1.5.2009 | Von:
Eleonore Kofman and Parvati Raghuram

Dominant perceptions – female migrants as unskilled migrants

Most research on migrant women's employment is concentrated on just two areas of employment: domestic work (cleaning and care) and the sex industry. Thus academics inadvertently emphasise migrant women who work in the lesser skilled sectors of the labour market.
Eine Gebäudereinigerin schiebt am 07.02.2012 einen Putzwagen durch einen Gang in Landshut. Die Zahl der Beschäftigten aus Krisenländern Südeuropas ist in den vergangenen Jahren in Brandenburg deutlich gestiegen. (© picture alliance / ZB)

Employment in the domestic work sector rose sharply in the 1990s, especially in Southern Europe but also in countries of the global North. [1] It has also risen in sex work, where it is estimated that 80% of trafficked women are employed. [2] The 1990s saw an increase in sex trafficking, especially from Eastern and South Eastern Europe, which has to a great extent replaced flows from Latin America and Asia. This is related to the globalization of the sex trade, which has become a lucrative business, fuelled by the growing demand in destination countries for foreign and exotic prostitutes. Thus it is estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 women are working illegally, and sometimes involuntarily, as sex workers within the European Union alone.

Theoretical discussions of female migration have revolved strongly around these sectors of the labour market, particularly domestic employment. For instance, Saskia Sassen suggests that demand for labour in the marginalised, flexible and devalued sectors of production and services in global cities is often being met by migrants, especially migrant women. In particular, the rising labour market participation of women in the global North, alongside an increase in the ageing population, has resulted in substantial labour shortages in unpaid informal care that women had often provided, intensifying demand for paid care-givers. She suggests that women from the global South, faced with a poor economic situation in their home country, migrate to fill this demand in wealthier countries. This recognition of the significant presence of poorly paid migrant women workers in the privileged centres of global power provides an antidote to the emphasis in much of the migration literature on prestigious (largely male) financial and scientific experts and managers who are seen as the drivers of globalisation. Sassen insists that migrant women too form part of the globalisation process, albeit in a less celebrated role.

The process through which this migration of women is arranged, and the effects of such migration, are both clearly elaborated by Arlie Hochschild. She points out that when women move from the South to the North to care for a child or an elderly person in a wealthier country they leave behind families who themselves need care. She suggests that the emigration of woman thus results in her own family needing to bring in someone from a poorer area to look after her children and parents. Sometimes another member of her family, such as a sister, may be remunerated to do the caring. This creates a chain of migration, which is commonly called the global care chain. This is defined "as a series of personal links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring." [3] Global care chains represent how the interdependencies between different places are created through migration at a household level.

Both Sassen and Hochschild have contributed much to theorising the migration of women. However, they lay women's inputs to the new global economy firmly within certain commodified or paid forms of household work, such as in the cleaning and caring industries. This refrain is echoed in the literature on global labour where much of the writing on gendered migrations allocates women lowly occupations "as exotic, subservient or victimised, or relegated to playing supporting roles" [4] and as homemakers. They provide necessary physical and emotional labour in homes in the global North. [5] While the dominance of workers in the two key service sectors of domestic and sex work means that this focus is undoubtedly justified, we have to be careful to make sure that it does not obscure other forms of work, including skilled occupations, that migrant women engage in or other contributions they make to receiving economies. [6]

While, in this analysis, women are seen as contributing to lesser skilled sectors of the labour market, in countries where family migration is the dominant mode of migration female migration is largely seen as a social issue, not an economic one. Women, who dominate family migration streams, are therefore not necessarily analysed in terms of their labour market participation, but may rather be seen as recipients of welfare. Moreover, even when female family migrants´ labour market participation is considered, they are rarely seen as having skills needed to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge economy. [7] The economic benefits of migration are often only analysed in the context of occupations in knowledge-based industries such as finance and science and technology, in which men usually dominate. But as we argue below, the dichotomy of skilled male and unskilled female migration needs to be reconsidered.


See Anderson (2000).
See Agustin (2007).
See Hochschild (2000: 131).
See Pratt and Yeoh (2003).
See Hochschild (2000).
See Anderson (2000); Ehrenreich and Hochschild (2003); Parreñas (2001).
See Dumont et al. (2007).



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