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Migration Management?

Sandra Paola Alvarez Tinajero


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1In 2010, in Ragusa (Italy), I met Urszula, a 59-year-old Polish woman who looks after an elderly married couple. It was Rita, a friend of her employer, who introduced us. During our first chat, Rita praised Urszula's friendship with her employers and added: “You’re lucky to work in this family”. But Urszula was quick to retort: “They are the ones who are lucky!” This incident gave me food for thought. I wondered why Urszula, who was already retired and received a pension in her country of origin, came to Ragusa in the first place. Indeed, her sister-in-law, who had worked in Ragusa before, had found her a job there. Feeling lonely and frustrated because she liked to work, Urszula said, she decided to venture out.

2So did Rajesh, a 27-year-old Indian national employed in a cattle farm. Rajesh took a plane from New Delhi to Moscow, then hitch-hiked all the way down to Slovakia and from there to Italy. He travelled for near to eight months. Rajesh was an IT specialist. He had no prior experience working with animals; but he insisted that his pay was good and that his coming to Ragusa had been worth it.

  • 1 In a recent paper, Glick Schiller conceptualizes neoliberalism as “a series of contemporary project (...)

3In Ragusa, I encountered many other migrant workers. I was curious to know why they had chosen Sicily rather than Milan or Rome. Ragusa is a pretty town with some beautiful late Baroque architecture. But it was not its tourist attractions that had brought Urszula and Rajesh there. In fact, I was intrigued about the two faces that Ragusa presents to its foreign visitors, that of an idyllic enclave rich in cultural attractions, Michelin-starred restaurants and all kinds of facilities that ensure a pleasant stay, but also that of rustic surroundings dominated by greenhouses and cattle farms that employ migrants, as do many individual households who have the care of their elderly family members. These two faces of Ragusa, and of many localities of the so-called “global South”, are shaped by processes of neoliberal restructuring.1

4Migration is one among the various processes that shape local contexts as well as people's lives, whether they are mobile or not. In present-day Ragusa, one encounters Indian, Polish, Romanian and Tunisian nationals, to name but a few. Many are employed in agriculture and domestic service. The presence of migrant workers has enabled farmers to maintain their small businesses afloat in an environment of economic liberalization and harsh competition, and allowed native-born Ragusan elderly to enjoy personalized assistance services provided in their own homes.

5This shows the truly global nature of the labor markets where farm and domestic workers seek better opportunities, and employers seek flexible labor power. Indeed, today there are many “lucky” employers, as Urszula might say, of farm and domestic workers in Italy. One in ten Italian families has become badante-dipendente or “care worker-dependent”; (La Repubblica 2009). Likewise, recognizing the importance of foreign labor in the dairy industry of the Po Valley, in the north of Italy, a newspaper recently announced: “Without the Indians, say goodbye to Grana Padano”. The Mayor of the municipality of Pessina Cremonese that hosts many Indian workers told The New York Times: “They saved an economy that would have gone to the dogs because young people didn’t want to work with cows” (Povoledo 2011, see also Al. S. 2011).

6Despite their crucial functions, care work and farming represent two of the lowest-ranked occupations in the global division of labor. Conversely, Urszula’s assertiveness tells us that migrant workers are agents who craft their own destinies. Migration allows some people to participate actively in the redistribution of global wealth. This is not to say that all benefit equally from the accumulation of capital. Migrant workers such as Urszula and Rajesh occupy multiple and even contradictory positions that become manifest when one looks deeper into their local social standing in the workplace, and the interpersonal relations they create in specific contexts. For receiving states, they might represent a tool to overcome labor shortages in specific sectors; for the countries of origin they may embody a source of hard currency that helps ensure macroeconomic stability; for employers they may be more than “just workers”, and become allies, friends, and even akin to family members… Domestic and agricultural migrant workers themselves may be compelled to find ways to conciliate their self-improvement projects and the low-status positions that are ascribed to them in the context of reception. Migrant workers’ different positions cannot be analyzed solely by reference to the historical, political, social and cultural factors that structure labor migration flows today. It is equally important to look at migrant agency. This research is an attempt to connect the structural, institutional and interpersonal dimensions of migration through the specific case of Ragusa. The rationale behind this approach is that while one cannot disregard the structural forces that underlie international migrations, it is nevertheless impossible to understand the latter without analyzing the intermediate institutions that shape migration processes and migrants’ lives, as well as migrants’ practices, positions and discourse.

7This book takes the reader to a journey into the lives of migrant workers employed in cattle farms and eldercare and their employers in Ragusa. It is concerned with uncovering the factors that determine the shared conditions of contemporary migrant farm and domestic workers as low-wage laborers, and how these workers and their employers navigate, manipulate or affect those larger structures.

Why Ragusa?

8Formerly a migrant-sending area, Ragusa now hosts migrants hailing from many different countries. I view this transition as an interesting point of departure to analyze contemporary labor migration through a ‘development lens’. Ragusa offers a case to question the North-South development divide as a former reservoir of cheap labor of the global North (e.g. North America, northern Europe or northern Italy), now fully integrated into the world economy. In other words, although some may consider Ragusa as something of a backwater in rural southern Italy that once supplied cheap labor, it now welcomes migrant workers to meet its structural needs, similar to the cities in Italy's “developed North”, integrating them in a unique migration and production system. Along these lines, the relevance of Ragusa as a research site is not directly related to the fact that it could be representative of other migration realities in southern Europe, but to the fact that its recent migration patterns present an academic interest and may challenge traditional assumptions within the field of development studies. Ragusa offers an interesting example of how international labor migration has become a structural feature of not so affluent, and not so global cities (Sassen 1991) within the “developed north”.

9The case of Ragusa has also policy relevance in view of the renewed interest of Western European governments, or rather, their ‘rediscovering’ of the idea of “managed migration” (Menz and Caviedes 2010: 2), which touches upon economic and security concerns, including the optimization foreign labor flows for the satisfaction of the structural needs of their post-industrial and growing service economies. This study explores the articulation of market principles and contemporary migration management concerns. Indeed, comparing the experiences of domestic and agricultural migrant works allows me to address the main question underlying my study: what do the parallel experiences of domestic and agricultural migrant workers imply about labor migration management under the current processes of neoliberal restructuring?

10Ragusa is particularly well placed to answer this question as it has witnessed structural changes that provide a specific context for international migration inflows. It provides a case for the study of the interaction between the market principles that underlie labor migration management practices, as well as the study of the social and human dimensions of migration that shape and even question those same principles in migrants and employers’ everyday lives. These human dimensions bring a refreshing perspective from which to study international labor migration in the context of neoliberal restructuring. Ragusa allowed me to explore and compare the conditions, positions and experiences of two low-status migrant workers and their employers, and inquire into how they affect and are affected by market-oriented migration management principles in a concrete context of reception.

What: ‘emblematic figures of migration’ as units of analysis

  • 2 I use the term “global” instead of “international” to highlight the contemporary complexities of th (...)
  • 3 According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), “Decent work” involves fair income, secur (...)

11Male and female migrants who produce our food, clean our homes, and look after our loved ones represent the prototype of lowest-ranked occupations in the global division of labor.2 I explore the experiences of these migrant workers, whom I regard as “emblematic figures of migration”, insofar as mobility is likely to characterize these jobs. In post-industrial societies facing labor shortages in these two sectors, workers are often “imported” and incorporated in the specific places (e.g. homes and farms) where their labor power is required. Despite the illusion of modernity (Appadurai 1996), these two low-status occupations cannot be eliminated and often contradict the aspirations of “decent work”3. Their labor is a source of economic growth and for the maintenance of certain welfare patterns of affluent, and not so affluent societies, such as Ragusa.

Farm workers

  • 4 For a recent account of labor migration in domestic service, horticulture and prostitution in Paler (...)
  • 5 For an account of migrant workers incorporated in the informal economy in the south of Italy see Mi (...)
  • 6 According to the first definition provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary zootechny is “the scie (...)

12Seasonal migrant labor is a structural feature of Southern European agriculture (Reyneri 2001). However, Ragusa remains relatively unexplored.4 Studies on labor migration in southern Italy typically document the experiences of migrants in greenhouse cultivation, fruit and vegetable harvesting.5 The zootechnical branch has been little explored, except for a few studies on the cattle industry in northern Italy (see Reyneri 1998, 2001). Although Ragusa is well-known for its horticulture industry, most male workers I interviewed are employed in cattle farms active in the milk, dairy and meat industries. I focus on the experiences of male migrant workers, whose main tasks relate to animal husbandry or zootechny.6 Nevertheless, at the peak periods of the sowing or harvesting seasons, farm workers are drawn into typical agricultural tasks. Therefore, we could also think of them more generally as “agricultural” workers (in Italian bracciante agricolo). Most farm workers in my study follow a similar routine. They get up early in the morning, milk cows twice a day, clean out the cattle sheds, feed and graze the animals. After a regular ten-hour (sometimes longer) working day, few have energy left to socialize and prefer to stay at home and go to sleep. Zootechny, as practiced today in Ragusa, entails a 365-day working calendar. It requires a labor force capable of enduring particular conditions of work over relatively long periods of time. Most interviewees hold annual fixed-term contracts and live within the farms, in facilities specifically built to lodge foreign workers.

  • 7 According to the United Nations Population Division, in 2010 the total rural population worldwide w (...)

13Agriculture lies at the heart of our subsistence; livestock contributes to the livelihoods of approximately 70 percent of the world’s rural poor.7 In Europe, the dairy sector is an important component of contemporary agriculture. The total EU expenditure for the milk sector for 2008-2011 is estimated at €3,500 million. Despite the national and regional variations of size and importance of the dairy sector in Europe, the milk processing industry employs 400,000 people (Jongeneel et al. 2011); independently of undeclared migrant workers. Since 2003, the European Union (EU) has adopted market-oriented policies (e.g. replacing price support with direct income payments) to promote a more competitive agriculture. Hiring foreign labor is one strategy deployed by Ragusan farmers to remain competitive in global open markets. Interestingly, few scholars dare to delve (again) into the all too well-known hard conditions of work faced by agricultural migrant workers (for recent accounts see Holmes 2007, Maldonado 2009). Yet, agriculture is a prototypical low-status occupation linked to international migration ever since the birth of global capitalism from slave trade, to indentured labor in plantations, to guest worker programs, to more recent circular, temporary and seasonal recruitment schemes. Agricultural (migrant) labor, thus, continues to be relevant in the midst of technological progress because it cannot be outsourced to low-wage countries; this is also the case with domestic labor.

Domestic workers

  • 8 Domestic labor entails such tasks as washing, cleaning, sweeping, mopping, tidying, cooking, launde (...)
  • 9 Some authors argue that domestic workers’ social mobility is limited and at best horizontal: from l (...)

14Convention N°189 (C189), or Domestic Workers Convention, defines domestic work as “(a) […] work performed in or for a household or households”; and domestic workers as “(b) […] any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship” (ILO, C189, Art. 1). These definitions highlight the private nature of paid domestic work, confined to the intimate sphere of household. Nevertheless, domestic work is highly heterogeneous in terms of the tasks performed, the employment arrangements and the modalities of service provision.8 This heterogeneity has different implications for workers’ upward mobility opportunities within and outside the sector.9

  • 10 Generally speaking, the fact that the employment relationship is often established between two wome (...)
  • 11 As Mundlak and Shamir note (2008, footnote 1, p. 161), there is a debate about the definition of “c (...)

15All domestic workers with whom I engaged with for my research in Ragusa are women. Indeed, the domestic service sector is highly feminized10. The majority are live-in workers, who look after the elderly. I focus, therefore, on the experiences of female migrant workers who provide home-based (live-in), paid eldercare.11 However, the difference between “care” and other “domestic work” is sometimes hard to establish. Eldercare implies long hours of work; a feature shared with agricultural jobs. In addition, it is embedded in commercial, yet often personalized employment relationships, and it is very often viewed by workers as a temporary condition. Domestic work is also a globalized occupation, qualified as a global industry by some authors (Anderfuhren 2002, Anderson 2000, Destremau and Lautier 2002, Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001, Lutz 2008 and 2011, Salazar Parreñas 2001).

16In contrast with the declining interest in agriculture, studies on domestic labor have gained increasing importance since the 1980s (Chaney et al. 1989, Rollins 1985, Young 1987). Domestic service constitutes a hot topic of migration. This is in part owing to the inherent links between gender, class, migration, ethnic origin, and (economic and social) development as epitomized, for example, in the constitution of hierarchical global care chains by “global women” (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2002).

17Domestic work is frequently analyzed through the concept of “regimes”: gender regimes, in which the organization of domestic work is linked to the social construction of gender; care regimes, which look at the distribution of welfare responsibilities between the state, the family and the market; and migration regimes, which support the employment of migrant domestic workers (Lutz 2008: 2). Domestic labor has also acquired international political salience, as suggested by the adoption of ILO Convention N°189, and Recommendation 201 concerning domestic workers of 16 June 2011.

  • 12 Anthropologist Jeffrey Cole and education consultant Sally S. Booth have recently published a descr (...)

18My study differs from the few other studies that have focused on labor migration in general, and in the province of Ragusa12 in particular, in that it attempts a systematic comparison of domestic and agricultural labor migration, in a specific context of reception. There are indeed inherent difficulties in comparing apples with pears. However, an in-depth analysis of my data allowed me to identify shared processes and similarities of the situation of farm and care migrant workers that transcend the gender, ethnic or occupational realms.

A comparative approach

19Why compare migrant farm workers to domestic workers? At first glance, it would appear that they do not share much in common, given their different backgrounds and types of employment. To my own surprise, and after having observed and spoken to migrant workers active in such diverse sectors as farming and domestic service, I have come to the conclusion that they share much more than the condition of low-wage workers in the global division of labor. They share similar processes of incorporation into the receiving labor market; they face similar conditions as live-in workers; and they maintain comparable employment relations and social positions in the receiving society.

20The conflation of the home and workplace is one of the most salient features of both farm and domestic (live-in) work in Ragusa. It is precisely this situation that made me aware of the personal intimacy that characterizes the employment relationships of agricultural and domestic migrant workers, clashing with modern notions of contractual employment. This stimulated my interest in adopting a comparative approach to the examination of farm and domestic migrant labor, two gendered occupations often studied separately. When I started my fieldwork in Ragusa, the gender and occupational differences between female domestic workers and male agricultural workers, more than obvious, felt difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, as I conducted more and more interviews in the intimate sphere of the homes of employers and workers, which in most cases happened to be their workplaces too, those boundaries I initially conceived of as rigid, seemed more elastic. The former also underlies my decision to avoid comparing different migration streams or migrant communities represented in Ragusa, and thus to contribute to migration theory by de-ethnicizing the study of the migrants’ incorporation in contexts of reception (see Wimmer 2007). These are, indeed, the innovative aspects of this research.

21By identifying these similarities, I do not imply that (mostly) male farm workers and female domestic workers interviewed in Ragusa follow analogous migration paths, or that their lives are unaffected by specific social, economic, political, or cultural factors. It is my contention that in drawing on the similarities of their experiences, one gains a better understanding of the complexities of contemporary labor migration, from the structuration of labor migration flows to the constitution of migrant workers as subjects of current neoliberal restructuring.

22I articulate in this study the structural, institutional and subject levels of analysis. I start by situating the parallel experiences of migrant farm and eldercare workers in the macro-structural context and processes that affect labor migration inflows to Ragusa today (Chapter 1). I then focus on farm and eldercare workers’ similar processes of incorporation into the receiving labor market, and the institutional structures that influence this process, including migrant workers’ and their employers’ relation with the receiving state (Chapter 2) and the role of social networks in recruitment (Chapter 3). Finally, I focus on the processes of identity construction and subject-making at interpersonal level; that is, how migrant workers’ social positions are defined, negotiated and contested in their daily interpersonal relations with employers (Chapter 4 and Chapter 5). The productive and reproductive functions of these workers, the common live-in condition, and personalized employment relationships serve as points for comparison of two seemingly different units of analysis. In what follows I briefly outline the theoretical framework and the methodology that allowed me to navigate the three levels of analysis outlined above.

How: overview of theories and methods

  • 13 The study of migration requires an interdisciplinary approach (Brettell and Hollifield 2008; Portes (...)

23In crafting the articulation of different levels of analysis I have built on pioneer migration theories, and on the insights of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and globalization scholars to reexamine the experiences of low-wage contemporary migrant workers. In drawing a comparison between the experiences of farm and domestic migrant workers I have not hesitated to take concepts elaborated in a particular context (e.g. in the analysis of domestic labor), and apply them to different situations (e.g. in the study of employment relationships in agriculture). Indeed, many migration scholars recognize the importance of “talking across disciplines” (Brettell and Hollifield 2008)13, support more integrated multilevel, multidisciplinary research (Favell 2008), and claim that to understand local processes one must also look at global dynamics (Kearney 1995, 2004). By drawing on relevant theoretical insights from several disciplines and linking these to the concrete experiences and practices of migrant workers and their employers, revealed through primary, qualitative research conducted in Ragusa (2008-2011), I contribute to migration scholarship through a localized perspective. My special hope is that my study offers insights towards a deeper understanding of the relationships between migration and the neoliberal restructuring of space, self, and society (Glick Schiller 2009: 5), in an effort to ground migration in a “global power framework”.

Explaining labor migration flows

24The structural level of analysis relies on two influential migration theories: dual labor market, and migration systems. Historical-structural approaches shed light on how Ragusa’s structural needs underpin the demand for foreign labor, and what linkages exist with the regions of origin of migrant agricultural and care workers.

  • 14 Dual labor market is based on economic dualism, reflected in the polarization of the labor market. (...)

25Dual labor market approach combines the analysis of economic and social dimensions of migration14. From this perspective, it is the attributes of the jobs performed by (and available to) migrants, and the meaning attached to those attributes in the social context in which work is performed” (Piore 1979: 8, emphasis added) that explain: a) that labor migration can be demand driven, initiated by active recruitment on the part of the employers (be it individuals, recruitment agencies, public or private entities, etc.), and b) how labor migration allows filling specific jobs; overcoming labor shortages; and filling the bottom positions of the social hierarchy. This approach sheds light on the factors allowing for the replacement of Ragusans by foreign workers in domestic service and agriculture.

  • 15 This approach is inspired by Marxist political economy, and dependency theory advanced in Latin Ame (...)

26Contemporary labor migration flows to Ragusa are also historically, politically, socially and culturally structured. World-systems theory is relevant to contextualize current labor migration flows to Ragusa, despite its deterministic stance,15 to the extent that “migrant labor can be more fully theorized within the complex problematic of circuits of capital and commodities” (Kearney, 1986: 340). In Ragusa, for instance, farmers struggle to remain competitive in global markets, and families to ensure the provision of care for the elderly; opening up job opportunities for foreign workers. At the same time, small farmers in distant India have lost their livelihoods as a result of externally-driven as well as endogenous (e.g. water resource management) interventions; some are now, with the help of their networks, employed in Sicily. Likewise, the transition to the market economy, in former communist states compelled many people to look for employment opportunities abroad.

  • 16 The systems perspective admits that migration can be reversible, multidirectional, and differentiat (...)

27As the systems approach posits, migration flows do not occur randomly; but arise from prior historical, colonial, cultural and economic ties between the different migration poles of a system, mass culture connections, family and personal networks and migrant agency (Fawcet 1989, Kritz and Zlotnik 1992).16 The dissemination of knowledge of migration routes, job opportunities and social capital are further facilitated by globalization processes (Castles and Miller 2009: 56, Cohen 2006). This approach provides a relevant framework to better understand the geographical and historical linkages between Sicily and Tunisia, the role of migrant networks (e.g. in the case of Indian migration), or even the cultural ties seem to render acceptable the presence of certain migrants in the intimacy of Ragusan homes (e.g. Romanian and Polish care workers).

Navigating migration institutions

28The institutional level of analysis concentrates on the experiences of migrant agricultural and care workers as they navigate two major migration institutions: the state and the labor market. I focus on migration (and employment) policy implementation by migrant workers and their employers, and explore how social networks influence migrants’ incorporation into the receiving labor market and their labor market outcomes.

  • 17 While this literature often refers to “immigration” I retain the term “migration” for two reasons: (...)

29First, I draw some linkages between the concept of labor migration management and migration policy in Italy, which is often portrayed as a “latecomer” to (im)migration, as it was indeed “shaped by emigration” (Calavita 1994: 303). The state did not actively organize labor migration inflows until the mid-1980s. However, domestic and external forces have pressed for migration policy-making. To explore contemporary developments in this regard, I draw on the work of scholars engaged in the study of (im)migration policy (Cornelius et al. 1994, Geddes 2008, Lahav and Guiraudon 2007, Messina and Lahav 2006, Schain 2009), and labor migration in contemporary Europe (Menz and Caviedes 2010).17

30I focus on the current managerial approach to labor migration that relies on market principles. The term “management” implies a strong conviction that migrations can be controlled, and that labor, a flexible factor of production, can be traded in a global market. From this angle, the migration management approach differs little from the guest worker programs of the 1960s. However, while the individual was barely pondered in the 1960s equation, in the current view, it is present and conceived of as an economic actor whose maximization interests are, hypothetically, in perfect convergence with those of receiving and sending countries. Not only states are assumed to be competing for (scarce) skilled labor, or seeking to maximize migration benefits (e.g. financial remittances), but workers are also recognized agency and are expected to actively build themselves into worthy laborers and market actors to be admitted in the places where they seek to ‘make profit’.

31Labor migration management relies on governments’ intervention in the labor market. Ong’s Foucauldian reading of neoliberalism explores the creative and flexible ways in which the political and economic (market) realms may articulate in order to enhance capital accumulation and optimize all kinds of resources. I apply her views to the field of labor migration policy. This allows me to examine the relationship between states’ economic concerns, migration policy-making, and policy outcomes. Similarly, I inquire into how low status workers, such as the ones I engaged with in Ragusa (and their employers) navigate, reproduce, manipulate or question the larger structures of inequality that influence their constitution, sometimes creating gaps between migration policy stated goals and outcomes (what some authors call the “gap hypothesis”; see Cornelius et al. 1994).

  • 18 Giddens suggests that “norms figure as ’factual’ boundaries of social life, to which a variety of m (...)

32Some authors argue that such gaps result from the structural demand for foreign labor, the conditions of sending countries (i.e. dependence on remittances), the action of social networks that challenge the effective implementation of migration policy (Cornelius et al. 1994), or simply from policy irrelevance (Lahav and Guiraudon 2007). In Italy in particular, the economic function of migrants and the limits within which liberal democratic societies operate seem to create that gap (Calavita 1994). However, the decentralization and the (official or unofficial) privatization of migration control, implying the proliferation of non-state and transnational actors in migration regulation, and the introduction of structural and institutional reforms to deal with enforcement also affect policy implementation (Lahav 2006). A wide range of actors, including migrant workers and employers, may be seen as enforcers of migration (and employment) administrative measures, which is consistent with the current burden-sharing and shared-responsibility approach to migration management. As Lahav suggests, it is necessary “to move beyond a unitary view of the state and adopt a neo-institutional perspective in analyzing the regulation of migration” (2006: 292-293). I explore, at the micro-level, migrant workers’ and their employers’ concrete interpretations and implementation of migration (and employment) policy in Ragusa to gain a better understanding of the factors underlying the gap hypothesis. The relevance of this exercise relies on establishing a connection between policy goals and the concrete practices of the actors affected by the former. Moreover, migrants’ agency and the human dimension of labor migration should not be disregarded. Indeed, I see employers and migrant workers as agents that navigate the institutions, sometimes succeeding in making them work their way.18

  • 19 Embeddedness is both “relational” (personal relations), and “structural” (the larger network of soc (...)
  • 20 Economic sociology admits that economic action is socially oriented as far as it entails moral cons (...)

33I further explore migrants’ and employers’ agency through recruitment processes. My analysis relies on the premise of embeddedness, which implies that economic transactions are embedded in social relations (Granovetter 1985).19 I build on some concepts of the economic sociology of immigration in order to explore the similar recruitment processes of farm and care migrant workers in Ragusa.20

34In migration studies, as Waldinger argues, “the various sociological attempts to theorize the economic sociology of immigration – whether appearing under the label of ethnic economy (Light and Karageorgis 1994), ethnic enclave (Portes and Bach 1985), ethnic niche (Waldinger 1996), or the latest neologism of the day – all involve variants of network theory” (1997: 3).

35Articulatory perspectives (network theory, institutional theory, cumulative causation approaches for instance) on international migration have shed light on the importance of social networks in structuring, perpetuating and even institutionalizing migration flows, constituting “transnational social fields”, and supporting migrants’ “transnational living” (Kearney 1986, Rouse 1991, Massey et al. 1993, Goss and Lindquist 1995, Glick Schiller 2009, Glick Schiller, Basch, and Szanton Blanc 1992 and 1995, Guarnizo 2003). In addition, networks play a crucial role in recruitment mediation, as sources of social capital – or the potential embedded in social relationships to yield other resources (Bourdieu 1986) – and as a resource inherent in social structures that helps actors achieving their goals (Coleman 1988). Trust is a factor that enables social networks’ recruitment mediation to the extent that (in Coleman’s view) it has the potential to reduce the uncertainties related to the engagement in a new employment relationship for the parties involved. Labor market outcomes, in turn, depend upon the composition of the networks, and the kinds of resources that their members control, and are able to mobilize (Gurak and Caces 1992, Sassen 1995). These dimensions of social capital shed light on processes of labor market segmentation.

36By focusing on the institutions migrants (and employers) navigate in the process of labor market incorporation, network approaches effectively articulate structure and agency. Nevertheless, the accent is placed on social processes, rather than on the agents of those processes. To explore this last point, I build on concepts developed in ethnic studies, sociology, and domestic labor scholarship.

Exploring the constitution of migrant worker subjects

37The subject level of analysis focuses on the examination of the processes of subject formation (or subjectification) and identity construction of migrant workers. Migrant agricultural and care workers share similar social positions as low-wage laborers. This level of analysis allows me to focus on how migrants perceive themselves, as well as on the social processes that intervene in the construction of their identity, and their position in the receiving society. For Giddens, a social position involves “the specification of a definite ‘identity’ within a network of social relations…” (1984: 83). A social position is thus different from a “role” in that it does not imply a pre-written script to be performed by the actors. Being knowledgeable subjects, migrant workers neither passively internalize, nor identify themselves with, the labels or identities ascribed to them. As agents, migrant workers and their employers participate actively in the construction and negotiation of their respective social positions or identities. These processes are rooted in their social interaction, which is embedded in power relations (relations between employers and workers are asymmetrical). This does not mean that the weak have no means for contestation. As Giddens noted, power characterizes all action, and “all forms of dependence offer some resources whereby those who are subordinate can influence the activity of their superiors” (1984: 16). I focus on the stories of everyday life told by employers and migrant workers to examine the ways in which migrant workers’ occupational and class identities are defined, negotiated or contested.

38My analysis of the similar processes of constitution of agricultural and domestic migrant workers as subjects is largely inspired by the literature on domestic labor (Anderson 2000, Constable 1997, Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001, Lan 2003, Lutz 2008 and 2011, Salazar Parreñas 2001), which is grounded in and combines different sociological traditions (e.g. feminist and gender theories, symbolic interactionism, postmodern theories). It employs a wide range of concepts derived from those traditions, and has developed original insights from which I draw in my analyses.

  • 21 Intersectionality was originally used by legal theorists to refer to overlapping social statuses. T (...)

39In addition, as migrants’ occupational and class identities are constructed at the intersection of various axes of domination, I rely on the concept of intersectionality21 to explore some the different and overlapping factors that intervene in that process (age, gender, class, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc.).

40Another concept that allows me to explore employers’ and employees’ negotiation of identities and status is “boundary work”. The concept of boundary has been used to explain ethnicity as the product of the creation and maintenance of boundaries as social groups come into contact with one another (Barth 1969). This approach has yielded useful insights to the study of identity, to the extent that ethnicity, as identity, is not to be viewed as a fixed property. Identities are dynamic, relational and processual (Rummens 2003). In domestic labor literature, the concept of “boundary work” was employed by Lan (2003) to elaborate a typology of the different strategies deployed by employers and workers in negotiating socio-categorical boundaries (class, ethnicity or nationality), and socio-spatial boundaries (that separate public and private spheres) in the intimacy of the private home.

41Although subjectification and identity construction are related, I have divided my analysis into two separate chapters. In Chapter 4 I focus on employers’ participation in the construction of migrant workers’ occupational and social position, namely through othering practices, including the ascription and essentialization of the qualities of foreign workers, used as criteria to justify hiring decisions. I also analyze some strategies deployed by employers to negotiate their own status vis-à-vis foreign workers, based on boundary work. Chapter 5 explores workers’ migration projects and decisions as part of the construction of their own identities, social positions and self-improvement endeavors. I see such projects as influenced by self-improvement aspirations, following again Ong’s (2006) conceptualization of neoliberalism as a technology of governing. I further examine how migrant workers perceive the (class) contradictions that emerge from the inconsistencies between their projects of self-improvement and their low-status positions in the receiving context. As challenging as they may be, such experiences are open spaces where agency manifests itself, as demonstrated by the range of strategies migrants deploy to negotiate their status in the receiving society. In their quest for recognition and dignity, migrant workers may capitalize on the positive markers or criteria ascribed to them, or detach themselves from the identity ascribed by the employer. They may contest, negotiate, or ease the different class contradictions generated by their low-status position through “immediate struggles” (Salazar Parreñas 2001, building on Foucault), or creating alternative social boundaries without, however, challenging structural inequalities.


  • 22 Migrant workers and employers as here considered purposive agents (Giddens 1984), whose action is b (...)

42My research compares and situates the shared experiences of migrant agricultural and domestic workers within the larger structures, the institutions and the interpersonal relations that influence their incorporation into the receiving labor market, their conditions of work, and their social standing in the receiving society. This required gathering data on the perceptions and the lived experiences of people. Inasmuch as social life is actively generated in agents’ practices (Bourdieu 1977, Giddens 1984) I sought to understand both employers’ and migrant workers’ practices in their day-to-day interaction, as well as their discourse.22 I adopted, therefore, a qualitative approach to understand the practices of migrant workers and their employers.

43This research is based on fieldwork, conducted in Ragusa, Sicily, for over eight months (January to early September 2008, and two additional visits in 2010 and 2011). I carried out 35 semi-structured interviews with 26 agricultural and domestic workers and nine employers, as well as additional interviews with one construction worker, two employers, and two trade union representatives. The interviews lasted from forty minutes to three hours; they were digitally recorded and fully transcribed. Most interviews were conducted in Italian; some were held in English and in French. No significant language edits have been made to the quotes originally in English. Interviews with employees were designed to collect basic demographic data, information on their migration history, their reasons to migrate, migratory status, the characteristics of their jobs and conditions of work, the relationship with employers, and their own perceptions of their position in the receiving society. Interviews with employers revolved around the same topics, and added the history and reasons underlying the recruitment of foreign workers, recruitment procedures (including preferences), and perceptions on labor relations. A random sample of employers and workers was identified through referrals and snowball technique, starting with my close acquaintances that employed migrant workers. I did not set out to interview a pre-arranged category of migrant workers (e.g. a specific nationality or gender category), but my contacts led me almost inevitably to interview female live-in care workers (from Poland and Romania) and male (also live-in) farm workers (from Tunisia and India).

44The conflation of home and workplace, both in farm and care work, being a central aspect of the working conditions of my interlocutors, represented all at once a complication during fieldwork and a source of valuable insights. Most interviews took place in the home/workplace, where third persons were sometimes present during what I had originally planned as personal interviews. While most employers respected the privacy of workers during the interviews, some interruptions and purposeful interventions were inevitable. While I first experienced this as a sign of power imbalances between myself and employers, and between employers and workers, I could not have been more privileged to witness the very core of the interactions between employers and employees and to seize those spans of vivid exchange as bonus sources of precious insights.

45To ensure confidentiality, my interlocutors have been anonymized by giving them pseudonyms, and through the codification of the interviews (Appendix 1). In addition, I collected and analyzed information from secondary sources of information (relevant literature, press reports, international organizations’ materials, national legislation, labor and immigration national statistics, and relevant internet sites), to complete, contrast, and contextualize the information collected through interviews and observations.

  • 23 Field note analysis, Bond warns us, should consider field notes as living, mutable texts that canno (...)

46During my fieldwork, I also had ample time to familiarize myself with the places in which migrant workers gather in the city, to pay informal visits to migrant workers and employers and engage in informal conversations with them, in which both ventilated some aspects of their relationships. I could observe the dynamics of the city’s old town, where many migrants live. I had time to consult the local press regularly, and to participate in conversations with locals and inquire into their perceptions about migrant workers. These insights were recorded as field note evidence.23

47I privileged a bounded field-site instead of a multi-sited ethnography (see George Marcus1995), and concentrated exclusively on the receiving end of the migration spectrum. This allowed me to balance out the present methodological trend in migration studies and to focus on the practices and relations that develop in a concrete spatial framework (as suggested by Candea 2007).

48I decided to focus on the experiences and practices of employers and migrant workers as the main actors concerned with labor migration, instead of expanding my sample to incorporate local immigration authorities, labor inspectors, police officers, or conducting more interviews with trade union representatives. Although not comprehensive, my findings are compelling enough to offer the basis for an original discussion on the experiences of two seemingly different categories of migrant workers.

Structure of the book

49This book starts by explaining labor migration as organized by the structural needs of Ragusa that underlie the demand for foreign labor, including the reconfiguration of the local dairy industry and the welfare sector, and by the historical, political, economic and cultural linkages that integrate Ragusa and some areas in India, Poland, Romania and Tunisia into a unique migration system (Chapter 1). This is followed by an analysis of the current discourse on labor migration management, highlighting its consistency with market principles, and focusing on the concrete interpretation and implementation of migration policy (i.e. administrative measures that regulate the incorporation of migrant labor into the receiving labor market) by migrant workers and their employers. In this manner, migrant workers’ experiences are situated in relation to the state. Some of the gaps between the stated policy goals and the outcomes of the practices of such private enforcers are discussed in terms of the coherence between the assumptions that underlie migration policies and the human dimension of migration (Chapter 2). The crucial role of social networks in structuring labor migration flows, mediating recruitment processes in Ragusa, and shaping the labor market segmentation is also recognized and examined (Chapter 3). It is argued that solidarity and self-interest coexist within social networks, and that the analysis of the intervention of social networks in recruitment processes sheds light on the reasons why labor migration does not always translate into upward social mobility for migrant workers. Focusing on the subject-level of analysis, the book then examines employer-worker interpersonal relationships and the constitution of migrant workers as subjects. A key aspect of this process is the constant (re)definition and negotiation of employers’ and migrant workers’ respective social positions, or the creation and negotiation of social boundaries that separate employers from workers, along the lines of class, gender and ethnicity. Indeed, employers’ hiring decisions and practices to affirm their status vis-à-vis migrant workers, affect the construction of migrant workers’ occupational and class position in the receiving society (Chapter 4). Conversely, migrants’ self-perceptions and how they negotiate their identity and status in the receiving society are part of the same processes of subjectification (Chapter 5). Class contradictions faced by migrant workers often result of the inconsistencies between their condition as low-wage laborer and their self-improvement aspirations. However, migrants deploy specific strategies to conceal, negotiate and contest those contradictions, including the creation of alternative social boundaries in relation to their employers or to other migrant workers or groups in the receiving context.


1 In a recent paper, Glick Schiller conceptualizes neoliberalism as “a series of contemporary projects of capital accumulation that beginning in the 1970s sought to reconstitute social relations of production, including the organisation of labour, space, state institutions, military power, governance, membership, and sovereignty (Harvey 2005, 2006, Jessop 2002)” (2009: 9-10). The author continues, “[t]he accumulated impact of the transformations wrought by these projects and the policies and technologies that accompany them can be called neoliberal restructuring and the policies that institute the transformations can be termed the neo-liberal agenda” (2009: 10). Those projects pervade the fields of economics and politics, as well as cultural practices, ideas about self and society, and the production and dissemination of images and narratives.

2 I use the term “global” instead of “international” to highlight the contemporary complexities of the integrated capitalist world economy, increased interconnectedness, interdependencies, as well as time and space compression and awareness of the latter that entail globalization processes (see Appelrouth and Edles 2012, chapter 17, The Global Society).

3 According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), “Decent work” involves fair income, security in the workplace, social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom to organize and equality of opportunity and treatment for women and men (ILO, Decent Work,, accessed 5/04/2012). ILO’s “decent work” political agenda is based on four pillars: job creation, the recognition and respect of rights at work (following international labor standards), the promotion of social protection and social dialogue, and gender equality as a crosscutting objective. The concept of decent work is closely associated with ILO’s organizational priorities.

4 For a recent account of labor migration in domestic service, horticulture and prostitution in Palermo and parts of the province of Ragusa see Cole and Booth (2007).

5 For an account of migrant workers incorporated in the informal economy in the south of Italy see Mingione and Quassoli 2000; in greenhouse cultivation Cole and Booth 2007 and CeSPI 2000. Also, in southern Italy, migrant workers are employed in the underground footwear, clothing, leather tanning and building sector and in commerce and tourism (Frey, et al. 1996). Kosic and Triandafyllidou 2004 provide a brief but instructive account of the paths of Albanian migrants, who initially arrive in the south of Italy, and find their first jobs in agriculture, then move north (to Florence), where they are employed as builders.

6 According to the first definition provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary zootechny is “the scientific art of maintaining and improving animals under domestication including breeding, genetics, nutrition, and housing: the technology of animal husbandry” (Merriam-Webster Online, “zootechny”,, accessed 30/04/2012). Animal husbandry is defined as the “[c]ontrolled cultivation, management, and production of domestic animals, including improvement of the qualities considered desirable by humans by means of breeding. Animals are bred and raised for utility (e.g. food, fur), sport, pleasure, and research” (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “animal husbandry”,, accessed 30/04/2012). The terms “farm work/er” and “zootechny”/“zootechnical” are used interchangeably to refer to this kind of employment, following the practice of my interlocutors, who use both terms in their own discourse to refer to their sector of activity (in Italian, zootecnia).

7 According to the United Nations Population Division, in 2010 the total rural population worldwide was estimated at 3.4 billion. This estimation is based on a definition of “rural population” as that living in areas not classified as urban according to the criteria used by each country or area (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Rural Population, Development and the Environment 2011,, accessed 7/06/2012). The figures referring to the overall situation of agriculture can be found at ILO and FAO, Food, Agriculture and Decent work,, accessed 6/04/2012.

8 Domestic labor entails such tasks as washing, cleaning, sweeping, mopping, tidying, cooking, laundering, ironing, buying food and groceries, and caring for children or older persons, to name but a few examples. Employment arrangements also vary from hourly work, to part-time or full-time work and informal or formal contractual employment. Service provision can be ‘live-out’ or ‘live-in’.

9 Some authors argue that domestic workers’ social mobility is limited and at best horizontal: from live-in to live-out; from full-time to part-time employment; from working for a poor family to working for middle class family; from having a “bad” to having a “good” employer, from working in a private house to being hired by a cleaning enterprise, etc. (Lautier 2003: 802-803; see also Anderfuhren 2002 and Oso Casas 2002).

10 Generally speaking, the fact that the employment relationship is often established between two women complicates the study of the intersections of gender, class and ethnicity (Constable 1997). Men are also employed in domestic service, but the tasks allocated to male and female domestic workers often differ. Male domestic work tends not to be strictly confined to the private sphere of the house (Destremau and Lautier 2002: 251). Partly as a result of international migration, Italy is witnessing a revival of male domestic service (also in eldercare) since the 1980s (Sarti 2010, Bartolomei 2010, Scrinzi 2010).

11 As Mundlak and Shamir note (2008, footnote 1, p. 161), there is a debate about the definition of “carework” including its relationship with “emotional work”, care “labor”, and “women’s work” (see also Folbre and Nelson 2000, and Folbre 2006 on the commodification of care; and Razavi 2007, and Anderson 2001 on conceptual issues surrounding “care” and “domestic labor”). “Care work” is here understood as the direct provision of care to persons. I agree also with Folbre’s definition of the “care sector” “as economic activities in the home, market, community, and state that fit loosely under the rubric of human services and have a particularly strong personal and emotional dimension…” (2006: 12). Some authors have further raised the question of whether domestic work is a “normal job” (Anderson 2006 and 2001, Lutz 2011), and whether the terms “employer” and “employee” apply to the actors involved in the kind of informal employment relationships characteristic of this sector. I keep these terms because, despite the fact that eldercare provided by migrant workers in Ragusa are not fully governed by the relevant legislative framework, they remain employment relationships to all affects. I use the terms “care”, “eldercare”, and “care work” interchangeably to refer to this type of employment.

12 Anthropologist Jeffrey Cole and education consultant Sally S. Booth have recently published a descriptive study of the lives of migrants employed in domestic service, greenhouse cultivation, and prostitution. The research sites include the city of Palermo, and parts of the province of Ragusa (Cole and Booth 2007). The CeSPI, under the research program “Migratory and Economic Circuits in the Mediterranean” also published one study (2000) on migration in the province on Ragusa, focusing on the horticulture sector.

13 The study of migration requires an interdisciplinary approach (Brettell and Hollifield 2008; Portes and DeWind 2004). Some scholars optimistically argue that there is significant interchange of migration objects of study among different disciplines. Others instead question the degree of actual interdisciplinarity achieved in migration studies, as opposed to “friendly dialogues” among disciplines with specific “mindsets” in which major differences regarding research questions, methods and levels of analysis prevail (see Brettell and Hollifield 2008; and Favell 2008).

14 Dual labor market is based on economic dualism, reflected in the polarization of the labor market. It distinguishes, therefore, between highly skilled, relatively stable and well paid jobs in the primary or industrial sector, and low-skilled, unstable and precarious jobs in the secondary sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and domestic service. The characteristics of jobs in the secondary section of the labor market make the receiving society resistant to their elimination; and make native workers reluctant to accept them (Piore 1979: 9).

15 This approach is inspired by Marxist political economy, and dependency theory advanced in Latin America in the 1960s (Castles and Miller 2009), and is largely informed by Wallerstein’s (1974) concept of the modern world-system, containing a multiplicity of political systems and an integrated (capitalist) world-economy. It is based on relations of domination and an unequal, occupational and geographical international division of labor: (Wallerstein 1974: 350). The world-system is divided into cores (strong states), peripheral areas (weak states or areas) and semiperipheral areas (that prevent the total polarization of the system and are both exploiters and exploited). All regions can advance or lose their status within the world-system (Wallerstein 1974). This social organization of work entails the accumulation of wealth in some regions of the world at the expense of the continuous impoverishment of other regions. On this basis, world-systems theory posits that the penetration of capitalist economic relations in non-capitalist societies causes disruptions and dislocations which create mobile populations, prone to migrate abroad (Massey et al. 1993: 444-445). Under this approach, labor migration is thus part of the uneven processes of production, exchange, and transfer of surplus among peripheries, semi-peripheries and cores, which perpetuate the underdevelopment of migrant-sending regions by draining their labor force, and at the same time help satisfying the structural needs of late capitalist societies by filling the labor market gaps generated by the horizontal and vertical mobility of native workers (Nikolinakos 1975).

16 The systems perspective admits that migration can be reversible, multidirectional, and differentiated (permanent, temporary, seasonal, circular); as it responds to transformations caused by external factors and the migration process itself. Likewise, the distinction between “sending” and “receiving” countries is problematized (most countries experience inward outward and transit flows). This approach poses, however, empirical difficulties concerning the identification of the units of a migration system. Moreover, the complexity of the political, economic, and social dynamics that define the system, and the potential overlaps that exist among systems (e.g. when a single country belongs to two or more systems; see Zlotnik 1992), induce researchers to arbitrarily delimit the boundaries of system under consideration, which I have done in this work by limiting the system to the sending areas represented in my sample (specific areas of India, Poland, Romania and Tunisia).

17 While this literature often refers to “immigration” I retain the term “migration” for two reasons: first, most migrant workers in Ragusa do not envisage permanent or long-term stay, but are highly mobile; second, the assumptions underlying the notion of “immigrant” (i.e. long-term migration) are as empirically problematic as the definition of the contents of policies targeting a category of population whose conditions are constantly shifting, and whose definition varies from state to state (see Messina and Lahav 2006, chapter 7).

18 Giddens suggests that “norms figure as ’factual’ boundaries of social life, to which a variety of manipulative attitudes is possible” (1984: 4).

19 Embeddedness is both “relational” (personal relations), and “structural” (the larger network of social relations to which actors belong) (Portes 1995: 6).

20 Economic sociology admits that economic action is socially oriented as far as it entails moral considerations, it is inserted in power relations, and it can be constrained by social forces (Portes 1995: 4-5). Social networks have a fundamental role in economic transactions, because economic transactions are embedded in them; because networks are sources for the acquisition of scarce means; and because networks can effectively constrain the pursuit of personal gain, by imposing obligations and sanctions to their members (Portes 1995: 8-16).

21 Intersectionality was originally used by legal theorists to refer to overlapping social statuses. The concept was also applied in the study of minorities, in order to de-essentialize identity. In domestic labor literature, intersectionality is often implicit in the analyses of the ways in which ethnicity, gender, class, migratory status, nationality define the specific position of domestic workers in the larger social structures in which they participate.

22 Migrant workers and employers as here considered purposive agents (Giddens 1984), whose action is both enabled and constrained by the larger structures in which they are situated. I assume therefore that employers and employees are knowledgeable subjects, capable of elaborating discursively upon the reasons underlying their activities and intentions.

23 Field note analysis, Bond warns us, should consider field notes as living, mutable texts that cannot be given a single interpretation, because of the interplay between the text, our memory and the context (G. Bond, in Sanjek 1990).


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