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Welfare systems and migrant care workers in Europe

This article examines in depth the situation for migrant domestic and care workers in different parts of Europe

According to the International Labour Organization, 80% of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers in the world are concentrated in high-income countries. The increase of paid domestic work in these countries is connected with the rise of native women participating in the labour market. The availability of cheap domestic and care work has allowed more women to find paid employment outside the home, especially in countries where men often participate less in household chores and child care.

The turn towards paid care in Europe has also been caused by ageing societies and the restructuring of public care provision. The extent to which this has occurred in Europe very much depends on the kind of welfare system in place.

In a 2012 study on Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, sociologist Franca Van Hooren argues that different welfare systems lead to different types of migration and ‘care markets’. According to this study, the family-based care regime in Italy, which provides cash allowances to families without controls on how this is spent, provides incentives for the emergence of a ‘migrant in the family’ model of care, whereby families become employers of migrant care workers.

In contrast, the British care regime, a double market has emerged in which more affluent families resort to the private market for paid care, while less affluent families use care allowances to cover the cost of food and transport and directly provide care to the elderly person, and only in a few cases with the help of a paid care worker. Because the UK government checks how these allowances are spent, the hiring of an irregular migrant care worker is not an option.

In the Dutch case, care services are provided by the public welfare system and so there is no market for privately purchased personal care services, and hence a very low demand for migrant care workers.

In a larger study on the care sector published in 2013, Barbara Da Roit and Bernhard Weicht find that Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain rely mainly on migrant care workers at home, while the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK tend to rely more on the formal sector and on services provided by public or private entities.

The distinction between family-based regimes that lead to the ‘migrant in the family’ model, and liberal regimes that lead to the ‘migrant in the market’ model can also be partially explained in the case of Austria and Germany by the limited public resources, the public preference for cash programmes, and the segregation of migrants in low- skilled jobs.

In Italy and Spain, the scarcity of cash for care programmes is complemented by a notable level of undocumented migration and informal work arrangements. Indeed, Da Roit and Weicht find that segregated labour markets and the presence of irregular migrants are factors that lead to a ‘migrant in the family’ model even in the absence of generous cash for care benefits.

The emergence of informal migrant work in the care sector is shaped by a combination of factors: the overall public expenditure on formal care services, the presence or absence of uncontrolled cash-for-care programmes, and the presence or absence of irregular migrants or indeed any migrant who can afford to work without a formal contract.

In addition to these dynamics, migrant domestic workers face specific language and cultural barriers to access information on administrative procedures as well as labour laws and rights. They tend to be more isolated from peers, service providers and the host society in general.

Live-in immigrant domestic workers are most likely to suffer exploitation, abuse and limits on the freedom of movement and other fundamental rights (such as privacy and dignity). Live-out migrant workers, however, may also encounter similar issues if they are in an irregular situation. Moreover, care and domestic work is a particularly gendered sector of irregular employment and it attracts both irregular migrant women (who often but not always accept live-in work arrangements) and regularly residing migrant women who have no other work opportunities.

© European University Institute
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