Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Neoliberalism, Migrant Women, and the Commodification of Care

This paper attempts to address three questions: What do we mean by “neoliberalism”? How can we specify and respond to relationships between distinct institutional domains, particularly the politics of migration and care? What are the implications of this moment of economic and cultural restructuring for activist projects, feminist politics, and critique?

I will discuss these issues by providing a theoretical framing of the effects of the current economic crisis—whether or not it is conceived as a crisis of the neoliberal project as such—on female migrant labor.[1] Available data and reports on the impact of the crisis on migrant workers show that unemployment across Europe has risen, especially among men. Migrant women, on the other hand, seem to be not only less affected by the crisis, but in some countries their employment rates have even increased.[2]

This differential impact on male and female migrant labor, I argue, is revealing of one of the most important effects of neoliberalism on women’s work: the commodification of the care-domestic sector and its construction as a gendered and “racialized” labor market. To analyze this phenomenon, I will attempt to show how neoliberalism coincides with a specific process of feminization of international migration and “construction” of female migrant labor. The unique features of this process have been clearly revealed by the current crisis.

In order to address these issues, I will focus first on the way neoliberal restructuring has specifically “shaped” female migrant labor. I will do this by way of a brief historical-theoretical reconstruction, linking the rise of neoliberalism with the emergence of female international migration and its specific location in the European labor market. Secondly, I will analyze how the current economic crisis of neoliberalism is revealing of the unique political and economic role of migrant women in contemporary Europe.

Most scholars regard the early 1970s as the beginning of neoliberalism. The 1973 oil crisis in particular marks the end of the era of “embedded liberalism,”[3] and the inauguration of the neoliberal “phase” as both a new political doctrine and organization of labor, which is also called post-Fordism. The economic downturn brought about by the 1973 oil crisis had specific consequences on international immigration inflows in Europe. With the decline of demand for unskilled labor in heavy industry—a demand that in the post-WWII period brought millions of (mostly) male migrant workers into Europe—guest-worker systems were shut down and migrants’ unemployment rose dramatically. In this historical and political-economic conjuncture, migrant labor—as a particular segment of labor-power linked to the globalization of the labor market—was analyzed through the category of the “reserve army.”[4] The “reserve army of labor” signifies a surplus laboring population of the unemployed and underemployed whose existence is a “necessary product” of capitalist accumulation and whose constant reproduction serves to maintain low wages. While in periods of economic boom and low unemployment rates employers usually profit from migrant workers, during periods of economic downturn or stagnation these same workers are increasingly thrown into unemployment and are often turned into scapegoats for the bad economic situation. By means of the analytical category of “reserve army,” migration scholars thus tried to decipher both the economic and political processes of the construction of migrant workers as a new global class of the dispossessed. The crisis of the 1970s revealed the political and economic fragility, or “disposable’ nature,” of migrant labor. Migrants employed in Fordist industrial production were, in fact, the first to lose their jobs on the occasion of the 1970s economic downturn. Yet, the crisis of the 1970s—a crisis of which neoliberalism can be considered the way out—was mainly a male migrant labor crisis. Migrant women workers at that time were not yet a significant presence in the labor market. They began entering the scene of international migration exactly in those years, initially as spouses or family members who joined those who settled in European countries, and, from the 1980s onward, increasingly as independent economic migrants.[5]

Since the 1970s, the number of women migrating has grown so much that half of the current migrant population in the Western world is now constituted by women. In Europe, for instance, women make up slightly more than half of the migrant stock in the twenty-seven member states of the European Union.[6] Yet, a large number of migrant women workers in the European labor market are employed mainly in one branch of the economy: the care and domestic sector.[7] This is related to one of neoliberalism’s most noticeable consequences; that is, the commodification of care and domestic, or reproductive labor, and their construction as distinctively gendered and racialized labor markets. The latter phenomenon is the result of concurrent elements all brought about by the transformations undertaken by European economies under neoliberalism in the last 30 years: the rise of “national” women’s activity (a highly contested term) and employment rates from the 1960s onwards; the decline of the birthrate and the increasing number of elderly people; and the progressive retreat of the state from expenditure in public or affordable care services. The demand for labor in the care and domestic sector has grown so much over the past ten years that it is now regarded as the main reason for the feminization of migration.

The 2007-2012 global financial crisis, therefore, is the first global crisis of capitalism after WWII that enables us to propose an analysis of the “gender dimensions” of the effects of economic downturns on migrant labor. As I previously mentioned, the available data on the effects of the global financial crisis on migrant workers’ employment so far seem to suggest that migrant women are currently constituting an exception to the “rule,” according to which economic downturns affect migrant workers first.[8] Nevertheless, recent publications that have highlighted such an exception have mostly limited themselves to describing it as the result of the fact that, unlike migrant men, migrant women are mostly employed in sectors that have been less affected by the crisis and even grew in its first three years. Although it is not possible as yet to have either a fully clear picture of the situation, which varies from country to country and in each sub-branch of the larger care-domestic sector, or to predict what will happen in the near future, I would like to suggest that this current “exception” reflects one of the most important configurations of the gendered side of neoliberalism itself. In order to grasp it, we thus need to analyze the transformations undertaken by care and domestic labor and to interrogate their specific nature.

My tentative approach to these problems, which I discuss in more detail elsewhere,[9] is that female migrant workers employed in the care and domestic sector do not constitute a reserve army of labor like male migrant workers. This is due to the very nature of commodified care and domestic labor as branches of the economy that are distinctively nonviable for relocation; likely to grow due to the rising demand of a rapidly aging population; and with a strong “affective” component making them less disposable and automatable. As Saskia Sassen highlights in the case of household workers, they are of “strategic importance” for the “well-functioning [of] professional households for the leading globalized sectors in [the] cities.”[10] It is this “strategic importance” that configures the pool of female migrant workers as a “regular,” rather than a “reserve” army of labor.

The apparent “underexposure” of migrant women to unemployment under the recent crisis, however, should not be read as a rosy phenomenon attesting to the improvement of women’s situation in the labor market. Some initial studies in fact suggest that the current average resistance to unemployment in these sectors is performed at the expense of working conditions and wage level status, with forms of informal labor and illegal migration on the rise.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that this latter element is linked to one of the main aspects of neoliberalism: namely, the fact that the feminization of the labor market in the last 30 years has been accompanied by a generalization of the poorer conditions that have historically characterized female work. A critical scrutiny of this range of trends should be central to the agenda of feminist analysis and politics today.

  1. G. Dumenil and D. Levy, The Crisis of Neoliberalism, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); H. Overbeek and B. van Apeldoorn, Neoliberalism in Crisis, (London: Palgrave, 2011). [Return to text]
  2. I. Awad, The Global Economic Crisis and Migrant Workers: Impact and Response, (Geneva: International Labor Office, International Migration Programme, 2009); J. Dumont and J. Garson, The Crisis and its Impact on Migration and Migrant Employment, (Barcelona: European Institute of the Mediterranean, 2010). Available at; OECD International Migration Outlook, (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2012). [Return to text]
  3. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). [Return to text]
  4. S. Castles and G. Kosack, Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); M. Castells, “Immigrant Workers and Class Struggles in Advanced Capitalism: The Western European Experience,” Politics and Society 5.1 (1975): 33–66. [Return to text]
  5. S. R. Farris, “Interregional Migration: The Challenge for Gender and Development,” Development. Society for International Development Journal 53.1 (2010): 98-104. [Return to text]
  6. E. Kofman et al., Gender and International Migration in Europe: Employment, Welfare, and Politics, (London: Routledge, 2000); M. Schiff, The International Migration of Women, (London: Palgrave-World Bank, 2007). [Return to text]
  7. It should be noted that the other sector in which migrant women are largely overrepresented is the sex industry. See Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); and Rutvica Andrijasevic, Migration, Agency, and Citizenship in Sex Trafficking, (London: Routledge, 2010). [Return to text]
  8. OECD 2012. [Return to text]
  9. See S. R. Farris, “Femonationalism and the ‘Regular’ Army of Called Migrant Women,” History of the Present 2.2(2012): 184-199; and S. R. Farris, “‘The Migrant Woman Exception’: Understanding the Gender Dimensions of the Impact of the Global Economic Crisis on Migrant Labor in Western Europe,” Forthcoming, 2013. [Return to text]
  10. Saskia Sassen, “Two Stops in Today’s New Global Geographies. Shaping Novel Labor Supplies and Employment Regimes,” American Behavioral Scientist 52.3(2008): 465. [Return to text]