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Migration Management?

Sandra Paola Alvarez Tinajero

Chapter 3. Labor market incorporation of care and farm migrant workers: the odds of social capital

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1Research on migrants’ incorporation into receiving societies has paid particular attention to labor market participation and outcomes. Economic theories have traditionally explained labor market outcomes through human capital differences (migrants’ individual capacities, qualifications, and talent endowment; Borjas 1989, Chiswick 2008). However, scholars have increasingly paid attention to the social mechanisms that enable or constrain migrants’ participation in the receiving labor markets and their structuration (Reitz 2002).

2Recruitment is a key aspect of labor market integration; it influences migrants’ trajectories and positioning in the host society. Recruitment is also an essential component of what Sassen (1995) calls the “local labor market”. Assuming that economic transactions, such as employment relationships, are embedded in social relations (Granovetter 1985), this concept focuses on how networks, social capital, cumulative causation, and other variables (e.g. ethnicity, gender, class, nationality, household structure) shape labor markets. Labor market segmentation is thus understood as part of the internal operation of the labor markets rather than as the result of human capital deficiencies.

  • 1 The role of networks both in perpetuating migration flows, and shaping migrants’ incorporation with (...)
  • 2 Bourdieu defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are li (...)

3Under this approach, social networks influence recruitment processes and labor market outcomes by shaping workers’ patterns of job search and access to information.1 Social networks are seen as sources of social capital,2 which operate on the basis of trust and reciprocity. Their composition, the kind of resources they offer, the motivations for releasing such resources, and the positioning of their members are crucial to understanding the different labor market outcomes of network-mediated recruitment.

4Through the example of Ragusa, and building on these insights, some implications of network-mediated recruitment of eldercare and farm workers are here examined. First, I discuss the role of networks in structuring labor migration flows to Ragusa, and in mediating the recruitment of migrant workers through referrals, rotation, and the provision of information. I then explore role of trust in network-mediated recruitment practices. Lastly, I discuss the mixed outcomes of network-mediated recruitment through the examination of the intervention of the migration industry in recruitment processes, and the commodification of reciprocity among migrant workers.

Labor supply ad infinitum: referrals, rotation, place-based-knowledge and trust

5In Ragusa, word-of-mouth is the most widespread mechanism to disseminate information on vacancies. In the following, I discuss three ways in which social networks allow migrants to secure a job before or on arrival in Ragusa: through referrals, though rotation systems, and through the dissemination of place-based knowledge.

Chain migration and referrals

6Chain migration is facilitated by the presence of relatives or acquaintances in the reception area. All migrant workers interviewed, regardless of their nationality and sector of employment, had relatives or acquaintances working in Italy, and sometimes specifically in the province of Ragusa. This is illustrated in the cases discussed below.

7Tunisian workers claimed to have followed a relative (in most cases the father, uncle or older brother) who had settled in Ragusa or in other regions of Sicily (e.g. the province of Trapani). Early migrants carved their own paths over the years. Jamal, for example, came to Ragusa at the age of 16, in 1988. His father had some friends in the port of Marsala, who hosted him before he found a job in the construction sector in Vittoria, and then on a cattle farm in Ragusa. His younger brother followed him in 1989. Jamal and his brother regularized their status through the 1990 amnesty. Later on, Jamal’s wife and four children joined him in Ragusa; all this, “without any help”, as he argues.

8Chain migration patterns are also evident in the trajectories of younger migrants. Tariq came to Ragusa in 2004, under the family reunification scheme. His two older sisters (aged over 25) could not apply for family reunification. Tariq’s father thus asked his employer to issue a work contract for his two daughters, which allowed them to join the family in Ragusa in 2007. One of them is married and her husband has joined her recently.

9Tunisian workers claimed to have never worked abroad before coming to Ragusa, although they have worked in other areas of the province (e.g. Vittoria). Their migration trajectory is mostly unilinear, and largely shaped by their social networks, as observed by an employer:

It works like this: one calls the other; basically it’s word-of-mouth. I have noticed that about fifty people from his country [Tunisia] are either siblings, or cousins… They arrive illegally in Ragusa, and who picks them up? They take the mobile phone: ‘Listen, there’s the brother of my mom, of your grandma…’ that’s how they get picked up… (Interview L.11.5.09)

10Indian agricultural workers follow different migration trajectories and move within truly trans-territorial networks. Most of my interlocutors have at least one relative (mostly siblings) who has been living in Italy for up to ten years (in Latium, Tuscany, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna). Their relatives are employed in factories (of textiles, buttons, and leather), cattle farms, in the dairy industry, and in retail stores.

11All my Indian interlocutors stayed in other Italian cities (where their siblings or acquaintances reside) before coming to Ragusa, and some had worked in other countries (the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates) before moving to Italy. A few had met before moving to Italy and recommended each other when job vacancies were opened in Ragusa. For example, Sanjeev, Naveen and Jitinder come from Punjab. They all have relatives in Dubai (father and male siblings). Sanjeev and Naveen met in Dubai, where they worked for over ten years after graduating from high school. Eventually, Sanjeev decided to join his older brother, who worked on a cattle farm in Ragusa. As Sanjeev’s brother quit this job to move to the north of Italy, he recommended Sanjeev to replace him in the farm. An employer willing to hire an Indian national approached Sanjeev a few years ago. Sanjeev recommended Naveen, his long-time friend from Dubai. Naveen has been working in Ragusa for four years. When Naveen had to return to India to collect his entry visa as part of his regularization strategy, he recommended his cousin, Gotam, who was working in Rome, to replace him for a period of four months. Gotam had been able to obtain an entry visa thanks to his sister, who has been living in Rome for over ten years. A shop assistant, she managed to obtain a temporary work contract for Gotam. Lately, the owner of a cattle farm in Ragusa was seeking for personnel. He asked Naveen to spread the news. Naveen recommended his brother.

12Most female Polish and Romanian eldercare workers are not pioneer migrants either and came to Ragusa independently; not as dependents. All my interlocutors came for the first time to Ragusa because a (female) friend or relative had informed them about a job opening, or referred them to employers. Typically, women who are already employed as caregivers in Ragusa act as recruitment intermediaries for newcomers. They usually recommend their relatives (sister, sister-in-law, mother, godmother, etc.), friends or acquaintances (neighbor, former work colleagues) to their employers as substitutes, in case they need to return temporarily to their country of origin. Most, if not all female domestic workers had secured a job before coming to Ragusa, which explains why they chose Ragusa over other destinations. One of my interlocutors highlighted the importance of social networks not only for recreation or to keep abreast of the latest events in the area of origin, but also to have access to information on job vacancies. One worker claimed: “Contacts are also useful to find jobs; if one moves from a house she tells the others… when you have contacts it’s easy [to find a job].” (Interview R.21.12.10)

13Once in the destination area, proximity and social relations established with locals (employers, neighbors, etc.) expand migrants’ networks and provide further opportunities for labor market incorporation and employment continuity. This is illustrated in the case of Sylwia, who came to Ragusa to replace a friend of hers who had returned to Poland. When Sylwia’s employer died, the neighbors offered her a new job as they had established a good relationship with her. (Interview T.24.8.11)

14Overall, these examples show that migration decisions are made within specific social structures that tend to foster chain migration. Migrants’ incorporation into the labor market is effectively backed by trans-territorial networks, which rely on weak and strong ties (Granovetter 1973), as networks include relatives, friends, acquaintances and even Ragusan employers, neighbors, etc. Networks ensure the continuous replenishment of labor supply in specific male- and female-dominated sectors, hinging around a narrow pool of candidates who are members of relatively sealed social networks. As such, network mediation effectively takes vacancies out of the market. There is little or no competition as jobs tend to be filled by pre-selected candidates (Waldinger 1997; see also Waldinger and Lichter 2003). Therefore, the match between demand and supply is socially structured. Referrals further facilitate the rotation of migrant workers in eldercare and farm work. The functioning and implications of rotation are further discussed below.


15One of the outcomes of network-mediated recruitment practices is the emergence of rotation or replacement systems. Rotation mobilizes the members of specific migrant networks both in close and distant areas (e.g. in areas of origin) and ensures a steady supply of labor in marginal jobs such as farm work and eldercare in Ragusa. Rotation mechanisms are activated for various reasons, as explained below. Rotation allows reducing the uncertainty about losing secured jobs in Ragusa through enforceable trust, as discussed in the following examples.

16Rotation among Tunisian nationals is facilitated by geographical proximity. Many workers travel from Ragusa to Tunisia several times a year. In the case of Indian workers, rotation tends to be associated with ex post facto regularization strategies. They are often replaced by members of the same migrant group when a worker has to return to India to prove residence abroad following the announcement of the nulla osta, or the awarding of an authorization to come to Italy to work. Another common reason to activate rotation is to take a holiday. Many workers take breaks in between contracts to visit their families; meanwhile they are replaced by other Indian nationals on the farms.

17Rotation is equally common among Romanian and Polish care workers. Rotations allow them to take holidays, participate in family events, and honor family obligations. This is illustrated by the case of three friends and who have been repeatedly rotating and exchanging jobs in Ragusa. Anita came for the first time to Ragusa in 2002, to replace her friend Sylwia, whom she has known for 40 years. Sylwia wanted to spend Christmas in Poland and asked Anita to replace her for two weeks. In 2009, Sylwia was working with a different family, she wanted to help her son in planning his wedding and asked Ludwika, her friend and neighbor, to replace her. When Sylwia came back, the employers kept both Ludwika and Sylwia. After spending seven months in Ragusa, Ludwika wanted to go back to Poland to meet her newborn grandson. Sylwia remained in Ragusa and covered the two posts. When I met Sylwia again in 2011, she was about to leave for Poland. She wanted to visit her family and called again her friend Anita to replace her. Anita was looking for a new job, as the woman she helped died. This rotation pattern was repeated and confirmed in almost all the interviews.

18Rotation further allows migrant workers to honor moral obligations towards employers and functions as a proof of a certain work ethics, as workers are expected to find an apt substitute in case of temporary absence or resignation. Workers often use this sign of ‘responsibility’ to distinguish themselves from other workers. One of my interlocutors, for example, praised the high work ethics of Polish workers, arguing that “Polish would never leave if she [sic] has not found a substitute… You never start in another job unless you have found a substitute”. (Interview R.21.12.10)

19Moreover, by pre-selecting their substitutes themselves, migrant workers reduce the risks of losing what they consider to be good jobs. Enforceable trust seems to operate to reduce the likelihood that a trusted substitute takes over. Many respondents claimed to take other posts once they fulfill their engagement with the respective sponsors: “This man sent me here; he went to India for four months, and when he comes back, I am going to Rome, I won’t continue here…” (Interview Ch.11.5.09). Taking over a job from a member of the network would ban the person from the group jeopardizing her opportunities to have access to the networks’ resources or to enjoy the support or favors from its members. Therefore, the rotation system carries the promise that workers will be able to get back their ‘good’ jobs as soon as they return to Ragusa. Trust between migrant workers and employers also increases the possibilities for workers to keep those jobs. Urszula, for example, looked after an elderly married couple for one year and established a good relationship with the female employer. She went back to Poland undecided about returning to Ragusa. She recommended a substitute before leaving, but after four months, Urszula decided to return to Ragusa and called her former employer. The employer claimed that she dismissed Urszula’s substitute that same day.

20In sum, networks allow Ragusan farms and homes to have a continuous source of migrant labor through referrals and rotation mechanisms. Simultaneously, referrals and rotation allow migrant workers to deploy regularization strategies, take holidays, and honor family obligations with the assurance that good relationships with employers and enforceable trust will operate to thwart the risks of losing what are perceived as advantageous jobs. Because zootechny and eldercare entail hard conditions of work, perhaps rotation also enables migrant workers to build resilience to poor working conditions by allowing them to temporarily detach from their marginal positions in Ragusa.


21An important resource that social networks can offer to migrant workers during their job search is information on vacancies. Some authors have recognized the limits of the economic conceptualization of the (perfect) information context. Because information is subject to variations in time and space and because it is often grounded in one’s personal experiences and (social) positioning, it can never be assumed to be complete or perfect.

22The concept of “place-based knowledge” accounts for the incompleteness, one-sidedness, and power imbalances that characterize information flows within the (migrant) household or the community (Sassen 1995). Place-based-knowledge is situated in time and space, and influenced by the specific position of informants (e.g. by gender, nationality, ethnicity, and class). As such, place-based-knowledge influences migrants’ labor market incorporation by effectively restricting “knowledge” about jobs that migrants are most likely to have access to (Sassen 1995: 113). Indeed, care and agricultural migrant workers in Ragusa participate in relatively closed referral-rotation circles from which it is difficult to exit. As a result, male and female migrants in Ragusa are effectively incorporated into male- or female-dominated jobs. Interestingly, confirming the argument that the information that circulates within their networks is incomplete, most workers, regardless of their occupation or the source of information used, recognized that before coming to Ragusa they had little knowledge about the specific characteristics of their jobs other than the location or the characteristics of potential employers. The lack of information was more acute when recruitment was mediated by informal for-profit recruiters. In view of the poor information about jobs, imagination and stereotypes intervene in the assessment of the referred job opportunities; it was not uncommon to hear such things as “The only thing we know is that the job is in Sicily”; or “We know about the mafia, it’s scary!”

23Also, farm and care migrant workers selectively disclose or withhold information about the jobs they perform in Italy when in the areas of origin. The way in which migrants deal with information provision in the areas of origin may be associated with class contradictions that emerge from the low-status of their jobs and the selective sharing of information with relatives, friends and acquaintances back home. Imperfect information may also be a by-product of migrants’ own interests and objectives. For example, many workers revealed that when they ask for further details about the job description, their first (and often most important) question is about income. Indeed, in some cases the former may override migrants’ attention to the characteristics of the job and conditions of work, as illustrated below:

When people are in Poland they have no problem, they don’t care much about the type of job, they ask about the money… they often ask about location, whether it’s in the north or in Sicily, but that’s not really important, what is important is money. Only this, money… (Interview B.6.1.11)

Question: Did you know how it was? Did he tell you about the job; whether it was good or bad?

Employee: Nothing.

Question: Didn’t he tell you about the tasks, the location, the boss…?

Employee: Well, let’s say that… because I needed money, because I was unemployed, I didn’t have a job before, I was looking for a job…

Question: So you didn’t know much about the job?

Employee: It’s fine, pay is good. (Interview M.14.5.09)

24Finally, it is worth noting that moving within a context characterized by the flow of imperfect information implies that things do not always turn out as expected, even when recommendations are made by trusted sources. For example, a woman recommended her sister-in-law a ‘good job’ based on her own appraisal of the visible physical health of an elderly married couple, the future employers. She mentioned that when she met them they were apparently autonomous. In her opinion the pay was also more than acceptable. She encouraged her sister-in-law to take the job. But just the week after her sister-in-law arrived in Ragusa, the man fell ill, the lady became more and more absent, and “the only thing left was the good money”, she told me regretfully.

25Place-based knowledge narrows the range of job opportunities that migrant men and women are likely to have access to. In a context of imperfect information in which migration decisions, vacancy appraisals and recommendations are made, migrant workers and employers may wish to reduce the potential uncertainties associated with the establishment of new employment relationships. Trust helps easing employers’ and migrant workers’ reservations, as discussed below.

Circles of trust

  • 3 Rational choice theory pays special attention to the risk-taking attitude of individuals. Its basic (...)

26Employers and migrant workers rely largely on referrals from their contacts when engaging in a new employment relationship. Some degree of trust must be assumed for such a referral system to operate. Trust, in Coleman’s (rationalist) view, does not arise from an emotional or moral bond among actors, but from rational calculations of the potential risks, benefits and costs involved in placing trust in another person, or trustee (see Appelrouth and Edles 2012: 445-450).3 Thus, the intermediation of trusted sources has the potential to reduce the perceived or actual risks any trustor incurs in placing trust in a stranger.

  • 4 I use the word circles to emphasize the fact that employers and workers (of specific nationality an (...)

27Employers, migrant workers and their respective contacts constitute circles of trust,4 not necessarily based on strong ties, which influence farm and care migrant workers’ incorporation into the Ragusan labor market, through word-of-mouth recruitment, candidates’ screening and on-the-job training.

28Regarding word-of-mouth, referrals (from employers and workers themselves) play a major role in favoring workers who are perceived as having a good track record. According to most of my interlocutors, it is hard to find a job without a recommendation. An employer further confirmed that recommendations function as a guarantee of a worker’s reliability. Conversely, a domestic worker expressed her disappointment as she realized that recommendations may outweigh qualifications, linguistic skills or other qualities and are essential to secure jobs both within and outside domestic service. Recommendations are often the product of the relationships that migrant workers and employers have built and consolidated over time. For instance, an employer mentioned that there is a group of foreign workers in the agricultural sector who are already well known by locals and who are trusted by Ragusan employers:

Yes, we get along very well. In fact, I can’t imagine what will happen when he leaves… It will be difficult to find a similar person. Because in this group of Indians… they have been here for quite some time already, we know them very well, him, [name of worker], the Indians of [name of two employers]…. for example, the one who arrived last year is his brother… (Interview S.27.12.10)

29Employers’ and workers’ prior experiences and mutual track record normally constitute the baseline for the assessment of potential recruits referred by workers, on the part of employers, and for the assessment of the posts referred, on the part of workers. Referrals presuppose the existence of trust among the parties involved to operate. It seems thus relevant to understand when and how trust becomes manifest.

30Several workers claimed proudly that they were able to negotiate certain things or obtain favors from their employers owing to the good and relatively long relationships they had with them, or simply because employers ‘know them’. Trust building implies coexistence, contact and communication, which is certainly facilitated by proximity, especially in live-in jobs such as eldercare and farm work as practiced in Ragusa. Cohabitation facilitates interaction and personal exchanges that foster trust, as one worker noted, “only then you can say that you know what that means [trust], then you know if the person is brava [good]” (Interview R.21.12.10). However, proximity is not the single determinant in trust building processes. Sometimes trust ‘sparks’ set off a good commencement in the employment relationship:

You can tell when someone’s good only when you know the person… when you spend time together at home, when you talk…. Sometimes it takes just a glance; like, I see you, we exchange regards, like a boy and a girl, we like each other, that’s also possible between two people. When I first arrived to her place [talking about the employer], I noticed she had good eyes for me. (Interview R.21.12.10)

31Interview data illustrate how recruitment involves placing trust in another person. So as migrant workers recommend one another on the basis of trust, employers also turn to workers and other employers to ask for recommendations:

Question: How did you meet these workers?

Employer: Well… the first Indian who came here was brought by a friend of mine. He owns a cattle farm too, and he told us ‘listen, there’s a guy who just arrived from Rome…’ My friend picked him up... The rest of the workers came afterwards, through this first guy. (Interview R.23.8.11)

Question: How did you meet her?

Employer: We were introduced by the son of the lady with whom she worked before… she had returned to Romania… we needed a caregiver for my parents-in-law and our friend spoke well about her, he’s a close friend of the family… and if he spoke well about her it means that… so he contacted her and she came back to Ragusa. (Interview N.26.8.11)

32Sometimes the credibility of the sources is based on the nature of the relationship between the person requesting information (the trustor) and the informant (the trustee). In other cases, trustees are simply considered as reliable sources of information or having a good position to assess the candidates (e.g. owing to their experience):

Question: How did you meet the employee?

Employer: …We approached [name of worker] […] Well, no, we consulted first a friend, he’s the owner of other farms and he has Indian workers… he knows them. We had troubles with our worker, a Romanian guy… My friend spoke very well about him [current employee], we wanted an Indian, and so we asked my friend Giovanni… (Interview S.27.12.10)

33Therefore, even candidates not directly known by the employers may be granted the employers’ favor because they have been referred by a trusted intermediary. Employees who mobilize their extended trans-territorial networks may also refer people with whom they do not have a direct relationship, by virtue of the intercession of a trusted third party. Adriana, for example, explained that her mother-in-law was the first in her family to go to Ragusa, to replace the daughter of a friend of hers. She did not know the daughter directly; she had spent some time with the mother of that woman in a hospital in Romania and became friends with her. In this case, despite the fact that the substitute and the worker to be replaced in Ragusa did not know each other, the recommendation was mediated by a third person, who was a trusted source for both the worker and the substitute.

34The question remains what motivates workers or employers to place their trust in their informants. Tilly (2007) affirms that trust networks rely on strong ties. Building on Granovetter’s (1973) teachings, Faist asserts that (1997: 199) strong ties are characterized by direct, durable transactions that entail obligations and emotions, whereas weak ties are defined by indirect relationships. Seemingly, in Ragusa both strong and weak ties shape trust in recruitment mediation. Employers and workers normally consider intermediaries trusted sources; otherwise their opinion would not be taken into account. The credibility of informants is certainly assessed against the backdrop of good relationships, but people may also trust persons whom they meet through casual encounters, or of whom they expect a predictable behavior given the trustee's membership in a specific reference group of informants. Trust is therefore associated with the trustors’ expectations. A migrant worker and his employer, interviewed separately, justified their engagement in an employment relationship by the fact that they ‘knew each other’. But they did not maintain strong ties. They had developed mutual expectations based on their prior encounters. They had met because the worker used to spend some evenings on the farm of his current employer and had offered him once his services.

35When weak ties characterize relations, trust does not seem to be a determining factor to consolidate the employment relationship. Weak ties combine with expectations generated by the kind of (biased) information that informants (workers or employers) provide, as well as expectations based on employers’ representations of foreign workers and vice versa, which are likely to influence hiring decisions. Waldinger aptly argues that migrant workers’ recommendations function particularly well “when the boss thinks that birds of a feather flock together, and likes the birds he currently has” (2003: 350). Employers may expect that the members of a given social group behave in a similar way, including the members of a family, of a particular community or a country, or people who profess a certain religion. A care worker, for example mentioned that her employer was likely to hire “only Polish” or “only my relatives” because she expected them to behave as she did (Interview R.21.12.10)

36The former suggests that weak ties and expectations combined may intervene in recruitment mediation. Some of the outcomes of these systems of referrals are discussed below.

The outcomes of network-mediated recruitment

37A major outcome of network-mediated recruitment practices is that they reduce, to a certain extent, the potential uncertainties and reservations that employers and workers may have prior to engaging in a new employment relationship. Waldinger argues that network recruitment improves the quality and quantity of information available to both employers and workers sets common understandings that shape the employment relationships (1997: 1). Networks contain also candidate-screening mechanisms that benefit employers. Sassen notes that “… [e]mployees are likely to know their employer’s preferences and will channel what they consider to be appropriate members of their networks into any job openings that arise at their workplace” (1995: 110). In eldercare for example, owing to the nature of the jobs, employers are compelled, perhaps even more than in the agricultural sector, to rely on referrals, as it is difficult to assess the workers’ interpersonal skills and dispositions.

38The screening and pre-selection of new workers is further facilitated by the fact that workers, employers, and their respective contacts constitute relatively sealed networks. For example, an Indian worker was fired, according to the employer, because the person was not willing to work with cows. In order to find a substitute, interestingly, the employer turned to the Indian community, even when she associated the reluctance of her former employee to work with cows with his ethnicity. This is partly explained by the fact that turning to a different community implies the pre-existence of contacts or social ties with the members of that community, which the employer in my example may not have had. The employer in question entrusted an Indian worker with the task of screening, within his own community, the candidates capable of satisfying the requirements for the vacant post. To hire migrant workers “I rely on my intuition, and of course on them [workers]; they know each other better”, she argues (Interview C.11.5.09).

39Besides pre-screening, employers delegate other responsibilities to migrant workers, such as the provision of on-the-job training to new recruits; especially when language or social aspects (including gender) impose actual or perceived communication barriers with workers. A female employer who has recruited three male workers admitted that she felt that her role as an authority and a woman made workers uncomfortable. She delegates, therefore, candidate screening and on-the-job training responsibilities to the senior workers (Interview R.23.8.11).

40Enforceable trust makes more effective the screening and on-the-job-training apparatus (Sassen 1995). Although strong ties not always justify referrals, it is unlikely that employees recommend just anyone. Self-interest and prestige may intervene in migrant workers’ screening processes:

Question: If a friend of yours wanted to come and do the same job that you do, what would be your advice?

Employee: First of all, it must be someone whom I trust enough to bring her here; I must trust her… it must be someone that I can vouch for. (Interview G.4.1.11)

Question: What would be your advice for a person who wants to come here and do the same job than you do?

Employee: In my town I know few people I trust, like to bring them here, or to recommend them to my employer. Whenever I had to return, for example, I called my daughter, because I know my daughter is good, she does it with her heart… (Interview R.21.12.10)

41In short, network-mediated procedures allow employers to get information on candidates, and to reduce the cost of advertising vacancies, with a potential guarantee of satisfaction. Network-mediated recruitment is likely to reduce the uncertainties inherent in engaging in a new employment relationship for workers as well, especially for care workers. In domestic service, subjectivity plays a major role (perhaps more than in agriculture) in the assessment of potential employers and job descriptions. The probability of finding a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ employer is equally high. Indeed, care workers tend to recommend one another what are perceived as good jobs. Ludwika, for example, was encouraged by a friend of hers who assured her that “all the families are good in Ragusa”, even if Ludwika did not speak Italian fluently and was scared, she argues, she decided to venture out. “I’m not scared, not anymore; these Italians are good, the families, the job…” she says (Interview M.4.1.11).

42The former shows how imperfect information, based on the judgments of trusted sources, shapes migration decisions and effectively reduces the anxieties associated with the new employment relationship. The actual appraisal of employers comes at a later stage:

My sister told me ‘come, it’s not like you think, you had a bad experience in the north, but here’s different’. She told me that she had already met my employer and his family; she said they were good people… she insisted: ‘first come and see by yourself… if you don’t like it or if it’s not good enough for you, then you go back home, basta, no one can oblige you to stay’. When I arrived they asked me how long I wanted to stay, I said ‘I don’t know’. First we need to see how we find with each other… and then three, four, five months, one year passed. It’s been three years since I’m here. (Interview V.3.1.11)

43Besides channeling information and reducing uncertainty, networks act as normative structures, sometimes to the advantage of employers. They impose obligations to their members that influence the outcomes of their mediation. Enforceable trust, for example, may compel the members of a household, a network or a migrant group to take jobs that are not necessarily attractive, or to maintain an employment relationship, sometimes jeopardizing their opportunities for upward mobility, as in the case of Samia. Samia is a part-time cleaner. She lives in the countryside, in a house that belongs to her father’s employer. She would have preferred to live in the city. She is an IT expert, but has never sought for job opportunities outside domestic service or, for that matter, another employer in the sector. She is deeply grateful to her father’s employer who applied for her work permit, and has let her live in a house of his property. She has not envisaged quitting her job and affirms that her employer is good; they have never had an argument. Samia’s obligations towards her father and the father’s employer have led her to remain in the domestic sector despite her qualifications.

44Another outcome of network-mediated recruitment refers to the fact that vacancies are taken out of the market, eliminating potential competition among workers from different networks. Outsiders to each particular employer-worker network are effectively excluded from circles of trust and referral systems. Waldinger (1997, 2003) describes this as “social closure”. He applies the concept specifically to the analysis of the functioning of ethnic migrant networks, which can be extended to other social groups. He argues that migrant networks not only put pressure on employers to hire persons from a limited pool of candidates, but they can also act as filters of candidates of diverse ethnic origins. Although a different kind of study with a specific focus on hiring networks would be needed to yield further evidence as far as the situation in Ragusa is concerned, there are indications that employers and workers of specific migrant groups constitute relatively sealed hiring networks in both eldercare and agriculture. The following interview quotes illustrate this point:

Employer: When she went back to Romania, she recommended three substitutes, all of them Romanian [mentions the names]. They all came thanks to Daciana…. they are all Romanian because it’s her who put me in touch with these persons. Also because it’s difficult to hire people who have not been recommended … (Interview N.26.8.11)

Employer: We trust in people we know... they are perhaps relatives or friends of the workers who are already employed here… Why do we trust them? Because a worker who is here can give indications to the others about the firm… the person [new recruit] needs to understand where he’s going to arrive… I’m talking about my firm, I don’t know about the rest… In fact, I have never hired a Romanian; I have never had other workers than Tunisians. In my firm there are only and exclusively Tunisians… (Interview F.26.8.11)

45These examples further show that ethnicity is often essentialized, and that it may influence employers’ preferences. Employer’s preferences are not always based on direct or prior experiences or contacts with specific groups, but may be a by-product of the closed circles of trust they constitute with workers.

46Overall, network mediation has the potential to reduce the costs and uncertainties related to the recruitment process (both material and non-material), offering information, pre-screening and training of candidates, and reducing competition among candidates from different migrant groups, which is seemingly a side-effect of the closure (and solidarity) of the employer-worker networks. On this basis, network-mediated recruitment ties to migration management technology of governing migrant labor and its optimization at the micro-level, with some advantages for employers. In what follows, other kinds of network-mediated recruitment are discussed.

The two sides of network-mediated recruitment: solidarity vs profit

47Migration is selective. It is facilitated by the accumulation of various resources: financial, social, informational, and cultural, which can be accessed through membership in social networks. While early studies on migrant networks emphasized cohesion, affective ties and solidarity as key characteristics of migrant communities (Choldin 1973, Massey et al. 1993), it is now recognized that power relations affect social networks and that the distribution of resources among the members of a network can result both from altruism and self-interest. Networks impose obligations to their members. As Portes notes, the “[r]esources acquired through social capital often carry the expectation of reciprocity at some point in the future” (1995: 12), although the conditions, the nature (material and non-material rewards) and timeline of repayment may not be strictly fixed. My data suggest that in Ragusa the two sides of social capital, solidarity and self-interest co-exist within migrant networks. An example of the intersection of solidarity and economic concerns was provided by an employer:

When they arrive in Italy, migrants are hosted by a relative, a colleague, a friend, a co-national. What can the host offer? ‘Listen, I’ll check with my boss, perhaps he needs more help, and he may hire you’, or ‘you can stay here for a week, I’ll make some calls…, let’s see if we can find you a job’. Once this chapter is over, if the migrant has not managed to find a job… he leaves Ragusa and moves north… For the host, housing a newcomer represents a costHe must support himself and the other; the host logically thinks ‘if I make thirty euros a day and I spend ten for food, it’s okay for four days, a week, not twenty days!’ (Interview L.11.5.09)

48This is not to say that genuine solidarity does not exist, but it seems to manifest under specific circumstances. Although, the employer cited below essentializes social capital as if it was a fixed property of certain communities or groups, the example illustrates how solidarity functions within some networks:

Employer: They are well organized… In Terracina there’s a small tribe [laughs], a community. They all know each other; whenever they need anything they rely on one another. Last month, this worker had a small accident. He fell and got injured. Within two hours, the entire community had learned the news …e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e called him, all his friends…

Question: So they are friends, not relatives?

Employer: Most of them are friends, not family. They really have a strong sense of solidarity; even if they don’t know each other they help one another. This is typical of them [Indians]. (Interview R.23.811)

49It is important to emphasize the distinction that Coleman (1988) and Portes (1995) drew between what social capital is, and what it does. Social capital is a function of social structures that enables individuals to realize their interests. Its utilization depends upon the capacity of individuals to access certain resources as members of those social structures. This capacity is constrained by the characteristics of the networks themselves, and by the individuals’ position within them, as it affects the degree of access to, and control over the resources of the network.

  • 5 Building on structuration theory, Goss and Lindquist define an international migration institution (...)

50The assumption that relations within migration networks are symmetrical has been increasingly scrutinized (Krissman 2005, Elrick and Lewandowska 2008). Institutional approaches to international migration not only admit that migrant networks are embedded in power relations (Goss and Lindquist 1995), but also extend the concept of network to that of migrant institutions5 to account for the different actors, rules and structures organizing labor migration (e.g. employers, private recruitment agencies, illegal employment brokers). Viewed thus, migration appears as the product of the strategic actions of knowledgeable individuals within the migrant institution. From such a perspective, one may admit that self-interest can underlie the practices of agents operating at different levels (i.e. from the provision of services by smugglers, to donor schemes for migration-related initiatives).

51A good example of the participation of self-interested agents in recruitment processes in southern Italy’s agricultural sector is the so-called caporalato (see also Reyneri 1998, Mingione and Quassoli 2000). This system involves the control and distribution of (mostly irregular) jobs by informal recruiters, who may be Italian citizens or migrant workers themselves. The recruitment of Indian farm workers in Ragusa is sometimes mediated by such a kind of organization. Questioned about the channels through which he found his current job in Ragusa, a worker explained that he was first sent to Latina (near Rome), where there is a large Indian community. He then called a friend, who in turn referred him to “the guy in charge” to be transferred to Ragusa (Interview M.14.5.09). Another worker explained he was “told to come to this place” by a “friend who is always helping us” (Interview F.11.5.09). An employer provided further details about how the system operates:

They all know each other; there’s a guy, a friend that places everyone by turns. He’s like the boss of the zone, the one who rotates them…


Do you know what the caporalato is? There’s this guy in [name of town], the caporale… he offers accommodation, and food… No; maybe only accommodation. Each guy [worker] gives him five euros per working day; he’s Indian… In fact, four years ago there were lots of workers who circulated through that house, they arrived in large numbers every week… […]

If they come here is because a friend has sent them to this place; then there’s the focal point of the zone, I don’t know whether to call him caporale. Anyways, there’s someone in charge, who manages irregular workers… because… no one had a passport when they got here, no one. Someone gets a monthly fraction... In my opinion it’s like this, because it’s strange that nobody has a passport, either they ‘lost’ it or they ‘left’ it with a friend… Is it possible that it happens to everyone? It can happen to one or two, but everyone? […] It’s not that they leave the passport, but their passports are confiscated… (Interview S.14.5.09)

52As Krissman notes, recruiters are just one among many actors who can make profit from migrants (2005: 21). In fact, it is not uncommon that family members, friends or acquaintances that act as recruitment intermediaries charge migrant workers for their services. There are various kinds of financial transactions associated with recruitment mediation that assimilate the later to a ‘migration industry’. Building on Mahler’s (1995) insights, in her study of Filipina domestic workers in Rome, Salazar Parreñas (2001) found that their segregation from the mainstream society intensified a desire to accelerate the accumulation of savings, and put pressure on them to produce surplus income. However, their segregation confined the sources of profit to the community. In a similar vein, some migrant workers in Ragusa may generate surplus income turning their fellow co-nationals into sources of profit, by commodifying services, or favors including recruitment mediation. ‘Taxation’ for the provision of certain brokerage services is a common practice among family members. A male worker explained he had to pay a ‘tax’ to his relatives back in India, who had pooled money (12,000 euros) to “send him to Italy” (Interview K.27.12.10).

53That relatives pool resources to help a member of the household accomplish a migration project is not new. What is interesting is that those practices are often assimilated to gifts, and that repayment is not generally assumed to take the form of a financial compensation. It may also involve non-material rewards such as recognition or other favors. The above example, instead, emphasizes the commercial nature of some forms of reciprocity. There are indications that family taxation is also a common practice among other migrant communities of the Indian subcontinent in Italy. Pathirage and Collyer (2011) found that migrants who act as sponsors in Italy may sell visas to their relatives. They offer the example of a young Sri Lankan who paid his uncle a considerable sum for undertaking the bureaucratic procedures to obtain a visa for him.

54Some care workers also reported commercial transactions associated with migration and recruitment. Tatiana, for example, came to Ragusa in 2005, ‘brought by a friend’. Her friend looked after an old lady until her husband found a job in the greenhouses and they had to move to the countryside. Tatiana took the woman’s job. “Clearly, I had to pay for the post, you had to pay”, she explains using a sarcastic tone: “if you want a job as a caregiver, you have to reimburse the one that gets you the job; that's how it works”. When I asked whether there were standardized fees associated with job referrals, Tatiana and her husband explained: “it depends on how much the person that you will replace asks for”. Tatiana paid 200 euros, but she knew people who paid up to 500 euros, depending on the “length of employment and the length of stay, which can go up to five or six months, or a year…” Other people, they told me, paid “on a daily basis, 50 euros, 100 euros, or according to one’s income”. Other care workers reported similar monetary transactions in order to secure a job and accommodation upon arrival in Ragusa. These practices, according to the press, are found also in Romanian-run civil society and faith-based organizations (Brunetto 2010).

55No Polish respondent reported to have paid for her post. Nevertheless, I met a woman who acted as a focal point, and who offers accommodation and rotates jobs, as she claims, among her newly arrived co-nationals. “Her system”, as she puts it, is the following: “When there is a vacancy a Polish woman calls me: ‘Listen, I want to go there.’ Then they wait; I tell them: ‘No, no, wait one more week’. That’s my system.” I interviewed her first at her employers’ place, and she invited me to meet her later on in her own flat. She is a live-in worker, so she does not actually reside in that apartment; she houses newcomers there. The apartment is small but has three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom that her “tenants” share.

56Reciprocity can take multiple forms besides monetary compensation. When reciprocity expectations (material or non-material) are not met, defaulters may be sanctioned (through criticism, gossip, etc.) or shunned. Moreover, the commodification of favors that are expected to be provided free of cost, out of solidarity within the network, or situations that are perceived as abusive (e.g. charging high fees, or failing to return a favor) can engender contradictory feelings and thorny friendships. Indeed, I could perceive a sense of alienation when respondents described how they were increasingly cautious when engaging in any kind of relationship with their co-nationals. An Indian worker who had been a victim of a scam initiated by a ‘friend’ who promised him a job, contradicted himself when he was explaining how he met this person who, in the end, turned out not to be his friend. Later in the conversation, he acknowledged the fact that he was lonely, or at least felt that way:

Employee: I met my friend in Terracina.

Question: Your friend, the one who got you the job?

Employee: No; no friend, cosí, cosí friend [more or less friend].

Question: Do you have other friends here?

Employee: In Ragusa? No, not any friends. […] [In] Ragusa [I have] no friends, not anybody, no family members… me, I[‘m] alone… no new friends. (Interview A.23.8.11)

57Other workers said they were reluctant to establish strong ties with the members of their respective communities. Many care workers prefer to spend their free afternoons alone. It was not uncommon to hear, from my interlocutors, that people “make trouble”, they “talk behind your back”, “they talk too much”, “they’re bad”, “they are jealous", or “they gossip about the families: ‘Have you seen what your Madame has done?’, ‘the other did this, the other did that…” Farm workers seem to share these views, one worker claimed he “never hang out with my fellow countrymen” because he had had “many bad experiences… When you give them a hand… they are not grateful”, he argued. (Interview A.12.5.09)

58Overall, while developing friendships and maintaining social ties with the larger community of co-nationals is desirable (e.g. to have access to information), weak ties seem to be preferred over strong ties. Mirroring the findings of Salazar Parreñas (2001) concerning the experience of Filipina domestic workers in Rome, my data suggest that in Ragusa, the commodification of favors generates a sense of alienation, regardless of the composition, density, or strength of the social ties that bind network members together. The former points to the importance of uncovering the different facets of the mobilization of social capital in the study of migrants’ labor market incorporation.

Chapter conclusion: Social capital and labor market segmentation

59Social networks and the mobilization of social capital play an important role in migrants’ incorporation into the Ragusan labor market. Besides perpetuating labor migration flows to Ragusa, networks play a key role in recruitment mediation and influence migrants’ labor market outcomes by shaping their job search paths (through a system of recommendations and rotation), and providing job seekers with place-based-knowledge. In so doing, they influence migration decisions, as well as migrants’ assessment of the vacant posts in the receiving area.

60Evidence from Ragusa also confirms that networks shape migrants’ labor market outcomes, effectively channeling them to specific, gendered positions (eldercare female-dominated and farm male-dominated jobs). However, the links between the composition of women’s and men’s networks and their gendered labor market outcomes are less obvious. Sassen argues that women’s networks tend to involve more relatives than co-workers (1995: 103) and that this explains some of the disadvantages women face (e.g. lower wages) as a result of network-mediated recruitment. My data are insufficient to advance a conclusion in this regard, which points to a potential area for future research. Employers’ hiring decisions, instead, do contribute to the reproduction of the sexual division of labor in Ragusa (see Chapter 4).

61Overall, network-mediated recruitment demonstrates that economic transactions, such as the establishment of an employment relationship, are embedded in social structures. Trust and expectations are the two factors that underlie the operation of the systems of referrals and rotation that enable migrant workers to secure a job before or upon arrival in Ragusa. The former questions the assumption that labor demand and supply meet freely in the labor market. Network-mediated recruitment reduces competition among candidates for specific jobs, by taking job vacancies out of the market, and effectively excluding outsiders from recruitment processes managed by relatively sealed networks of employers and migrant workers from specific groups.

62Additionally, some shared outcomes of network-mediated recruitment for care and farm migrant workers, include the fact that rotation systems mobilize migrants (and non-migrants) both in Italy and in distant countries, confirming that care and farm workers currently employed in Ragusa tend to move within local, yet trans-territorial, labor markets. Rotation creates opportunities to detach temporarily from the receiving context. Consequently, rotation may enable migrants to build resilience towards hard working conditions over long, but discontinued periods of time. This can be said to contribute to the continuous replenishment of migrant labor stocks in agriculture and domestic service and to its optimization.

63Also, migration decisions and job assessments often take place within a context of imperfect information (or rather, place-based-knowledge). Place-based-knowledge reduces the range of jobs available to migrants, resulting in their clustering in specific low-wage, low-status occupations. Ironically, migrants’ accumulation goals may influence the breadth of information they have access to (e.g. limited to income regardless of job descriptions, the characteristics of the workplace, and so on), and on which they base their migration and employment decisions.

64Moreover, network-mediated recruitment functions thanks to the trust built-in employer-worker relationships, as well as in the relationships employers and migrant workers maintain with their respective contacts. Network-mediated recruitment has thus the potential to reduce the uncertainties inherent in the commencement of a new employment relationship for employers and workers. Mutual expectations can have a similar effect than trust in reducing the anxieties and reservations employers and workers may have prior to establishing an employment relationship.

65Finally, migrant networks are embedded in power relations that enable and constrain migrant workers’ ability to mobilize social capital depending on their position. Also, solidarity or altruism, and self-interest or accumulation goals co-exist and manifest, for example in the many forms that reciprocity can take within the networks. Leveraging on social capital for recruitment purposes may have different implications for migrant workers. For instance, the commodification of services or favors may be perceived by underprivileged network members as unacceptable. This can engender a sense of alienation and lead to the strengthening of weak ties within different migrant communities.

66I conclude from these insights that network-mediated recruitment favors, perhaps inadvertently, the emergence of a self-recruiting, self-training and self-disciplining (by means of enforceable trust) migrant labor supply. Such an optimization of recruitment and of migrant labor seems to be consistent with neoliberalism as a technology of governing migration, or with the migration management approach. I do not wish to imply, however, that employers and migrant workers are fully subjected to these techniques. As knowledgeable agents they may reproduce or contest optimization processes as discussed in the following.


1 The role of networks both in perpetuating migration flows, and shaping migrants’ incorporation within host societies has been extensively discussed in migration literature since the early 1980s. Migrant networks influence the structure, composition and direction of migration flows and migrants’ incorporation in receiving contexts, including by mediating recruitment through the provision of information and shaping newcomers’ job search paths (Gurak and Caces 1992, Massey et al. 1993, Castles and Miller 2009, Goss and Lindquist 1995, Faist 1997, Sassen 1995).

2 Bourdieu defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group” (1986: 248). Coleman (1988) believes that social capital is an important resource of social structures that enables actors to achieve their interests. Portes concurs that social capital is “the capacity of individuals to command scarce resources by virtue of their membership in networks or broader social structures” (1995: 12).

3 Rational choice theory pays special attention to the risk-taking attitude of individuals. Its basic premise is that when a person can choose between at least two courses of action, she is likely to favor the one for which perceived gains are greater (Appelrouth and Edles 2012, chapter 11, Exchange and rational choice theories, James S. Coleman, pp. 444-452).

4 I use the word circles to emphasize the fact that employers and workers (of specific nationality and gender) tend to form relatively sealed networks.

5 Building on structuration theory, Goss and Lindquist define an international migration institution as “a relatively permanent feature of social life that results from the regularization of social interaction for the purposes of overseas employment and which in turn regulates interaction and structures access to overseas employment through the operation of institutional rules and resources. It is usually a complex institution consisting of knowledgeable individuals and the agents of organizations (from migrant associations to multinational corporations [MNCs]) and other institutions (from kinship to the state).” (1995: 336)


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