Originally published in Spanish here.

In Spain, a high percentage of female migrant workers face precarious situations of informal labor and, often, undergo the consequences of poorly or unregulated domestic work. This situation exacerbates gender inequalities, not only for native female workers who have yet to see a real redistribution of domestic tasks, but also for the female migrant workers, who become increasingly vulnerable because of the lack of efficient migration policies including an integral gender approach.

Migrant women globally: Triple discrimination through gender, nationality and social class

According to recent United Nations data, women represent approximately half of the 200 million people living and working outside their country of birth, i.e. roughly 2% of the world population. The same data highlights that 93% of international migrants leave their places of birth mainly in order to improve their chances of living a decent life. In Europe, more than 52% of migrants are women, and most of them are economic migrants, meaning they come to the North in search of a job.

It is no longer rare for migrant women to leave their countries alone – leaving behind dependent family members, for economic reasons rather than in order to reunite with family members. However, whether migration empowers these women, improves their families’ well-being, and ultimately boosts their native countries’ economic and social development, depends mainly on the policy and institutional responses offered to these workers. Facing triple discrimination, in their gender, nationality and social class, they are among the most vulnerable groups in society.

The term “feminization” of migration

Even though international migration has increased considerably over the past decades, the weight of women’s migration participation would not be so relevant if it were not explained and influenced by gender relationships. As sociologist Denise Paiewonsky underlines:

“Although in some regions there has been a net feminization of migration, what has truly changed over the last few years is the fact that women increasingly migrate independently, looking for a job, rather than for other reasons, such as dependence on their husbands”.

In Spain, as in many other northern countries, the feminization of migration is directly related to increased participation of migrant women in the labor market. This is due to changes in the destination countries and the so-called “care-crisis”:

“Meanwhile, labor demand is still increasing, given an ageing population, the high rate of women’s participation in the labor market and the receding role of the welfare state in the northern countries. Migrant women from the south replace independent northern women in caregiving tasks”.

These female migrant workers end up in the labor niches that are the least appreciated and badly paid. They often suffer – especially in Spain, where household service is generally informal and poorly regulated – from severe isolation, exploitation, and lack of access to the social benefits every worker has a right to by international law.

Global care chains

The concept of care is understood as “a set of tasks and personal provisions that seeks to enhance people’s wellbeing and is therefore related to maintaining life.” Global care chains are “a set of links through which care flows, in which the woman who migrates and provides care in the country of destination becomes the first link in a chain.”

Because domestic and reproductive work happens at home and is excluded from the formal market given its perceived lack of economic value, and because governmental authorities often marginalize caregiving tasks– relegating them to the private sphere, the gray market takes hold. In this context, social inequalities generate the ideal conditions for these poorly paid and socially unappreciated jobs, which are taken on by migrant women from countries with limited labor opportunities. These circumstances create the so-called care chains:

“Care is transferred from one set of households to others, thereby deepening inequalities between families from the North and the South and strengthening the sexist social pact of unequal care and household responsibilities between men and women.”

In other words, household service liberates the northern working lower and middle class woman from caregiving tasks and from the effects of the double day’s labor, but it also strengthens patriarchal structures by blocking the redefinition of family roles: the domestic worker substitutes the woman but the man does not take on an additional share of the caregiving and reproductive tasks.

The Spanish case

Domestic workers are workers, not slaves. Photo: www.cam111.com

Domestic workers are workers, not slaves. Photo: www.cam111.com

According to a recent study, the labor situation of migrant women in Spain is characterized by precarious conditions in terms of type of occupational field, over-qualification, instability, etc. But above all, these precarious conditions are shaped by their nationality.

Even though female migrants in Spain have hugely diverse life stories, almost half of employed migrant women in 2011 held unskilled jobs in hotels, retail or household service; were more likely to hold temporary employment contracts; and faced working hours which were incompatible with other facets of life.

This study, based on the 2011 Spanish Labor Force Survey (LFS), concludes that the origin of the female migrant worker, particularly if she is from Central or South America, constitutes the most relevant variable in determining the labor situation of these workers – more so than age, education level or family burdens. Here, global care chains come into play:

“The demand for employment in certain sectors which is not covered by the local Spanish population creates an occupation niche for foreigners from countries with poor labor expectations. The singular sectorial concentration leaves these women cornered in domestic and caregiving services”.

In fact, as the last UN Women report on Global Care Chains in Spain reported:

“The regulation of household service, the Disability law, equality policies and immigration are key, since they limit the access of female migrants to gender equality[1] and constitute one of the main causes of the current unequal organization of caregiving.”

Gender inequality: A social priority

Although the growth of the female migrant labor force in Spain could be confused with an improved distribution of the burden of domestic tasks among local women, and although employment (albeit precarious) could have an emancipatory effect on female migrant workers, the reality is that women are still the chief caregivers. Ignoring this fact not only denies the social reality of gender inequality in the current labor market in Spain, it also overlooks the social inequalities faced by one of the most vulnerable groups – migrant workers.

Raising awareness about the social importance of caregiving is vital. The fight for an equal redistribution of domestic tasks and the improvement of work-life balance policies, must continue. None of this can be achieved without moving to end migrant discrimination and without proactively encouraging the labor mobility of these women to other labor sectors. This will require the gender dimension to be clearly included in immigration policies.

[1] For instance, migrant women are more vulnerable to labor discrimination, harassment and violence and are not considered possible beneficiaries of the Law on Equality if their situation is considered irregular.

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