4.1 The Intersectionality of Inequalities and Migrant Domestic Work

In parallel with the development of the scholarship on migrant domestic work, the feminist approach of intersectionality of differences has gained traction in the social sciences in recent decades. I do not have the space here to account for the different understandings of intersectionality and their methodological implications for research (see Collins & Bilge, 2020; Lutz et al., 2016; Romero, 2017). Certainly the fact that some of the sociologists occupied with domestic workers’ issues have also used intersectionality in their work (for instance Helma Lutz in Germany, and Mary Romero in the US) has had profound repercussions. An intersectional approach requires that we avoid homogenizing views on people’s experiences, and seek a deeper understanding of the real elements of commonality or difference between them. In other words, an intersectional perspective tells us that between people who apparently share the same experience, or the same social conditions, there may also be key differences. In the study of migrant domestic work this occurs at two different levels.

First of all, we need to draw attention to the disparity between migrant domestic workers due to their different nationalities, age, legal status, and so forth, since this has an impact on their particular trajectories. This also helps us to make sense of the experiences of the many migrant men, of various nationalities, who perform paid domestic work. A major part of the literature on migrant domestic workers discussed in this book is based on understanding how their labour conditions are affected by differences in their migratory experience, nationality and citizenship status, gender, age, and so on.

Moreover, adopting an intersectional perspective on domestic workers’ experiences also means highlighting the differences that exist within this labour market, in which some workers have a more privileged position to others. For example, we know that notions of ethnicity and gender are embedded and reproduced in recruitment and training practices undertaken by employment agencies or by companies that provide care services. More particularly, training activities are based on essentialist gendered assumptions about the ‘traditional culture’ of migrant women and on an idealized view of family relations in their home countries. For instance, care providers’ managers have to deal with the clients’ preferred choice of caregivers from specific ethnic, religious or national backgrounds, and sometimes with their hostility towards others that do not fulfil their expectations.

Another example of difference that exists within this labour market concerns the division between workers who do live-in and those who do live-out jobs. This differentiation between employment often corresponds to an intersectional hierarchy between workers due to their racialized backgrounds, their citizenship rights in the host country, the level of gendered commitments towards the family of origin, and so forth. In fact, live-in jobs are considered to be more strenuous are often taken up by women (or men) who, due to their personal characteristics have fewer opportunities in the labour market. They usually consist of full-time assistance to elderly people or children in their homes, based on private arrangements. Elderly care receivers often have mental disorders, and many require a 24 h watch. In addition to this personal care, live-in workers are also responsible for cleaning the house, gardening, and shopping. These workers often lament their reduced free time, and the feeling that they are completely absorbed by the family life of the person they assist. It is also true, however, that these jobs allow workers to save most of their salary, which usually goes towards remittances for families back home, since food and accommodation are provided by employers (see Boccagni & Ambrosini, 2012, pp. 35–39).

On the other side, live-out work is often considered a better opportunity for migrant domestic workers who are in a more empowered position to the others. Live-out work is generally more diversified than live-in work. It might consist of a cleaning job done on an hourly basis, babysitting, or elder care provided only during the day. It is true that live-out jobs are more disadvantageous than live-in in terms of income, since live-out workers must pay for their food, accommodation and transportation. Yet, these women can start living on their own and can therefore host their husbands and children. They can also start to develop interests and occupations beside work, including cultural and political activities. Women who work this way are defined by Pasquinelli and Rusmini (2013) as the ‘new generation’ of care workers, who prioritize their independence and free time over the commitment to save money to support their families in the home country.

Along the same lines, another example of a difference within this workforce which can be seen in a intersectional perspective, is that between those who work in the traditional household-based domestic service sector and those who are in bureaucratized home care in the non-profit sector, the latter constituting a form of professional and social mobility for migrant women. Workers in these jobs have the opportunity to work in a team and to participate in the tutoring and supervision offered by some cooperatives. Most of the caregivers employed by the cooperatives hold a formal qualification. These advantages compensate for the poor working conditions and the stress for caregivers to move from one client’s place to another several times during the working day. Here again we see that, as with ‘migrant domestic workers’, behind the general description there is a very nuanced picture which concerns several intersecting personal characteristics, including the educational and professional profile of these migrant labourers.

4.2 Beyond Sisterhood: Relationships with Employers

Another important use of intersectionality in migrant domestic work is to challenge the supposed commonality between workers and employers by virtue of both being women (as discussed in Chap. 2). This element of commonality is questioned by the many differences and the hierarchical positioning between these two groups of women, workers and employers. In the following pages, we will see the different aspects of this differentiation and how this takes place in the relationship between the two subjects.

In order to address the relationship between migrant domestic workers and their employers we need to start from the acknowledgment that employers are themselves a varied group: they are people of various ages and family situations, with diverse professional and educational backgrounds, living in the most industrialized and urban areas as well as in rural areas and small towns. They may be university professors or housewives, factory workers or lawyers. Yet, a crucial determinant remains that of gender. The relevance of women’s predominance among employers is to be seen within a general feminization in the realm of paid care: it is usually daughters and mothers who take up the role of the ‘employer’ within the family unit when it comes to employing a babysitter for the children or a caregiver for an elderly parent. Within the couple, although men participate in some ways, women are still the ones mainly in charge of the employment and personal relationship with the person they have hired. Thus, paid domestic work is a gendered sector not only regarding employees but also regarding employers.

As we have already seen, the inequality affecting the dyad employer-employee challenges notions of ‘sisterhood’ between women, especially when we consider the asymmetry between the employer as a full citizen and the worker as an ‘alien’ or temporary citizen (Barua et al., 2017; Marchetti, 2016). Feminist scholars have also discussed the unequal distribution of reproductive labour between women, since this can often be delegated from middle-class women onto women from working class and racialized groups (Nakano Glenn, 1996). It is important to consider the difference in the dyad when domestic workers are migrants in industrialized countries. The differentiation and hierarchy between women involved in reproductive labour builds on a view which considers these tasks more ‘naturally’ suitable for the most vulnerable and stigmatized subjects (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez, 2010). The social construction of care-giving jobs as non-skilled relies on the dualism between cleaning and other material tasks on the one hand, and care and emotional work on the other. For example, empirical studies (Anderson, 2000) have shown that private employers of migrant domestic workers emphasize the cleaning tasks accomplished by their employees, while obscuring their emotional and care work. Yet, Bridget Anderson invokes the image of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to explain how employers and employees are still united by interdependent representations linked to domesticity and housework. While domestic workers perform heavy jobs, middle-class employers have the role of organizing that job: they carefully choose the best employee, they assign her the tasks to fulfil and give her instructions regarding the education of the children. Therefore, employers are somehow ‘domestic’ but without also being ‘dirty’. Domestic workers represent the physicality and dirtiness of domestic work, while the employers confirm their superiority in feminine and domestic skills (Anderson, 2000).

On the same issue, Julia Kristeva (1980) and Douglas and Isherwood (1979) spoke of ‘abjection’ to describe how middle-class women dismiss the low-level domestic tasks, which are considered repulsive and demeaning, in order to achieve the ideal of respectable women (Mosse, 1985). This emerging dichotomy in female models has been associated with new women’s figures such as what Daniel Adeoyé Leslie (1993) has called the ‘new traditionalist model’ who is devoted to their husbands and children, yet in a bourgeois fashion. Nicky Gregson and Michelle Lowe in their classic book Servicing the Middle Class acknowledge that ‘in certain middle-class households cleaning is no longer being seen as a suitable use of middle-class women’s time-space. … Social transformations … have restructured women’s relations to the home in ways that have altered their traditional ties to domesticity’ (Gregson & Lowe, 1994, p. 24).

The role of employers is a matter of discussion in the debate on paid domestic work. Research on employers shows the importance of understanding how they elaborate on their need for ‘help’ with caring and cleaning, how they relate to their ‘employees’, and how they negotiate tensions in their daily family and working lives (Triandafyllidou & Marchetti, 2015). Interesting elements emerge from interviews with employers, which give a complicated account of the experience of ‘paying for care’, such as for example mothers’ personal conflict between their parenting models and their work commitments, as well as adult daughters’ conflict between the commitment to care for their elderly parents and the desire to break free from such family obligations.

In a comparative analysis, it is also important to consider how the role of employers changes depending on the overall arrangements relating to care and domestic work. Maurizio Ambrosini (2015) discusses the tendency of family members (mothers and daughters in particular) no longer being providers of care, but rather more akin to ‘care managers’ who organize the job of those actually performing the care tasks. It is in this management dimension that they also become employers.

More generally, while in the past the employment of a cleaner, housekeeper, carer, nanny, or general domestic helper was a luxury that few households could afford, over the last couple of decades employers have increasingly come from the middle and lower middle classes; for them to employ someone is not a luxury but a necessity (Triandafyllidou & Marchetti, 2015). The domestic worker fills the gaps created by a changing family structure, a diminishing welfare state, an ageing society, and most importantly, increased participation of women in the labour market.

In Triandafyllidou and Marchetti (2015), we discuss the various types of paid domestic work and the different categories of employers, with specific attention to the socio-economic features that characterize them as a group. Thus we argue that employers can be categorized depending on:

  1. (a)

    the type of services they require: cleaning, care, other household chores such as gardening or grocery shopping; or a combination of these

  2. (b)

    their relationship with the employee: are they the direct recipient of services, or are they engaging the care worker or cleaner on behalf of someone else, such as an elderly parent?

  3. (c)

    the type of work arrangement that they request: a live-in, paid worker on a monthly basis; or a paid worker on an hourly or daily wage

  4. (d)

    their family situation: they may include parents (or a single parent) with young children (in need of babysitting and help with cleaning), elderly people who are self-sufficient but need help cleaning and caring for themselves; the ‘sandwich’ generation of people who are in their 60s with grown children still in the home and with very elderly parents (in their 90s) in need of care assistance; they may include dual career families with or without young children.

The combination of type of work, type of family, work arrangements and relationships with employees produces several schemes and types of paid domestic work that may veer more into the care profession or more into cleaning and house or garden chores.

Furthermore, employers of paid domestic workers may be classed into two main categories: ‘employers as agents of social change’ and ‘employers as preservers of traditions’ (Triandafyllidou & Marchetti, 2015). For the first category, the (partial) delegation of their care tasks to paid workers is a way for them to pursue new models of parenthood and family life, which do not entail a long daily physical commitment towards their family members. Goñalons-Pons (2015) talks about the search for a ‘modern’ version of domesticity that combines the responsibility towards loved ones with engagement in paid work and a professional career, which inevitably reduces the amount of time spent in the home.

It is interesting to look at the role of employers of paid domestic workers to acquire a different yet often complementary view of the experiences of domestic workers and the context of those experiences. It is an important perspective which has generally been overlooked, with employers remaining at the fringes of the policy debate on domestic work and on the employment of migrants in the care and cleaning sector. In some countries, certain employers’ organizations have been playing an important role in negotiating rights and social status for domestic workers, often acting as allies of the workers’ organizations against the state and private market actors. There is a strong need to strengthen and extend this capacity of employers to more countries (Box 4.1).Footnote 1

Box 4.1: Types of Employers

We can distinguish employers of paid domestic workers into two main categories (Triandafyllidou & Marchetti, 2015). We can call the first category ‘employers as agents of social change’, which includes employers such as the working mothers of young children or the daughters of elderly parents. For these individuals, hiring a domestic worker, babysitter or elder carer is a way to pursue new models of parenthood and family life that lightens their overall workload by reducing their family commitments. One may talk of the search for a ‘modern’ version of domesticity that combines responsibilities towards loved ones with paid work and a professional career, inevitably reducing the amount of time spent as the materfamilias in the home.

The second category of employers are the ‘preservers of tradition’ and it includes those who have to delegate the actual performance of care and domestic work to paid workers, but who would probably prefer to do the work themselves. Employing someone is a second best option, but it comes at the cost of also feeling guilt or betrayal. This type of employer expresses discomfort in the employment relationship. In so doing, they put forward traditional views on commitment towards their households.

However, for either category, particularly when there is no clear and practical regulation of the sector, it is easy to go down the path of violating workers’ rights. Such problems are barely addressed by stricter regulation of the sector, as this often has the opposite effect of causing employer families to avoid registration and regulation altogether.

4.3 The Legacy of Slavery and Colonialism

The way we talk today about social divisions (gender, age, class, ‘race’/ethnicity and so on) cannot be fully understood without considering the historical context in which they have been shaped. This brings our attention to colonialism, seen as a political and economic project which was accompanied by a process of cultural, social, and moral categorization. A postcolonial perspective can enrich our understanding of the division of care work at the global level.

In some countries, the differences between women as employers, and employees in particular, are strongly inflected by the legacies of slavery and of colonial domination (Ally, 2009; Marchetti, 2014; Masi de Casanova et al., 2018; Ribeiro Corossacz, 2018). A racialization of social differences is still evident in contemporary societies, and it is of the utmost importance in the relationship between employer and employee. This is for example when the former belongs to the privileged urban middle class and the latter is a racialized woman from a rural background living on the outskirts of a major city, or when women from an indigenous background work for households belonging to the ethnically/racially privileged group (Haskins, 2001). It also contributes to shaping what Evelyn Nakano Glenn (1996) calls the ‘racial division of paid reproductive labor’.

Relationships between ‘black maids’ and ‘white mistresses’ in the historical context of slavery and racial segregation have been discussed for example by Phyllis Palmer (1983, 1989) speaking about the relationships between US middle-class white women and their African American maids between 1920 and 1945. Jaqueline Cock (1989) has investigated the relationships between white employers and their black domestic workers in South Africa during Apartheid. Also in the Latin American context, differences between women as employers or employees are strongly inflected by colonial legacies and internal migrations. The corresponding racialization of social differences is still evident in Latin American societies in the disparity between different areas (for instance, former plantations vs colonial capital cities), and in the social stratifications in urban settings. For Jenny Sharpe, this legacy consists in a constant, albeit unmentioned, presence of what she calls the ‘ghost of slavery’ (Sharpe, 2003).

A specifically European version of this debate must take into account the fact that large numbers of migrants arrived from former colonies in the 1960s to the 1980s. These migrants’ experiences were characterized by an intense pre-migratory relationship with their country of arrival. Depending on the context, this relationship was reflected in the level of their citizenship rights, in the language they spoke, or in their previous knowledge about their destination country, which until recently had been ruling their own. However, acknowledging these connections has been far from reciprocal since the former colonizers are often not equally aware or willing to acknowledge the legacy of colonial times (Marchetti, 2014).

The experience of postcolonial domestic workers is determined by the continuity between the time ‘before’ and ‘after’ colonization, as before and after the migration. The employer-employee dualism descends from a pattern inaugurated in the colonial setting, where the normative character of the relationship between native women and bourgeois Europeans was established. The emergence of these characteristics sets the case of women coming from former colonies to work in the land of the former colonizers apart as unique, or at least as very different from the experience of other groups. In Marchetti (2014), I demonstrated that representations attached to postcolonial migrant women led to contrasting endings: they eased their entrance into the former colonizers’ society but, at the same time, they relegated them to the lowest strata of that same society. These women have been living a life on the edge of this ambivalence, where being postcolonial migrants was simultaneously their tool of resistance, and the reason for their subordination. Postcoloniality, in this sense, is a double-sided relationship between colonized and colonizers, oscillating between a positive recognition and a strangling tie. We can see a continuity between colonization and globalization, between colonial regimes and contemporary paid domestic work, and finally, between the colonial white mistress and black servant dichotomy and the relationship between native and migrant women in Europe today. Domestic workers had learned caring and nurturing skills during their youth, therefore shaped under colonial legacies, in which gender and class features are combined with ‘race’ (Box 4.2).

Box 4.2: Selling a ‘Caring Otherness’

One of the many examples of how workers and agencies manipulate gendered constructions of caregiving, making it more suitable for specific categories of women (and not for others) comes from the history of paid home care in the Netherlands. This setting was fundamentally created by employment agencies that were especially active in the 1970s and 1980s. Their racialized assumptions about caregiving is important both in the recruitment practices and the differentiation between co-workers.

In the stories I collected (Marchetti, 2014), these agencies’ managers were literally encouraging Afro-Surinamese women to ‘take advantage of their background’, thus promoting an essentialist image of Surinamese women as particularly gifted in the care of the elderly. In other words, the agencies were emphasizing that ‘Surinamese culture’ had something to offer to Dutch society: Surinamese women’s marketable caring skills. In so doing they encouraged the creation of a labour niche based on specific gendered and racialized representations. In this context, the agencies thus performed a mediation, not only at the economic level, but also at the cultural level, in the encounter between demand and supply. In practical terms, the agencies appreciated a form of education that was rather common among Afro-Surinamese women, such as studies related to sanitation, infancy or housekeeping. Secondly, they promoted representations emphasizing ‘respect’ for elderly people as a racialized characteristic of Surinamese society which is a common essentialist belief.

These attitudes also correspond to the narratives about the competition between Afro-Surinamese and Dutch caregivers regarding their respective caring abilities, based on different characteristics perceived to be typical of both groups. The first narrative refers again to the allegedly more respectful attitude of the Surinamese than the Dutch. A second theme is the question of cleanliness, as Afro-Surinamese care givers often complain about the poor hygiene of their Dutch colleagues. This last point is very interesting as far as it shows Surinamese women’s attempts to dismantle the perceived superiority of their white colleagues and rehabilitate their own background in racialized terms. Finally, interviewees stressed their emotional involvement in caregiving, in contrast with the colder and money-orientated attitudes of the Dutch. For the Afro-Surinamese interviewees, the focus was on the relationship with the patients as a continuous practice of overcoming difficult situations to gain the trust of the recipients of care.

4.4 Citizenship and Belonging

The burgeoning debate that has flourished around the notion of citizenship in recent years has resulted in many and often contrasting definitions (Isin et al., 2013). Citizenship has been seen as something ‘flexible’ (Ong, 1999), as a ‘lived’ experience (Hall & Williamson, 1999) or as the result of ‘acts’ of citizenship (Isin & Nielsen, 2008). Additionally, it has been seen as a multi-layered ‘package’ of practices, rights and identities that is composed in different ways depending on the historical and geographical context (Joppke, 2007; Yuval-Davis, 1999). As Sandro Mezzadra (2006) emphasizes, migrants’ stories address the question of rights and legal entitlements, but they also go beyond the mere institutional dimension of citizenship. It is in this sense that citizenship is an object of negotiation: it is a field in which people with different positions and different trajectories enact their strategies for the acquisition of better status and thus renegotiate social boundaries between them. Finally, it is also important to mention the feminist debate on citizenship, which has concentrated on the measure in which all women are, by definition, excluded by the concepts of citizenship, justice and democracy in modern nation states (e.g., Fraser, 2003; Lister et al., 2007; Mouffe, 1992; Young, 1990).

The exclusion of migrant domestic workers from citizenship rights has attracted the attention of several political and social scientists (Bosniak, 2008; Lutz, 2011; Ong, 2006; Sarti, 2005; Triandafyllidou, 2013). Others have focused on this group’s social mobilization to claim access to more citizenship rights in their countries of residence (Constable, 2009; Gutiérrez-Rodríguez, 2010). Others have spoken about a ‘partial citizenship’ (Bauböck, 2011; Parreñas, 2001) for migrants, a notion which is particularly apt to describe the differences between domestic workers and their employers. The idea of a ‘partiality’ of citizenship indeed emphasizes hat there are various degrees and forms of access to citizenship entitlements. Against this background, it is not only that domestic workers and their employers have different degrees of access (the first as migrants versus the latter as non-migrants) but there is also a difference among workers based on their different migratory statuses (temporary, permanent, undocumented and so on). This is, in turn, crucially conditioned by national legislation on migration, labour and citizenship rights.

A lack of citizenship rights for migrant workers, resulting from being either temporary or undocumented migrants in Europe, influences their relationship with female employers. This can be seen, for instance, in ‘maternalistic’ attitudes that are frequently at play in relationships between migrant employees and non-migrant employers. One example of it is the use of the expression ‘being part of the family’ – interchangeably used by employers and employees alike – and which has been a recurrent topic of analysis in studies on paid domestic work in different contexts (Lan, 2006; Locher-Scholten, 2000; Parreñas, 2001; Ray & Qayum, 2009; Rothenberg, 2000). Reference to being part of the family, as applied to people who are not family members, has been called the ‘family analogy’. The frequent use of this analogy on the part of both employers and employees has animated a large part of the scholarly debate on paid domestic work. Scholarly texts, but also personal memoirs, novels, and films on the topic of paid domestic work question whether or not domestic workers can be equated to members of the families for whom they work.

Opinions on this issue vary greatly. Some scholars find the use of the family analogy to be one of the most pervasive forms of control and exploitation operating in this labour sector (Lan, 2006; Ray & Qayum, 2009), especially in the context of nationalist and colonialist discourses (Anderson, 2014; Kofman, 2005; Locher-Scholten, 2000). Other scholars conversely see the use of the family analogy as a positive element that offers workers an opportunity to express intimacy with and closeness to their employers (Näre, 2012; Parreñas, 2001).

Within this larger debate on family-based narratives of paid domestic work, the question of maternalism has attracted the attention of those who are specifically interested in employer-employee interactions as examples of negotiations between women across racial and/or socio-economic hierarchies.

In her pioneering book on African American domestic workers in Boston, Judith Rollins (1985) devotes a chapter to ‘deference and maternalism’. Her focus is the legacy of ancient forms of servitude in contemporary paid domestic work. Rollins says that in ancient Rome, servants were depicted as childlike, irresponsible, and lacking autonomy; they lived under the responsibility of their master, the ‘father of the house’ (paterfamilias), who was accountable for them, extracting service and loyalty in exchange for protection. In her view, a similar pattern applies today to the employment of paid domestic workers, wherein women are typically hired, instructed, and controlled by other women. For Rollins, maternalistic attitudes can be seen in the tendency of employers, who are women in positions constructed as racially and socio-economically superior, to seek ‘deference and gratitude’ on the part of domestic workers. Their generous and charitable gestures provide a confirmation of their higher status. For this reason, ‘maternalism may protect and nurture, [but] it also degrades and insults’ (Rollins, 1985: 186). In other words, ‘maternalistic employers’ are those who, albeit unconsciously, while helping and protecting their employees, confirm their inferiority and by extension, that of all people belonging to their social category (migrants, black people, poor people, and so on).

The topic of helpful gestures and feelings of gratitude between employers and employees also connects to previous studies in this field concerning the meaning of the gifts that employers typically give to domestic workers. Scholars have been quite divided on this issue. Jacqueline Cock, for example, is very critical of this practice, saying ‘Gifts help to reinforce the social hierarchy by promoting feelings of loyalty, faithfulness and gratitude. … This kind of paternalist relationship is intensively demeaning for the dependent servant’ (Cock, 1989: 82). Mary Romero (1992: 152) and Elaine Kaplan (1987) are equally critical of gift-giving as a strategy that ultimately damages domestic workers. Other scholars are less critical, as is Rhacel Parreñas, who takes the standpoint of many Filipina domestic workers who ‘have gained tremendous material benefits from the inclination of employers to give gifts’ (Parreñas, 2001: 187).

Turning to more recent scholarship, a Filipina scholar, Janet Arnado, takes up the concept of maternalism and uses it in her analysis of interviews held in Manila, where domestic workers are mainly young women migrating from rural areas to the city (Arnado, 2003). Arnado identifies four types of maternalism that Filipina employers adopt in relation to their employees. These are:

  1. 1.

    maternalism as a ‘part of the family’ ideology (which is essentially Rollins’ view of maternalism);

  2. 2.

    maternalism as a form of emotional labour;

  3. 3.

    maternalism to enhance the worker’s social network; and finally

  4. 4.

    maternalism based on the value of utang na loob (a ‘debt of gratitude’).

Maternalism between migrant employees and their non-migrant employers, although it might bring workers some immediate benefits, is ultimately detrimental to the workers. This is because this maternalism brings with it a series of stereotypical representations, such as that of migrant women as victims of their own decisions to migrate, or transnational mothers as suffering figures, which promote an image of migrant domestic workers as vulnerable and needy subjects, dependent on the goodwill of helpful employers.

4.5 Migrant Domestic Workers and Economic Crisis

After the 2008 financial and economic crisis, scholars were concerned about the possible impact of the recession on labour sectors where migrants were employed. The fear was that working class non-migrant workers would start to compete with migrants for jobs which they had previously dismissed, but which they might want to take up to face the new dire economic necessities. This competition would be likely to be very ‘gendered’, since both migrant and non-migrant women would strive for the lower-scale jobs, mainly in the service sector.

There is a long-standing debate on whether women are a ‘reserve army’, meaning that they enter paid work in times of economic expansion, but retreat into unemployment and home life in times of economic contraction (Milkman, 1976). However, scholars have shown how during the Great Depression, as well as the Asian financial crisis in 1997, women’s labour participation did not meet this expectation (Lim, 2000). Women’s labour participation in times of recession and shrinking opportunities seems to be quite unpredictable, since it depends on the specific configuration of the labour markets in each context, and women’s potential complementarity or competition with other workers (men, migrants, and so on).

Rubery and Rafferty (2013) took up this question while looking at women’s labour participation (versus that of men) in the 2008 crisis in the United Kingdom. They found that patterns of sectorial gender segregation were crucial in measuring female employment. They concluded that the condition of these women workers was extremely volatile, and that no sector is inevitably ‘protected’. External forces may cause job loss and employment downgrading even in fields that are traditionally seen as ‘safe’.

As regards migrant women in the care and domestic sector, however, other authors have observed that in countries such as Italy they certainly had fewer problems keeping their jobs than migrant men, employed in other sectors (Bonifazi & Marini, 2013; Pastore et al., 2013; Reyneri, 2010). This is true in countries where migrant women tend to be employed in specific labour market niches, especially reproductive work. In fact, paid domestic and care work emerged as a relatively ‘safe’ sector, protected by the dynamics provoked by the financial crisis of those years (ISTAT, 2013; Semenza, 2012).

Along the same lines, Sara Farris (2015) has discussed the factors that determine the general stability in the occupation of migrant women as domestic and care workers between 2007 and 2011. She found that the main determinant was the non-cyclical character of this sector, since regardless of general economic trends, the demand for personal care services is always high due to an ageing European population. This sector has also remained almost exclusively occupied by migrants due to its ‘very severe, unregulated, stigmatized and poor working conditions’ (Farris, 2015: 12). Thus, she defines domestic and care workers as a ‘regular’ rather than a ‘reserve’ army, to emphasize the chronic need for these occupations in European societies.

If we look more closely, it is important to identify the elements of change and continuity for migrant women in the labour market through the crisis. This can be done by looking at elements of complementarity and competition with other workers’ groups, both in ethnic terms (foreign women versus native women) and in gender terms (foreign women versus foreign men) (Di Bartolomeo & Marchetti, 2016). In other words, it is important to see whether migrant women compete with or rather complement non-migrant women and migrant men in the labour market, and whether these patterns changed during the recession. Looking at Italy between 2007 and 2021, in Di Bartolomeo and Marchetti (2016) we demonstrated what we call an ‘ethnic complementarity’ between Italian and foreign women. Migrant and Italian women complement each other, as they are employed in different occupations within the same sector, or they are performing different tasks within the same occupation. This difference is what determines a permanent demand for a low-paid, flexible, and highly gendered workforce, ready to be employed by Italian households when the need arises.

4.6 Migrant Domestic Workers in the Covid-19 Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 shattered the globe. Domestic and care workers were one of the categories most affected by the pandemic at the international level (ILO, 2020; Marchetti & Boris, 2020; Rosińska & Pellerito, 2022). These workers were in a quite vulnerable situation, since they both carried a high risk of contracting or transmitting the disease in their contact with the fragile people they assisted, and risked losing work and payment. This was particularly the case for personal caregivers. The scenario was even more worrisome for migrants in a precarious position due to restrictions on their citizenship rights, their rights to family reunification, and their access to social and health services and other forms of support. In Europe, such concern also applied to the many EU migrants moving from Eastern countries to the West for work, and which comprise the majority of those employed in the domestic and care sector, especially in the case of women.

In June 2020, the ILO estimated that 55 million domestic workers were at risk of being significantly impacted by Covid-19 (ILO, 2020), where ‘significantly impacted’ meant a reduction in the number of hours of work and earnings, as well as job losses. According to the estimates, in Northern, Western, and Southern Europe, 50% of domestic workers were significantly impacted by the pandemic. In Marchetti and Mesiäislehto (2022) we examine the employment and working hours of domestic workers after the 2020 pandemic outbreak by using data from the EU Labour Force Survey.Footnote 2 During spring 2020, employment in paid domestic work dropped dramatically, particularly in Spain, where the sector employed 90,000 fewer people after the first quarter, and in Italy (73,000 fewer people). The relative change in employment between 2019 and 2020 was high in all seven countries, with a 16–24% drop in 1 year. At the same time, the change in working hours of those employed varied. Compared to 2019, the relative change in 2020 was most significant in Portugal and Poland with around 10% fewer hours worked, while in other countries the change was minor. The short-term negative changes at the beginning of the pandemic were most visible in France and Portugal and some changes were also observed in the UK and the Netherlands.

Research and reports on migrant care workers suggest that the social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis were particularly difficult for circular migrants who, due to travel restrictions, had to either extend their stay in the country where they worked, or remain in their home country without income (Leiblfinger et al., 2020; Leichsenring et al., 2020). Those who extended their stay were reported to frequently have to work for weeks without days off. The uncertainty of the situation and how long it might last was also a mental and emotional strain, for example for personal care workers who spent weeks in isolation with a sick person (Leichsenring et al., 2020).

However, the strong dependency on the migrant workforce, particularly in elder care, led some governments to take measures to ensure the inflow of migrants in the care sector (Kuhlmann et al., 2020). For example in Romania, nearly 200 chartered flights left Romania for other countries in Europe at a time when scheduled flights were cancelled (Mutler, 2020). In addition, transportation was organized for care workers working with the elderly by trains departing from Timişoara to Vienna (Cretan & Light, 2020).

Unfortunately, the support they received was limited by the ‘partial citizen’ status we discussed before: even if they are regular residents and registered workers, they might not fulfil the bureaucratic requirements to apply for state subsidies. For example, as Michael Leiblfinger, Karin Schwiter, Helma Lutz and others explain, in Austria care workers were unable to access Covid-19 support, which would require them to have an Austrian tax number and bank account (Leiblfinger et al., 2020). Likewise in Germany, migrant care workers were excluded from benefits because they are usually posted workers under the EU directive, or self-employed and paying taxes in their home countries (ibid.).

There are also cases in which governments have explicitly targeted migrants and/or domestic and care workers in their interventions. For example, the French government adopted compensation mechanisms for domestic and care workers, asking their employers to pay them for hours not worked, and it has reimbursed them 80% of their cost, on the condition that they keep the employment in place. In Belgium, both the Walloon and Brussels governments required domestic and care workers to stop working. Forms of ‘corona unemployment’ subsidies applied to domestic and care workers who must reduce their hours or stop working, to cover the payment of lost hours. However, the subsidy is very low, pushing workers to return to their jobs too soon. In Spain, the government extended the Covid-19 unemployment benefit to this sector; their first inclusion in provisions of unemployment benefits in the country. In Italy, the government extended a monthly cash-transfer called ‘Emergency Income’ to domestic and care workers – although the amount was lower than that of other workers. The Italian context is noteworthy too for having taken the initiative to launch a regularization of undocumented workers in the sector. Covid-19 was also acknowledged as a work-related injury, that is, as a possible motivation for monetary compensation in cases where workers’ infection can be demonstrated as having arisen from contact at the homes of their employers (Marchetti & Mesiäislehto, 2022). In brief, the condition of migrant domestic and care workers during the pandemic can be seen as the result of the different ways in which the policy fields of migration, on the one hand, and of labour market regulations, on the other, intersect in each country.