations favour narrowing down the definition to work performed in the household and not for the household. This is because the conditions of the almost entirely female workforce based in the house (for instance, cooking and cleaning), are very different to those of the largely male workforce of gardeners and drivers. As such, the groups do not organize jointly (Agarwala & Saha, 2018).

The scholarship on paid domestic work builds on the feminist debate that has used many different terms to cover the labour that is performed in the household, and has connected it to its larger function of ‘reproduction’. The feminist debate that is most relevant to our discussion is the one on reproductive labour. In the 1960s, feminist scholars in different countries concentrated their attention on what they called reproductive labour with the aim of shedding light on the specificity of women’s oppression within the political economy of capitalist societies (Barbagallo & Federici, 2012). They defined reproductive labour as the material and relational work necessary for the creation and re-creation of the workforce through time. Such work includes all activities aimed at the wellbeing and survival of societies, in particular care tasks relating to the nurturing, tending and assistance of children and of sick people, as well as the performance of housekeeping chores such as cleaning, cooking, and washing, that benefit all household members. It might be seen as the ensemble of tasks functional to people’s prosperous living, day after day and across generations, at the material and symbolic level (Petersen, 2003).

This reproductive labour has historically been a normative obligation for women, in opposition to the assignment of productive labour to men (that is, work for the production of material goods). This dichotomy has been reinforced by moral and religious views that emphasize women’s supposedly natural aptitude and skill in this realm, a realm traditionally considered inferior to men’s sphere of activity. Challenging these assumptions, feminists have long argued for the valorization of reproductive labour within capitalist economies (Larguía & Dumoulin, 1976; Pateman, 1988; Picchio, 1992). Many women around the world have campaigned for recognition of the value of these activities, not only in social terms but to acknowledge the economic contribution that they make to society, and thus the way they are exploited in capitalist economies (Sarti et al., 2018). One outcome of this movement is the transnational Wages for Housework campaign. It was inspired, among others, by Silvia Federici, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, and animated dozens of groups in Italy and the US (Dalla Costa & James, 1975; Federici, 1975; Gissi, 2018; Toupin, 2014).

Over the years, some scholars within the feminist debate have preferred to use the term ‘care’, which draws attention to the emotional aspects of this work, and to the needs of children, the ageing and the ill (Mahon & Robinson, 2011; Williams, 2011). The transition from a conception of care as a mainly familial relationship involving mostly women in unpaid work, towards a conception of care as a commodity, has made feminist economists speak of a care economy: a specific form of economy which differs substantially from others, given the intimate and personalized character of the service provided (Folbre, 2001; Zelizer, 2009). The term ‘care economy’ highlights an important shift: in traditional economies, care tasks were accomplished – almost in their totality – inside the household by (unpaid) female family members. In contemporary economies however, these activities are increasingly being commodified through an accelerating and seemingly unstoppable process. New intimate tasks, particularly those related to different types of body-work, are continually being incorporated into the market (Boris & Parreñas, 2010; Wolkowitz, 2006).

However, authors have also warned against this emphasis on care as a substitutive term for what was called reproductive work in previous literature. Eleonore Kofman, in particular, considers care a quite narrow concept, and still prefers to use the more powerful notion of social reproduction in order to explain the relationship between gender, migration and globalization despite the criticisms that the concept of reproduction has received in the past. In her view, the globalization of social reproduction is sufficient to explain the interconnection between what happens in a wider ‘landscape of activities and sites’ (Kofman, 2012). It is indeed important not to lose sight of the wider field within which the labour migration of domestic and care workers is taking place. For example, increasing numbers of women also migrate for marriage: whether these are wives reuniting with their husbands and children, or foreign spouses marrying Western men who are strangers, this migration ultimately serves the reproduction of families and societies on a transnational scale (Douglass, 2006). For Kofman (2012), only when speaking of the ‘globalization of social reproduction’ can we understand the linkages between apparently different phenomena such as migration for domestic, care and sex work, international adoption, migrants sending remittances to their countries of origin, pensioners settling in low-income countries to save resources, and households who opt to send children abroad for study to increase their cultural capital (see also Constable, 2016; Douglass, 2006).

Such issues have been made particularly relevant by the crisis of welfare states and the intensification of different forms of commodification of reproductive labour, which became visible in most industrialized countries at the beginning of the 1990s. In fact, during this time, with the beginning of a crisis of welfare state systems, the ‘return to the family’ of care previously taken up by the state provoked the expansion of a market of home-based care work. This is because families had not (or not fully) re-entered into the traditional care model, but had instead begun outsourcing at least part of their care commitments.

This leads me to the social stratification of workers in this sector, which establishes hierarchies between migrants along nationality, class and gender lines, contributing to their differential inclusion in the labour market. Migrant women are disadvantaged by policies privileging skilled migration as well as by legislation denying work permits to those who have migrated to reunite with their families. The ways in which these racialized and gendered representations inform the organization of domestic and care labour have attracted considerable scholarly attention, prompting research into the notion of a ‘cultural’ predisposition for care among women (and men) of certain nationalities (Gallo & Scrinzi, 2016; Lan, 2006; Marchetti, 2014). This stratification exacerbates the under-valuation of these jobs – as far as they are considered ‘naturally’ assigned to the most vulnerable and stigmatized subjects in each context (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez, 2010).

1.3 Women, Migration and Globalization

Domestic and care work offer a highly feminized scenario: women form the bulk of the care receivers, women are the paid caregivers and women are often the employers who organize this care provision. This tendency is due to the convergence of different highly gender-biased phenomena, namely the higher percentage of women among longer-living elderly people, the higher percentage of women among those who work in the care sector (in nursing homes as well as in hospitals and private homes) and finally the higher percentage of women among those who employ these workers, as family members or company managers responsible for the provision of care. In this book, I will focus mainly on one aspect of this feminized setting, namely the perspectives of workers, and to a lesser extent, those of their employers. Since women are usually both the employer and the employee in this sector, a situation often arises in which two women share an everyday, intimate, personal relationship directed at the accomplishment of highly gendered tasks, and yet they are positioned hierarchically.

The importance of care, domestic and sex work for the employment of all women through history is widely acknowledged (Hoerder et al., 2015; Schrover & Yeo, 2011). Speaking of the predominance of women in the care workforce, scholars have use the expression ‘feminization of care’ (Zelizer 2009) and have discussed the social factors behind this bias at length, as for example in Beverly Skeggs’s (1997) analysis of the way in which the socialization of British working-class girls led them to seek employment in the care sector, or as Evelyn Nakano-Glenn (2002) and Nancy Folbre (2012) have demonstrated for US women. However, it is not class or gender alone that influences women’s trajectories into domestic and care work as a paid occupation. These occupations have also historically been characterized by the strong presence of migrant and racialized people. Speaking about the US, Judith Rollins (1985) stresses that the employment of free or enslaved servants for care and cleaning chores goes back a long way in history. Dirk Hoerder (2011) examines the formation of a racialized ‘serving class’ composed of enslaved women as early as the eighteenth century. Indeed, the present-day composition of the workforce employed in the sector continues to result from the intertwining of multiple processes of marginalization, along context-specific dimensions of social inequality. As a result, domestic workers usually belong to the most impoverished and socially stigmatized groups: migrants, low-caste people, rural, black and indigenous women, and so on, depending on the context (Marchetti et al., 2021). Moreover, their situation across countries is strongly influenced by the multidimensional transformations brought about by globalization, due in particular to the intensification of international migration.

In fact, as Eleonore Kofman and Parvati Raghuram say, ‘global transformations are also gendered transformations… gender is an important factor influencing migration today’ (Kofman & Raghuram, 2015: 11). Along the same lines, Laura Oso and Natalia Ribas-Mateos (2013) describe two dimensions in which gender is ingrained in the organization of global migrations. On the one hand, we see that women and men are differently employed at the sites where industrial production has been delocalized from the centre to the peripheries. Indeed, the international division of industrial production shows gender-segregated sectors of employment, with women and girls more often working in what Bridget Anderson (2000) calls the 3D jobs: dangerous, demanding and demeaning. This tendency was already clear in 1984 when Mirjana Morokvaśic wrote that the ‘women from the peripheral zones … represent a ready-made labour supply which is, at once, the most vulnerable, the most flexible and … the least demanding workforce [in terms of rights]’ (Morokvaśic, 1984: 886). Such gender-based differentiation affects peripheral migrations from impoverished regions towards nearby areas where newly delocalized production demands their labour (Enloe, 1989). An example of this is the employment in industrialized countries of migrant women and men for distinct types of work: migrant men in construction, mining or the metal industry; migrant women in textiles, electronics and the food industry. Both women and men are employed in agricultural work, including work on a seasonal basis.

On the other hand, gender is also relevant to global migration when we look at what happens in advanced industrialized countries. Such countries become receivers of migrant workers for all the sectors that are not (yet) delocalized and that demand cheap and flexible labour. Importantly, these include ‘domestic service, catering, personal and sex work [that] cannot be exported in the same way as industrial activity’ (Oso & Ribas-Mateos, 2013: 10), and where migrant women are disproportionately employed. Following on, Saskia Sassen (2000), Thanh-Dam Truong (1996) and Oso and Ribas-Mateos (2013) thus identify a second channel of the North–South transfer of work that runs parallel, although in the opposite direction, to the one described above for agro-industrial labour.

In 2001, Rhacel Parreñas introduced the phrase ‘the international division of reproductive labour’ to expand the view from its ‘racial’ division (Nakano-Glenn, 2002) to the global level. Parreñas finds it important to emphasize how this work tends to be unequally distributed along a ‘three-tier transfer of reproductive labour in globalization between the following groups of women: (1) middle-class women in receiving nations, (2) migrant domestic workers, and (3) Third World women who are too poor to migrate’ (Parreñas, 2001: 560). In her study on the Filipino diaspora, she found that the same Filipino women employed in Western households to care for children and the elderly are delegating their own family commitments to other women: other female family members, but also other women from poorer backgrounds, to whom they pay a salary of about USD 40 per month out of the USD 1000 they earn abroad – for doing the same job (Parreñas 2005). In this view, globalization is the background against which reproductive work is divided up and passed on from one woman to another, less privileged, woman.

The same idea has been taken up by Arlie Russell Hochschild, who uses the catchier expression ‘global care chain’ to suggest the existence of a bond between women from different parts of the world who have to come to terms with the care duties placed on their shoulders by gender inequality. For Hochschild, this produces a ‘care drain’ from the Global South to the Global North due to the ‘the importation of care and love from poor countries to rich ones’ (Hochschild, 2002: 17). It is important to notice how, in her view, the focus is no longer on reproduction generally, but on a specific ingredient of reproductive labour: love, which she sees as an ‘unfairly distributed resource – extracted from one place and enjoyed somewhere else’ (Hochschild, 2002: 22). In the wake of Hochschild’s argument on ‘care drain’, a plethora of studies has explored the question of the lack of attention suffered by the children of international migrant women (Parreñas, 2005; Pratt, 2012).

1.4 A Multi-layered Approach

This book will delve into the experiences of migrant domestic workers as part of the larger process of feminization of migration. In particular, I will use the notions of ‘international division of reproductive labour’ (Parreñas, 2001) and ‘global care chains’ (Hochschild, 2002) to emphasize the inequality in the way care and domestic tasks are today distributed between middle-class women in receiving nations and migrant domestic workers (Parreñas, 2001).

However, the nexus between migration and domestic work also demands a more multi-layered approach. The conditions of these migrant workers, being mainly women, are shaped by the intersection of three different political regimes, as described by Helma Lutz (2011). As far as the migration regime is concerned, state policies strongly influence the employment of migrants for care and domestic work (Anderson & Ruhs, 2010). It has been noted how migration policies are crucial for understanding the large numbers of undocumented migrants who work in house cleaning, elder care, catering and restaurants (Ong, 1999; Triandafyllidou, 2016). In this regard, several studies have paid special attention to the question of citizenship and the legal rights of migrant domestic workers: Raffaella Sarti (2005) provides a historical and comparative analysis of the evolution of their legal status, while scholars like Rhacel Parreñas (2001), Encarnación Gutierrez Rodriguez (2010), Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis (1994) talk about the implications of their condition as undocumented or ‘partial citizens’ in Europe and the US.

In relation to the gender regime, it is important to consider the relevance of care, domestic and sex work for the employment of all women, not only migrants (Boris & Parreñas, 2010; Hoerder et al., 2015; Oso & Ribas-Mateos, 2013). I use concepts developed by the feminist scholars who have defined all these tasks (whether paid or unpaid) as ‘reproductive labour’ or ‘social reproduction’. The employment of migrant women in such jobs can be seen as part of a growing process wherever new intimate tasks are being commodified, resulting in a precarious workforce with strong gender, race, class-based connotations (Sassen, 2002; Wolkowitz, 2006).

Finally, concerning the welfare regime, we know that different welfare systems with a multitude of care arrangements and ‘care markets’, lead to different types of migration (Ambrosini, 2013; Da Roit & Weicht, 2013; Van Hooren, 2012). Scholars distinguish between various combinations, such those of familistic care regimes which may produce ‘migrant in the family’ care models, and liberal regimes leading to ‘migrant in the market’ models. For example, in Europe, since public nurseries, homes for the elderly and hospitals can no longer satisfy the demands made on them, families have shifted to purchasing market-based care and cleaning services (see Triandafyllidou & Marchetti, 2015).

We also know that welfare models do not only depend on state policies but are also sustained by a specific ‘culture of care’ and mindset which favours certain practices over others. Hiring an external person, especially if that person is a migrant, is not always well regarded or supported by households and their social networks. This also relates to specific views on women’s role in the family, concerns about parenting models, and visions of the life of the elderly and illness. Thus, with reference to Helma Lutz’s delineation of the three regimes mentioned above, it is important to speak of the conjunction between the welfare regime and the gender regime and how they set normative frameworks in relation to family life and care needs.

Indeed the intertwining of these three different regimes explains the imbalance affecting the distribution of reproductive tasks between people: from a gender perspective, women do take up a bigger share than their male counterparts; but it is also true that between women, reproductive work is more often done by black or migrant women, and generally by women from minority and racialized groups (Nakano-Glenn, 2002; Palmer, 1989; Rollins, 1985). In most industrialized countries, it has been noted that looking at the condition of citizenship is crucial to understanding the specific discrimination experienced by the large numbers of undocumented migrants (mostly women, but also men) who work in house cleaning, elderly care, catering and restaurants. The private employment of domestic and care workers in particular, is negatively affected by existing migration policies that make the regular employment of migrants difficult (Ong, 1999; Triandafyllidou, 2016). In the next chapter, we will move on to a discussion on how these different regimes intertwine in the social and economic organization of care and reproductive work.