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Migration Management?

Sandra Paola Alvarez Tinajero

Chapter 4. Employer-worker relationships: buying “personhood”1

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  • 1 Anderson (2000) argues that paid domestic work involves the commodification of workers’ personal id (...)
  • 2 To refer to the processes through which one becomes a subject, I use the terms “subjectification” a (...)

1The employment relationships of foreign farm and care workers in Ragusa are complex and asymmetrical. Such relations depend on the definition and continuous negotiation of the respective social positions, and boundaries between employers and workers, along the lines of class, ethnicity, nationality, and gender. Although employment relationships involve a commercial transaction (the exchange of labor against wages), the human dimension of such transaction renders more complex the negotiation of social positions. Indeed, employers’ practices intervene in the processes of subjectification2 that influence migrant workers’ occupational and class position.

  • 3 I use the terms identity and social position interchangeably.
  • 4 Rummens suggests that social interaction compels actors to engage in determining the similarities a (...)

2A few theoretical considerations underlying this analysis deserve to be briefly introduced. A social position is “defined at the intersection of axes of signification, domination and legitimation”, which entail the specification of “identities” within a network of social relations (Giddens 1984: 83). This definition presupposes the existence power imbalances between employers and workers. The definition of social positions also entails identity construction processes.3 Identity is here conceived of as a social construction that is both relational (grounded in social interaction or interpersonal relations), and contextual (situated in time and space).4 Identity is socially constructed and constantly negotiated rather than ‘contained’ within or passively assumed by social groups or persons (Barth 1969, Rummens 2003, Wimmer 2007).

3I rely on concepts originating in theories related to intersectionality and on the construction of difference (boundary work) to explore the ways in which employers and migrant workers negotiate their respective identities and positions. In ethnic studies, intersectionality has shed light on the multiple and overlapping factors (e.g. age, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, religion, nationality, language) that intervene in the construction of identity and diversity (see Donaldson and Jedwab 2003). In addition, the concept of ‘boundary work’, in cultural sociology, has been useful to examine identity construction and identification and, in the literature concerning domestic service, to explore the construction of difference along the lines of gender and ethnicity in the employment relations of migrant domestic workers (see Lutz 2011 and 2008). Based on the concept of boundary work, Lan (2003) elaborated a typology of the strategies that employers and Filipino domestic workers in Taiwan deploy to negotiate socio-categorical boundaries (class, ethnicity, nationality), as well as socio-spatial boundaries (separating public and private spheres in private homes). I use Lan’s typology to explore the boundary work strategies that Ragusan employers and migrant workers employ when negotiating social status in their daily interaction.

4Finally, this research attempts a systematic comparison of the processes of subject-making of care and farm migrant workers in Ragusa and how these agents shape such processes. The comparison builds on a major characteristic of farm and eldercare work in Ragusa: the conflation of the private sphere of the home and the public sphere of the workplace. The vast majority of the workers interviewed dwell in their employers’ homes or on the farms. Although farm workers may not share the same private (home) space with employers, as they usually lodge in separate facilities, they establish personalized, intimate and emotionally charged employment relationships, similar to those that characterize the live-in modality of domestic service.

5In what follows, I examine how employers’ preferences and hiring decisions shape the construction of migrant workers’ occupational status. I then examine the strategies of boundary work deployed by employers in the daily negotiation of their social position vis-à-vis migrant workers. The negotiation of employers’ and workers’ identities and status reveals the micro-politics of the employment of eldercare and agricultural migrant workers and the mechanisms that operate in the construction of these emblematic figures of migration.

Skillful and manageable: marketable talents and hiring decisions

  • 5 The human capital theory has been quite influential in migration studies. It makes a distinction be (...)

6The incorporation of migrant workers into the receiving labor markets is a fundamental step in the construction of their occupational and class identities, as occupational hierarchies are associated with notions of prestige and social status. In the human capital approach labor market outcomes are associated with the natural aptitudes and the (formal) competencies of workers.5 The economic sociology of immigration emphasizes instead the structuration of labor markets and the role of social networks in shaping migrants’ labor market outcomes. By and large, agency is not sufficiently integrated into these explanations.

  • 6 About half of the migrant workers interviewed hold a high school diploma in such areas as commerce, (...)

7Employers contribute to constructing the occupational identities of migrant workers as well. For instance, employers resort to both market criteria (skills and competencies) and social criteria (ethnicity, gender) in the construction of the work ethics and the identities of migrant workers, including their ‘suitability’ to perform agricultural and eldercare jobs, and their ‘manageability’. These practices shape their hiring decisions, notwithstanding migrant workers’ qualifications or prior work experience, as discussed below.6

Language, skill, love: marketable talent in farm and eldercare jobs

  • 7 Jenkins studied the systematic discrimination of black workers in recruitment processes in the publ (...)

8Employers’ preferences tend to shape the selection criteria justifying their hiring decisions. What do employers look for? My data suggest that in low-status occupations, such as farm work and eldercare, marketable talents may involve a mix of technical and social competencies, which are not always tangible or easily measured. Questioned about the competencies required to perform farm and care jobs, employers in Ragusa often prioritized a range of interpersonal or social skills and practical know-how over workers’ professional qualifications. Employers tend to seek for a combination of hard and soft skills, or what Jenkins (1986) called functional (job-specific), suitability and acceptability (non-job-specific) criteria.7 Broadly defined, hard skills include technical and administrative knowledge that is normally observable and quantifiable; soft skills refer instead to a person’s interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, which are more difficult to assess.

9Regardless of the sector of employment, Italian or Sicilian language proficiency, and according to the discourse of employers, practical know-how, suitability, ‘love’ for the job, and ‘availability’ seem to be the main marketable talents of migrant workers who incorporate into farm work and eldercare in Ragusa.

10Most employers underlined the importance of Italian language proficiency and job-specific know-how. Being able to communicate with the worker is the first condition to establish an employment relationship. Language may also be used as factor of discrimination. A care worker argued that some employers either refuse to hire workers who do not have a good command of Italian, or that employers may use this criterion to hold wages down (Interview R.21.12.10). This was confirmed by other interlocutors. Migrant workers are aware of the importance of acquiring an acceptable level of Italian language proficiency, not only to communicate but also to advance their occupational and social status. As one worker noted: “…we need to understand the language, and then we can find a better job, better status, and we understand the legislation…. If we don’t know the legislation we can’t fight for better pay”. (Interview F.11.5.09)

11Besides Italian language skills, many workers and employers emphasized the importance a good command of the Sicilian dialect as, regardless of the sector of employment, most employers use the Sicilian dialect as their first language (some elderly, in fact, speak only Sicilian dialect). As a result, many farm and care workers in my sample expressed themselves in a mix of Italian and Sicilian dialect.

12Concerning marketable skills in eldercare, these include cooking, cleaning, tidying, washing, ironing, sewing skills, as well as organizational skills (managing the household, buying groceries, organizing meals). Many elderly employers stressed migrant workers’ ability to cook as an important selection criterion. They seemed to be especially satisfied when workers had demonstrated an ability to cook Sicilian or Italian dishes or were willing to adapt to their taste. Workers confirmed the importance of their organizational and cooking skills, or their ability to meet the employers’ dietary requirements as criteria that influence employers’ hiring decisions, besides a wide range of interpersonal skills. The literature on domestic labor has long indicated that this is a ‘labor of love’. Lutz aptly observes that: “Arlie Hochschild (1995) and Joan Tronto (2008) understand care work in its full breath as consisting of caring ‘knowledge, action and feelings’ and thus comprising different (informal) activities ranging from comforting someone to feeding and bodily care” (2011: 6; see also Anderson 2000, Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001, Vandelac et al. 1988). The following quotes illustrate the complex mix of soft skills that care workers are expected to display:

Question: What would be the main requirements for this job?

Employer: Well, about the personality, first and foremost, I would hire someone who’s nice, not mute, not silent, she must be like a member of the family, not a stranger who is in my house, I don’t like that. In fact, before [name of employee] I had another one, but I was so badly disappointed... We fired her. She stayed with us for three months, but she was dull, arrogant. Instead with this one I get along well, because she’s sociable and pleasant, we talk. […] (Interview M.21.12.2010)

Employer: […] My mother-in-law gets along well with [employee]; she has accepted her. Apart from that, she’s really competent, she’s trustworthy […] she knows how to take my mother-in-law; she knows what her needs are.

Question: What do you expect from a worker?

Employer: Reliability, that’s essential; regardless of the nationality […] It all depends on her personality, because this is an extremely ticklish job.

Question: How do you know if a person is reliable?

Employer: With my parents-in-law, […] I realized that she was reliable because in the beginning I visited them regularly and I noticed that they were always calm, not anxious, they were clean, fed… she called me to ask small things, which made me think that she cared for them [...] My trust in her was reinforced by those details […]. She managed to enter their [elderly] world gradually, she never pretended that they adapt to her; she never caused trouble. She simply tried to put order in the pre-existing rules in the family. (Interview N.26.8.11)

13In the examples above and in most interviews, the employers emphasized the importance of empathy, trustworthiness, reliability, adaptability, and sympathy as essential skills to be able to provide eldercare. In the first case the employer constructed the figure of the ‘good worker’, nice, sociable, talkative, and pleasant, in opposition to the ‘bad’ worker (silent, dull, and arrogant). In both cases ‘getting along well’ with the worker was a crucial factor in a good employment relationship. In the second case, the employer highlighted the workers’ ability to understand ‘the order of things’, as well as her willingness to adapt to the pre-existing rules as a proof of her diligence. Additionally, a few employers praised the religious attitude displayed by some employees. In sum, as Gutiérrez-Rodríguez asserts, “[d]omestic work, as affective labor, thus, always engages with the production of well-being, livability, amiability and comfort” (2010: 4).

14The construction of domestic and care workers’ own work ethics is seemingly aligned with employers’ expectations. Most workers emphasized the importance of their emotional intelligence and soft skills, such as patience, calm, sympathy, using a low voice tone or nice words, being flexible, joyful, and deferential, ‘warm’, ‘sweet’, hardworking, and ready to adapt to employers’ preferences. A care worker constructed her professionalism around her sense of altruism claiming that she “has a heart”, as opposed to “someone who cares only about money” (Interview R.21.12.10). Another caregiver built her work ethics around her ability to socialize, to “familiarize herself with the atmosphere” (Interview R1.1.3.11). A part-time housecleaner mentioned that a crucial requirement in her job is to avoid “touching the things of the employers” or causing them “nuisance”. She constructed her professionalism by highlighting her emotional intelligence and honesty: being “warm, not cold, and correct, because in many houses people leave money or valuable things intentionally, to test you” (Interview G.4.1.11). Yet another worker stressed the importance of ‘feelings’ in eldercare: “this job is about being capable of living together […] You’re together 24 hours; it’s a way of living; it involves feelings, sympathy for one another” (Interview R.21.12.10). Most care workers who consider that they have a good job are reluctant to change employers, because of the uncertainties and efforts inherent in rebuilding such complex relationships.

15Employers in the agricultural sector construct migrant workers’ occupational identities and work ethics based on criteria that involve practical know-how and interpersonal skills, like their counterparts in the domestic sector. Most employers underlined the importance of both job-specific know-how and interpersonal skills as requirements to undertake farm jobs. Technical expertise shapes hiring decisions owing to the nature of the main chores involved in farm jobs (e.g. manual or industrial milking, the operation of agricultural machines, etc.). Yet, socially constructed criteria are equally important in recruitment processes and can even justify wage disparities among workers:

Employer: Everything depends on what they’re able to do. Their qualifications count. This guy, for example, he has a driver’s license, he learned Italian in four weeks […]. And he’s reliable… he can work with the computer, he’s extremely competent. We have 120-130 cows, he knows them all, he doesn’t even need to see the collar to recognize them; he could recognize them by looking at the udder…

Question: Is there a difference between his salary and the salary of other employees?

Employer: Yes, yes; because he’s reliable. For example, when the supplier of the fodder comes, he supervises everything. I can also leave him a check; he’s trustworthy. The other guy, he’s a bit older; he’s really nice and respectful, but he’s not flexible. He doesn’t speak Italian, and he does nothing to learn the language. The other one […] he arrived recently… but can’t pronounce a word in Italian. In my opinion, he’s young. The first time I took him to the supermarket [gives directions], well, have you seen a kid that goes for the first time to a funfair? Well, he was marveled…He’s not competent… A person like him, who is not reliable, can do nothing but menial work. (Interview R.23.8.11)

16The owner of a dairy factory provides another example. She hired a worker who was recommended to her by a former employee, but subsequently fired him because of his ‘apathy’ and ‘unsuitability’ for the job:

Maria! We had lots of troubles; we couldn’t understand each other! Believe me, he was driving me mad! […] I really tried to be patient, but he couldn’t understand how to make the cheese! After fifteen days he had been here he didn’t change his attitude, like ‘okay, I’ll try to learn’; not at all! […] I thought what on earth am I doing? I’m paying him to do the job I’m doing myself? Understanding the language is important, but it’s not only about the language, is about being pragmatic, […] he was hopeless… simply not suitable for this job… (Interview C.11.5.09)

17Employers are aware of the demanding nature of agricultural work and many portray it as a ‘special’ kind of job, constructing the image of the suitable worker by naturalizing a person’s inclination or predisposition to perform agricultural work. A person’s suitability is often assessed both in technical terms (e.g. the level of technical knowledge a worker has about milking) and in more abstract terms (e.g. being passionate about the animals, having a “natural” aptitude to work with animals):

Question: Are there any specific requirements to perform this job?

Employer: Well, first and foremost, you must be calm. You have to be passionate about the animals, because if you don’t like them you can’t do this kind of job […] When I’m about to hire someone, I take the person to the milking room, if she’s going to be hired for milking. Then I explain her tasks related to the preparation of the cows for milking, and the post-milking; I immediately notice whether a person is suitable or not to do this.

Question: How do you identify a suitable person?

Employer: Basically, I can tell if someone is suitable or not if we start having problems with the animals, mastitis, or if the animals get nervous, because animals feel it…If the person does her work with pleasure the attitude of the animals changes radically. (Interview R.23.8.11)

Employer: All people have individual talents, there are people who are suitable and people who are not suitable to perform certain jobs, within one week you can tell who’s suitable and who’s not, within one week you can recognize a good worker and a worker who’s not as good. You notice immediately if the person is capable of doing this kind of job or not. (Interview F.26.8.11)

18As in eldercare, employers stressed the fact that farm work requires ‘love’. The term love, as employed by many farm supervisors in my sample, implies different things; from willingness to accept low wages, to coping with hard working conditions or with the lack of independence inherent in live-in farm work:

This kind of job, either you love it, or you hate it and you simply don’t do it. Those who focus on the financial side of the job should leave and seek for better-paid jobs; construction, for example, is well-paid […] You must feel like you fit in this work context. There are people who think ‘I work eight hours straight and then I want to forget about work, I want to detach myself from that role, I want to go out with my friends, I want to be free’. It’s a personal choice. And it’s the same for us employers and for the workers. Why did I choose to do this job? Because it suits my personality […] I would become nuts if I worked every day for eight hours in an office; here under the sun or the rain I’m happy, and it’s the same, I think, for employees. (Interview L.11.5.09)

Question: Are there any specific requirements to perform this job?

Employer: You must have some basic knowledge, that is, you must love this job, this is important in any job, but this job is special, so you must show a certain predisposition for this kind of job […]. That’s it. The main requirement is to love this job […]. A raise, for example, depends on the worker’s constancy and professionalism, it depends on how reliable the person is.

Question: Could you explain ‘professionalism’?

Employer: Professionalism, I don’t know, here we milk, it’s about how you do it, the quality of your work… some people think that zootechny is not, let’s say, professional, but there’s a lot of professionalism involved in this job, especially for certain tasks such as milking or feeding the animals. You have to know when to stop the milking machine, how to milk the cows; you need to organize the meals of the animals… (Interview C.11.5.09)

19In the example above, the term ‘professionalism’ refers both to technical knowledge and to such things as reliability, a natural ‘predisposition’ to undertake agricultural work, and ‘love’ for this kind of job.

20Availability and adaptability are also part of the qualities that, according to employers, are required to perform agricultural work. Again, these terms imply different things, such as responsibility or the willingness to work overtime or at night, as illustrated below:

Question: Are there any specific requirements to perform this job?

Employer: They should adapt to the dynamics of the farm. For example, if a calf is born during the night [name of employee] he doesn’t get up to go check if everything’s all right. I insist, this is a special kind of job…

Question: And what do you expect from a worker?

Employer: They should have some basic knowledge, but not everyone does […] he had never touched a cow before, he had buffaloes, but he had never worked with cows; he lacks experience because the technology we use here is different. They don’t have experience. […] Sometimes they don’t like to assume more responsibility. […] – um – sometimes [pause] it’s not even a matter of money. They have a working schedule; if there’s anything important to do within that schedule, they do it. But they don’t get up at night. At night, they sleep.

[About employee] He’s a good worker, but sometimes he’s a bit distracted. I can complain of the fact that they’re not diligent. This irritates me, because they’re dealing with living creatures, a distraction can cause serious problems. (Interview S.14.5.09)

21In the example above, the employer highlights the importance of prior experience, technical knowledge, diligence and flexibility as important requirements to perform agricultural work. However, the term responsibility implies an expected availability on the part of the workers to work overtime or at night. The employer further uses specific cultural codes in constructing workers’ identity and professionalism. He stressed the fact that the (Indian) worker had no prior experience working with cows, and created a boundary between a civilized Us and a primitive They by relating the workers’ lack of experience to a disparity in the farming technologies used in Ragusa and in the (underdeveloped) sending area. In the following example, another employer creates social boundaries along ethnic and technical lines, denoting the low-status position reserved to foreign workers in Ragusa:

I think here at the farm, we’re obliged to continue hiring third country nationals to work with the animals. And I insist: I really like how Indians work and I’ll continue hiring and regularizing Indians. In the fields, the situation is more complicated because they need to use the tractor. Ragusans have a driver’s license, and they know how to operate a specific kind of equipment. As you have seen, it’s not that easy [driving a tractor]. […] I don’t dare to assign such a task to a person who… I mean, I’m not saying that the person [foreign worker] is not competent, but they don’t live in this reality, because there [country of origin] they don’t have the same technology. (Interview R.23.8.11)

22Many cattle farms have diversified their activities including in the dairy industry. The production of cheese requires specific technical knowledge. In Ragusa, dairymen are trained in the traditional production of some types of handmade cheese commercialized under controlled production labels. The owner of a farm mentioned that she would soon open a cheese factory. She currently employs three Indians who look after the cattle. When I asked her whether she envisaged hiring Indian personnel in the cheese factory, she explained that Indian workers do not have the necessary expertise to carry out the type of tasks that Ragusan dairymen perform. She plans to hire Ragusan dairymen, and eventually affiliate an Indian assistant. Such a constitution of migrant workers as ‘inexpert’ and ‘uncivilized’ others directly affects migrants’ occupational and social standing in Ragusa, narrowing their opportunities to fill higher positions in the local occupational hierarchy. In fact, Indian workers in particular are mostly entrusted with menial work and tasks related to animal care (see next section).

23The ‘availability’ of workers is also directly associated with the live-in condition. This is a central quality used by most employers, regardless of the sector of employment, to craft the image of the good worker. Because elderly employers are sometimes dependent on care workers even to satisfy their basic needs, the availability of workers is essential in this sector. Similarly, live-in farm workers, who look after the animals, are expected to be permanently on call. Foreign workers’ perceived or actual availability constitutes an important reason why employers prefer to hire migrant workers rather than local workers both in agriculture and eldercare. The confluence of home and workplace leads employers to assume or to expect a greater commitment or dedication to work on the part of workers. In my sample, the term ‘availability’ was employed by farm supervisors and domestic employers in multiple contexts, from assumptions regarding workers’ greater dedication to work as a result of their family situation, to willingness to live in the countryside or to work round the clock:

Question: Why do you prefer foreign workers?

Employer: For two reasons. First, the local labor force is not attracted towards these jobs. Second, for an economic reason. You save when you hire foreigners. But their devotion to work is also greater. Because they’re single, and because they live here on the farm, even if they rest three hours every morning, they’re always available. (Interview L.11.5.09)

Question: Why did you hire them [foreign workers]?

Employer: Because in agriculture, and more precisely in zootechny, the worker must live in the countryside, with us, we live in the countryside. Zootechny requires –um– [pause] the employees must live on the farms because the animals require to be constantly attended, day and night. (Interview C.26.12.10)

Farm work entails special working hours. You get up early in the morning, even if you have some breaks during the day, there are no fixed rest days, no Sundays, no Easter, no Christmas… this is a limitation [for local workers]. (Interview S.14.5.09)

Ragusan workers are seasonal; not like third country nationals […]. I recruit [Ragusans] during sowing and harvest time […]. Third country workers, the Indian, they work 365 days a year, even if they rotate, because normally one goes back home, and they take turns. But it’s them who look after the animals, and the animals don’t go on holidays. (Interview R.23.8.11)

24Thus far, the examination of employers’ preferences and hiring decisions indicates that they not only ‘purchase’ labor power but also ‘personhood’, as aptly argued by Anderson (2000, 2006) in her analyses of domestic service. In the following, I explore how employers’ hiring decisions also contribute to creating and maintaining sectorial ethnic hierarchies in the local labor market.

Essentializing suitability and manageability

25There is an increasingly multi-national or ethnic labor pool in Ragusa, where the agricultural and care sector are gendered and segmented along nationality and ethnic lines. The essentialization of workers’ competencies and the construction of boundaries along ethnic, nationality or gender divides on the part of employers shape the occupational and social positions of migrant workers and contribute to reproducing the local labor market segmentation. Some of these ‘suitability’ markers relate to workers’ manageability, efficiency or reliability, revealing employers’ managerial or control concerns.

26While employers minimized or denied the importance of gender, nationality or ethnicity in their hiring decisions, as they described their experiences with workers from different migrant communities, some othering practices surfaced their discourse. Most employers in the agricultural sector expressed a clear preference for hiring Indian nationals. It also became evident that Romanian nationals, regardless of the sector of employment, are discriminated against.

27Regarding the construction of Indian workers’ suitability for agricultural work, many employers essentialized the (‘natural’) predisposition of Indian nationals for animal care, in particular to work with cows. A number of employers ascribed what were perceived as positive traits to male Indian workers in the construction of their work ethics and professional identity. For example, one employer essentialized Indian workers’ professionalism given their “exceptional culture of respect for the animals”, honesty and patience, in opposition to the frivolity ascribed to other workers (Tunisians):

Employer: Indians are more reliable […] they’re calm, quiet, honest […] and they have an exceptional culture of respect for the animals. It’s really amazing.

Question: Could you explain further? Are there workers who do not have the same characteristics?

Employer: Before them [Indians] we had one Tunisian and one Albanian. The Tunisian was born here […]. He was competent. But the cultural differences are obvious. Indians, if they have to give therapy to the cows they do it patiently. Today I brought the medicines. He stays there [uses a low tone to indicate that the worker spends long time with the cow]. Instead, the Tunisian gave the injection and left. ...

[…] I insist, to work with the animals, Indians are simply the best! (Interview R.23.8.11)

28This example further shows that perceived or actual docility (being calm, quiet) is a desirable trait on the basis of which the employer was led to qualify Indian workers as reliable. It suggests that the essentialization of certain professional traits is linked to employers’ managerial concerns. Shih (2002), for example, explored how ethnicity and gender influence employers’ perceptions concerning the manageability of African American and immigrant Latino low-skilled workers in Los Angeles. The author argues that in the secondary tier of the labor market, and in the absence of the economic and social incentives such as those that characterize the primary sector, control is normally ensured through the establishment of hierarchy, direct personal supervision and strict control measures. As such, the workers’ perceived or actual manageability becomes a central concern for employers. My own data suggest that foreigners in general are perceived as more deferential than local workers. Potentially biased by my own otherness, an employer expressed her satisfaction with foreign workers, arguing that “we” are less impetuous than native-born Ragusan workers, she noted: “…I feel more comfortable, honestly, with foreigners… Because you are better [più bravi] I mean, you can’t say many things to a Ragusan because they get angry, however foreigners... you are better educated. (Interview C.11.5.09, emphasis added.)

29Additionally, my data show that manageability concerns associated with the construction of the work ethics of different migrant collectivities foster the creation of social boundaries along ethnic and national divides that shape the ethnic division of labor in the agricultural sector in Ragusa. For example, Romanian workers (both men and women) are often portrayed as ‘aggressive’, ‘trouble makers’, ‘difficult to deal with’, ‘drunkards’ and ‘dangerous’ (see also Chapter 5). Also, employers generally described Romanians, Tunisians and Albanians as having ‘hot blood’, and being impulsive. Conversely, Indian workers are collectively characterized as ‘calm’, ‘patient’, ‘quiet’, ‘slow’, ‘caring’ and ‘committed’. Thus, in comparison to Indian workers, other groups are perceived as less manageable, reinforcing the social mechanisms whereby Indian workers are kept in the lowest rungs of the farming occupational hierarchy.

30Employers further celebrated other characteristics of Indian workers such as the habit of saving, and a sense of solidarity, as a proof of their diligence and responsibility, in opposition to the recklessness, the sense of anomy, distrust and rivalry ascribed to other migrant communities as illustrated below:

Tunisians have different goals, they want to stay here but they spend all their money; Tunisians and Romanians. I don’t know one single Tunisian who has made a fortune here, neither a Romanian nor an Albanian. Romanians, if they earn a thousand they spend a thousand. All of them are like that, all of them. They [Indian] are not. They manage to save also because of their culture and eating habits, because they don’t eat meat. They spend maximum 100 euros a month to eat, sometimes even less. (Interview R.23.8.11)

When Indians are in trouble, they help each other. Romanians, they kill each other! Not everyone, of course. Romanians might have friends and relatives here, but they don’t trust [one another] they don’t help each other, not at all. (Interview R.23.8.11)

31Overall, Tunisian and Albanian male migrant workers seem to have gradually advanced their social position in the receiving context and along the occupational ladder, and are successfully moving out of the farms and abandoning ‘dirty’ and physically demanding jobs, as one employer observed:

Look, Tunisians and Albanians no longer have a good reputation here. Slowly, slowly they… [pause] First of all, they no longer want to work with the animals. Tunisians have moved to the greenhouses and to the construction sector, because they know that they’ll work for seven hours, and that when they finish they can take a shower and leave. (Interview R.23.8.11)

32Indian workers are increasingly replacing Tunisians in the lowest-ranked positions of the farming sector. While this can be explained through the longstanding migration history of those particular communities, as well as the expansion of their networks, the subjectification processes that confine Indian workers to marginal positions should not be overlooked.

33Another interesting finding relates to the fact that, regardless of the sector of employment, employers often portray Romanian workers negatively. The negative representation of the Romanian community in Ragusa is reinforced by the burden of a negative track record, word-of-mouth mechanisms, and a negative representation of this community in the mass media (see Chapter 5):

Last year we had a Romanian [woman] but we weren’t happy with her, we had two or three Romanians. It’s their behavior… they drink… all these things. We had this bad experience, only with Romanians. For them it’s normal to drink and work, they say it’s normal, but do you think is normal? [ironic tone] When they have to go to work they can’t even step out of bed. She [former Romanian employee] drank during her working hours. […] They have this bad habit [pause]; these [Indian employees] don’t drink. Not even Albanians. They [Indians] are very calm. Albanians steal, most of the time […].With them [Indians] that has never happened. Sometimes I leave them stuff on purpose to see how they react, to make sure I can trust them. I’m really fine. (Interview C.11.5.09)

34In the above example, interestingly, the employer drew a comparison between former (Romanian) employees and the current (Indian) employees in order to highlight the work ethics of Indian nationals (e.g. being calm and reliable). The following example further shows how rumors exacerbate the negative perceptions locals have about Romanian workers:

Employer: I know about Romanians who abuse […]. They have robbed the houses.

Question: How do you know?

Employer: It’s true! It happened to a close friend of mine: when her mother-in-law died the house was completely empty! It also happened to the friend of my cousin. [Whispering] Do you see this house? The elderly who lived there was paralyzed. He told his son several times that the caregiver enjoyed la bella vita at night. The son did nothing; he thought his father made up this story. But one day one of his friends told him he had spent the night at his father’s place [laughs]… Then obviously he took action […]. He found out that the lady effectively worked during the day and during the night [laughs], and when his father died, they found lots of bottles of strong alcoholic drinks, cigarettes and everything else. […] I swear! It’s not a ‘metropolitan legend’, I’m not making it up! Among Romanians, which are those whom I know better, there are of course people like her [employee], who are reliable… I can affirm that she’s an angel, but I can also tell you that… I’ve heard all kinds of stories. (Interview N.26.8.11)

  • 8 The national press has reported cases of death due to alcohol intoxication of Romanian women in Pal (...)

35Romanian nationals’ reputation in Ragusa is considerably damaged. This is further aggravated by the way in which Romanians are portrayed in the local and national press.8 In my sample, all Romanian respondents were aware of these negative stereotypes. A Romanian care worker expressed her discomfort with tears in eyes:

“What really hurts me… is that they generalize and condemn all of us, why do they criticize all Romanians? …because you find good and bad people everywhere, but one person screws up and they judge us all” (Interview R1.3.1.11).

36In all appearances, Indian workers are conceived of as the ideal-type suitable and manageable worker, and Romanian nationals as the opposite. While employers do not recognize Indian workers as equals, they still place them, collectively, in a higher position than other migrant groups. The various markers used to construct Indian workers’ professionalism, perhaps inadvertently, confine them to the lowest occupational ranks in the agricultural sector, while other, seemingly less manageable workers achieve a better occupational and social standing in Ragusa. According to Cohen, resistance shapes the continuous replenishment of helot labor and “propels the perpetual search for a cohort of replacement helots” (Cohen 2006: 60-61). In this case, the perceived or actual unmanageability collectively ascribed to some migrant communities (e.g. Albanians, Tunisians) simultaneously, facilitates the upward mobility of some workers, and reinforces the negative representation of others (e.g. Romanians). Despite belonging to the European common space and having access to the European labor market, Romanian nationals are not only disadvantaged because they do not conform to Ragusan employers’ morality, manageability or suitability criteria, but also because the mass media have contributed to constructing them as ‘shameful others’.

Gendering migrant recruitment

  • 9 Migration scholars have increasingly added a gender dimension to their analyses. In the mid-1970s, (...)

37Gender criteria also influence employers’ hiring decisions.9 Socially constructed ideas about what appropriate female and male jobs are shape the division of labor and migrants’ labor market outcomes. Although gender structures can be challenged in interpersonal relations, farm and care workers in Ragusa tend to corroborate the functionality criteria used by employers in the definition of their gender-suitability to perform either agricultural or domestic jobs.

38In zootechny, employers tend to justify the recruitment of male migrant workers through gendered functional criteria (e.g. physical strength associated with masculinity). Most employers highlighted the fact that agricultural work is physically demanding; a view shared by most male workers. While some workers emphasized that modern technology facilitated their job, they also admitted that physical strength was necessary to carry out certain tasks manually, described as heavy, hard or dangerous for women (e.g. pushing a barrow with a hundred kilos of fodder, carrying 20 liters of milk in a bucket, being in direct contact with the animals because “they get angry” or because of “dust and allergies”). Milking and horticulture, not requiring physical strength, are perceived as suitable for women. Indeed, an employer claimed that women “are more diligent” and “they would be better at milking because of women’s nature, they’re more vigilant”. Yet, the same employer argued that he is reluctant to hire women because pregnant women represent a big responsibility (e.g. in terms of insurance and potential accidents) that he is seemingly not ready to assume, and because women have “limitations”: “It’s not a matter of machismo or anything like that, but what if she slips… There’s also the breast-feeding… If she’s breast-feeding and she has to milk the cows what does she do? Does she leave the child?” (Interview S.14.5.09). Another employer claimed: “On the farm, with the animals, there are always men”. She does not believe that women would not be able to carry out farming tasks, and yet, she has never sought to hire female workers (Interview C.11.5.09).

39Besides functional criteria, local gendered morality structures, shape employers’ hiring decisions, as shown below:

In this job you need to hire men. First because the working hours are heavy… You need men to work with the animals because sometimes you need strength to carry out certain tasks. … A woman could work in the milking room… But I can’t hire women or otherwise I shouldn’t hire the [male] Indians, you know what I mean? Even if I hire an Indian woman, for example, if she’s the wife of one of my employees I can’t make her work with a different man, do you see what I mean? Besides, I don’t have the appropriate facilities to house women… (Interview R.23.8.11)

40The employer cited above is a woman; however, the following quote shows that men have similar ‘moral’ reservations about hiring women in the agricultural sector:

Question: Do you think it makes a difference to hire men or women?

Employer: I’ve actually never had a female employee here on the farm [pause] because I have never felt the need, because there has been no opportunity to hire a woman, and because I think we’re not mature enough, us, employers, but also… when you put women together with foreign workers there are always problems. That’s for sure […] Because of the difference of sexes, certain situations emerge…

Question: Could you explain?

Employer: I mean, uncomfortable situations arise [women would be disturbed] by Tunisians, of that I’m sure, almost certain. […]. With Maghrebis, my experience tells me that I can’t leave a woman milking and a Moroccan or a Tunisian feeding the animals and go home as if nothing would happen [ironic]; in 90 percent of the cases there’s trouble. (Interview L.11.5.09)

41Some employers further explained their hiring decisions in terms of the limited availability of female labor supply in the zootechnical sector. Nonetheless, it is clear from the preceding examples that hiring women in the zootechnical sector is a source of anxiety for employers because of functional and moral concerns.

42Gender structures also affect the division of tasks between female and male workers on the farms. For example, employers reproduce the sexual division of work allocating men productive tasks and women reproductive tasks, as in the example below, where the employers’ construction of gender roles is imposed on workers:

No, it’s not about having a driver’s license, it’s about independency […] It’s not about the driver’s license, it’s about being able to operate the engine, which means being independent; because he feeds the animals with the tractor. Her husband feeds the animals in the morning while she milks the cows. In the sowing time, he goes to the fields to plow; when she finishes milking the cows she goes back home […]. She must be attentive to the working schedule of her husband because the land where he works is faraway; […] he comes back late at night. They can’t switch jobs, I mean, she cannot come back late at night; who would take care of the children? […] But these people still believe in the family. Imagine what would happen if she left the children unattended! (Interview C.26.12.10)

43Some gender constructions may be challenged in daily work routines. A female employer, who owns a farm and a rural touristic compound, stressed how much she appreciated the fact that a male Indian worker can perform such tasks as making the beds and cleaning the rooms. However, the man’s ability to carry out feminine work was perceived as somewhat incompatible with his masculinity. In contrast, a female employer has some difficulties in exercising her authority and in establishing a good communication with the male workers on the farm; she perceived her management role as undermining men’s traditional position of authority and as a source of anxiety for some workers:

Employer: It’s difficult to manage everything. It’s even harder for me than for my husband because I’m a woman. The eldest worker suffers. When I’m alone with him I can notice that his culture dictates that he should keep distance with women. He had an accident […] he had three stitches in one ear […] The nurse told me, ‘listen, in a few days you can remove the stitch’. I couldn’t approach him, I waited… I could see his distress. It’s their culture […] he would never stay in a room with both of us [women]. (Interview R.23.8.11)

44In the care sector, the construction of the gendered suitability of workers is more evident. Not only employers expressed a preference for hiring women to undertake eldercare, but many female workers are also reluctant to accept posts involving providing care to elderly dependent men. Transgressing the local gender codes is a source of anxiety for employers and workers alike. One employer emphasized her preference for hiring women by ascribing them an inherent reliability and trustworthiness:

Employer: It’s us, Italians, who do not want to hire men [as caregivers].

Question: Could you explain why?

Employer: It’s a difficult question because you can’t have a man locked 24 hours in the house… you must be with him 24 hours, you can’t have a man locked in [pause] […]. I don’t know, perhaps if he looks after a man that’s okay… It’s easier to accept women. Now we know more or less who they are, we know them a little bit better, some information has been spread around, in short, we’re happy with women. (Interview M.21.12.10)

45Workers are aware of the reluctance of employers to hire men as care givers. Interestingly, most workers view the feminization of care jobs as a comparative advantage that effectively eliminates the competition with male workers for these posts. Some workers observed: “cleaning their bottoms and all that stuff is for a woman, not a man; a man would say ‘ah! It stinks! He doesn’t touch the diapers” (Interview R.21.12.10); “[a woman is more suitable] because it’s about playing the role of a housewife; how could a man do domestic work?” (Interview R2.3.1.11); “men don’t know how to care for people and they don’t know how to do housework (Interview V.3.1.11)”.

46Finally, family status intersects with gender and moral considerations in interesting ways in further shaping employers’ hiring decisions. Many farm supervisors expressed a preference for hiring ‘family men’. To the extent that employers construct masculinity around criteria such as independence, carelessness, frivolity and recklessness, their preference to recruit family men is built exactly on the opposite characteristics that they ascribe to married men who have children; namely, dependency, affection, and responsibility. These characteristics turn family men into reliable workers. In the care sector, family status combines with moral considerations that lead employers to perceive young, single female workers as sexually available. There are indications that domestic workers are exposed to sexual harassment (Cole and Booth 2007), although in my study I found that mature migrant women are less likely to be (or are not at all) exposed to this experience. Only one case of harassment was indirectly reported by a female employer, she noted “It’s not uncommon that some people think that the care worker who looks after your grandmother, your mother, can go to bed with you just because she’s by herself.” (Interview N.26.8.11)

47Overall, it seems that the construction of gendered work ethics effectively channels male and female migrant workers to what are perceived as appropriate male- and female-jobs respectively. Although local gender ideologies may be challenged in daily interaction, the gendered functional criteria used by employers in their hiring decisions, and workers’ corroboration of employers’ preferences, lead them to jointly reproduce the local gendered labor market segregation. In what follows I discuss how employers and workers negotiate their respective social positions in their daily interaction.

Building and negotiating status and identity in the home-workplace

48Employers constantly negotiate their (class and ethnic) status and superior moral standing vis-à-vis migrant workers in the intimate sphere of the home and workplace. Despite involving a commercial transaction, live-in farm and care work allow for the development of mutual dependence, personal intimacy, and emotionally charged employment relationships, which render complex the negotiation of the respective status of employers and migrant workers.

49Scholarship on domestic labor has shed light on the interactive frameworks through which employers and workers negotiate their respective social positions in the private domain of the household (Constable 1997, Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001, Lan 2003, Lutz 2008 and 2011, Young 1987). The concept of boundary work is increasingly employed in this literature to explore the processes of subjectification of (migrant) domestic workers (Lutz 2008, Lan 2003). In cultural sociology, boundary work refers to “‘the strategies, principles, and practices we use to create, maintain, and modify cultural categories’” (Nippert-Eng in Lan, 2003: 526). I build on these insights to better understand the employment relationships of migrant farm and care workers in Ragusa.

  • 10 Lan elaborated such a typology on the basis of the analysis of three structural factors of the empl (...)
  • 11 The term “maternalism” appeared in early domestic labor literature, dating back to Judith Rollins’s (...)

50My analyses are based on Lan’s (2003) typology of employers’ boundary work: distant hierarchy, maternalism, personalism and business relationships.10 Distant hierarchy entails highlighting both class or ethnic divides and family boundaries (e.g. controlling of the use of home space). Maternalism entails emphasizing class and ethnic divides and simultaneously downplaying family boundaries by developing intimate or personalized relationships with (domestic) workers.11 Maternalism usually materializes in the practice of ‘benevolent’ gift-giving (Rollins 1985); it can lead to the legitimation of employers’ intrusion on the “private zones” of workers (Lan 2003: 533), and allow “employers to experience personal recognition and validation of themselves as kind, superior, and altruistic” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001: 11). Personalism entails downplaying class and ethnic hierarchies and family boundaries by establishing personal ties, for example, by assimilating workers to family members. Finally, business relationships imply downplaying ethnic or class hierarchies and stressing family boundaries. A business-like relationship in Lan’s typology ensures respect for the worker’s private time and space, by minimizing personal interaction and emphasizing the commercial aspects of the employment relationship. Lan recognizes that these categories overlap, forming a continuum rather than disconnected realities. My findings are in line with Lan's insights, especially concerning two strategies of boundary work that employers use in negotiating their social position in Ragusa: maternalism and personalism.

51In this section I discuss the issue of privacy and intimacy in the employment relationships of care and farm workers in Ragusa, highlighting the similarities. Building on Lan's typology, I identify how personalism and maternalism intervene in migrant workers’ subjectification and I complement this typology by exploring the construction of moral boundaries by employers.

Privacy and intimacy

52During my fieldwork, after conducting a few interviews with agricultural employers, I started having the impression that the context in which those interviews took place was hardly different from the one in which I met care workers and their employers. Most of the interviews with care workers took place at the employers’ home. Likewise, most interviews with farm workers and their employers took place at their workplace, which was also their home. On most farms there are small apartments destined to house foreign workers. These facilities are usually located only a few meters away from the employers’ homes. This situation made me aware of the similarities between the situation of live-in farm and care migrant workers in Ragusa.

53During the conversations with workers, employers demonstrated curiosity, and on some occasions invited themselves to participate in the interviews, or interrupted the conversations to make a remark or to offer us coffee or water. These interventions were facilitated precisely by the confluence of home and workplace. The interactions between employers and workers during the interviews further revealed that privacy is “a right unequally distributed” along class lines (Lan 2003: 528), as employers normally have more control over their privacy, than workers.

54In one occasion, I was invited to conduct an interview with a care worker in the house of her employer. We sat in the living room and the employer went to the kitchen. Since the apartment was small, the employer was able to listen in. Noticing that the worker had mentioned that she was retired, the employer interrupted our conversation denying the former, in an attempt to ‘protect’ the worker from disclosing sensitive information that could compromise the workers’ entitlement to retirement benefits in the country of origin. Other remarks made by employers were motivated by self-interest. For example, during a conversation with a farm worker, I asked about the woman’s leisure activities. Noting that the worker claimed that she had no leisure time, the employer intervened to dictate the correct answer adding: “I go out to the market to buy groceries… the groceries…” The worker then corrected herself: “Ah! yes, yes, there’s a market; I also go to Modica to visit my brother sometimes, and my cousins too.” (Interview M.26.12.10) Moreover, an employer's friend, who was present during this interview, asked the worker if she planned to have more children; before she could answer, her employer revealed some details of her private life:

Employer: That’s exactly what I was thinking the other day; she had a delay, a delay […].

Employee: […] First I quit smoking, then I ate a lot and I gained weight […]. I got scared when I saw that I was delayed, one day, two days and nothing, I started to…

Employer: To feel bad, so one day she jumps in with a tissue in her hand: ‘What am I going to do?’ I said ‘Don’t worry, you have the kid and I’ll raise him, I’ll raise him’, and she said ‘No! Let’s go to the doctor now!’ […] We went to my doctor, who’s also her doctor […]. (Interview M.26.12.10)

55On another occasion, an employer revealed sensitive personal details about the workers’ private life, which made the worker cry. Once I finished the interview, the employer apologized, explaining that normally the woman was “pretty open to talk about those things, I don’t know why she reacted in this way this time” (Interview N.26.8.11). Similarly, a farm worker told me that his wife was sad because one of his daughters was still in India, and because they were living precariously in a small apartment in the farm compound. Interestingly, the man specified that his employer was aware of this situation, observing: “he [employer] knows everything, because he lives here” (Interview I.12.5.09). A female employer revealed that the 59-year old care worker was dating a Ragusan man. The employer said she was glad that the worker trusted her enough to talk about her private life. Later on, during a private conversation with the employer, she further revealed personal details about the employee’s routine when she prepares to meet her boyfriend: “she monopolizes the bathroom for hours, she takes a shower, dresses up, puts make up on...” (Interview M.21.12.10). As Lan (2003: 527) observes: “The boundary work in domestic employment relationships is situated in the domestic politics of food, space and privacy.” By complaining about the use of the house space (e.g. the bathroom) the employer cited above illustrates how some workers may challenge, sometimes inadvertently, an employer’s status. These examples also demonstrate the complexity and high degree of personal intimacy that characterize the employment relationships that care and farm migrant workers maintain in Ragusa.

56The uneven distribution of privacy between employers and workers in the home-workplace is also illustrated in cases where workers have little privacy during their leisure time. For example, because of the spatial isolation of the farms, the range of leisure activities to which farm workers are likely to have access to is limited. Most get together in the evenings on one farm to drink, chat and relax, which may be either tolerated or criticized by employers. In her study of the employment relationships of migrant domestic workers in Taiwan, Lan (2003: 539) found that public space, ironically, provides Filipino domestic workers with more privacy, enabling them to display an “offstage identity”. In contrast, in the private sphere of homes they “act as maids” in front of their employers. A similar behavior has been reported in other studies on domestic workers’ subjectification (Constable 1997). Unlike the domestic workers in those studies, live-in farm workers in Ragusa, seem to have more difficulties in passing from front (the worker role) to backstage.

57In sum, proximity between employers and employees, both in eldercare and farm work, may lead to foster a sense of personal intimacy in the employment relations. Privacy refers to the degree of accessibility to the private zones of the homes, as well as to the exchange of private information between employers and workers (Lan 2003). The conflation of the house and the workplace in live-in eldercare and farm work facilitates the mutual invasion of the employers’ and workers’ private zones. However, privacy is unevenly distributed; employers seem to have more opportunities for intrusion on the private lives of live-in migrant workers. Employers may also instrumentally establish personal ties with employees for different reasons, as discussed below.

Personalism: Only business?

  • 12 Following Bourdieu, personalism could also be seen as a mechanism whereby the dominant class exerci (...)

58According to Lan (2003), personalism has three main functions: to minimize the employers’ class guilt, to confirm their middle-class identity, or to ease the discomfort of the confluence of private and public spheres (Lan 2003: 536). Personalism often materializes through the assimilation of workers to family members.12 This is common practice among employers in my sample. For example, when I asked Gianni, a farm supervisor, what he thought about emphasizing the hierarchy by maintaining distance in an employment relationship, he downplayed the hierarchy and emphasized instead the quasi-familial nature of the employment relations he maintains with employees. I was surprised to hear this, as this is the kind of reply that I expected from elderly employers, rather than from the owner of a farm:

This is a job that requires collaboration. You create quasi-familial relationships, affective ties, like extended family relations; because they’re alone here, you have the kind of situations where, for example, they ask you: ‘Could you wash up my clothes please?’ Or when you prepare a meal, it’s like: ‘Here you are, eat too’; this kind of thing. (Interview L.11.5.09)

59All employers except for one stressed the quasi-familial employment relationships they maintained with farm workers. In the care sector in Ragusa, female employers tend to assimilate workers to their sisters; for their part, workers frequently use the Italian term “mamma” to refer to their elderly female employers.

60Assimilating the worker to a family member helps reducing some of the anxieties provoked by the presence of a ‘stranger’ at home. Some elderly also reduce distance in search for company. Workers may embrace personalism to ease their own alienation or non-belonging to the community. A care worker mentioned that whenever she felt sad or nostalgic about her own family, she tried to relax and sought the company of the employer because “when I’m with the people of the family I’m calm, I feel good.” (Interview V.26.8.11) A farm worker claimed that his employers were good because they cared about him. Questioned about the reasons that led him to think that, he specified: “whenever I have a problem, my Madame stands by me.” (Interview A.23.811)

61Reducing distance and class (and ethnic) hierarchies has different implications for migrant workers. For example, moral considerations may deter some workers from pursuing mobility strategies, such as abandoning the jobs on the farms to move north in search for better opportunities once their migratory status is regularized. A farm worker, for instance, constructed his superior moral standing in comparison to other workers observing that: “they [employers] applied for my permit, and then what? I’m currently waiting for my permit to be released, but once I have the permit in my hands I won’t leave, that’s not acceptable” (Interview K.27.12.10). Interviewed separately, the employer praised the worker, specifying that “he did not wait to get the permit to escape. He’s really considerate… he goes beyond the call of duty, and he managed to become a member of our family.” (Interview S.27.12.10)

62Sometimes, the commercial dimension of the employment relationship overrides such fictive family ties. In the care sector the employment relationship is inherently tied to the life cycle. This ‘labor of love’ entails the development of affective ties between employers and employees. Many workers expressed their sadness vis-à-vis the death of their former employers. Nevertheless, when an employment relationship is terminated, following the employer’s death, as self-enterprising subjects, workers need to secure another job. Another example of how market concerns may override the human dimension of employment was given by an employer. She observed that a worker had assessed the vacancy at her home, to look after her ill husband, in economic terms. The candidate had declined the post arguing that the health condition of the man was too deteriorated to make the trip to Ragusa profitable. This example shows that sometimes, the provision of paid care may be seen by both employers and workers as a full commercial activity, where both the caregiver and the employer become replaceable, regardless of the affective ties that may exist between them.

63The boundaries between personalism and market rationality (pure business relationship) are difficult to establish, although the two extremes are impossible in reality. While most employers in Ragusa claim to reduce distance, they clearly have an idea of their own limits. For instance, and employer voiced surprise when I asked whether the workers received any kind of additional compensation such as gifts or assistance. Positioning him in a business relationship where his obligations are stipulated in a contract he replied that his ‘personal surplus’ consisted in driving employees to the closest supermarket as they did not have a car. Questioned about the importance of maintaining distance with employees he observed: “I think it should be balanced. Not like, because he’s [dark] or because I’m dark…no, not this; but it remains a labor relationship... Even if there’s friendship, it’s always relative.” (Interview S.14.5.09) Another employer specified that distancing is selective; she did not keep distance from Indian workers, arguing that she had never had problems with them (Interview C.11.5.09). Another employer adopted a contradictory discourse using both terms “sister” and “la signora” (the lady) to refer to the worker, revealing the limits of the myth of being like family:

Employer: Mrs. [name of employee] lives here, just to give you an example, at noon, we’ve been together [it was a holiday, usually celebrated in family]. We’ve been with her, with her family, we had lunch together.

Question: Do you usually have lunch together?

Employer: No, everyone minds his own business. She has her own apartment, with a bathroom, a kitchen, everything. She has her own hens, they are hers… This morning I went to ask her for eggs [laughs]. ‘Listen, do you want some chocolate?’ I had a basket of ricotta cheese and I had made some sweets… We’re like sisters. (Interview C.26.12.10)

64Yet another employer explained how the fact of maintaining distance with workers was triggered by a bad experience her family had with one worker. A worker who was drunk had assaulted her mother with a knife. The employer admitted being more cautious at present (Interview R.23.8.11).

65According to Lan, employers minimize distance and personalize relationships in exchange for workers’ labor surplus, which can range from overtime to emotional work. This has been referred to as “instrumental personalism” (Lan 2003: 536). Employers may deploy “strategic personalism” in order to ensure a certain level of quality in the services provided by workers. The owner of a farm, for example, believes that a familial relationship will enhance the trust that workers may place in employers, she noted: “Distance is necessary…. But the more distance you create, the worse it is. If you help them, if you seek to establish a familial relationship, they may hide less things from you.” (Interview R.23.8.11)

66Self-interest and productivity concerns on the part of employers may also underpin the adoption of strategies aimed at reducing family boundaries and ethnic or class hierarchies. The employer cited below depicts the employment relationship in market terms, explaining her different kinds of investments in creating a good relationship with the worker, as well as the expected returns:

I think that if a person is living in my house, I’d like that person to become part of my family. It’s not only about altruism, it’s also about egoism, in the sense that, if you pay a good salary to the person, it’s not only because you feel affection for her; it’s also because when you make her feel good, you create the conditions for her to give you the maximum. In my opinion, it’s not only altruism, but also profit. […] There are more altruistic people, who emphasize that aspect, and there are people who have a different character and they prefer to maintain distance. In terms of productivity, you never know whether one attitude or the other will work in your favor. Sometimes people who keep distance obtain greater returns because the badante [care worker] fears losing the job. With [name of employee] we have a familial relationship. She has no problem to ask me: ‘Listen, I need to refill my cell phone’; ‘Listen, my daughter is getting married and I need four days off to go to Turkey’. I paid her trip; she didn’t expect us to pay for the trip. But what can you do? You help her, because you realize she’s not seen her daughter in many years, you are aware of the fact that they had some problems, etc. You help her. She wanted to make her daughter a gift, so what do you do? Do you make her spend money when you know she’s building a house and that her son is really ill? You don’t make her spend money! [...] I’m fine with this situation. But in my opinion, productivity is not positively correlated to the degree of inclusion in the family [...]. With some workers it’s necessary to maintain distance; because there are people who take advantage […]. There are people who come here with the sole and unique purpose of making money. So you can find a person like [name of employee] or you can be unlucky and come across persons who want to take advantage […]. In every situation there are advantages and disadvantages. (Interview N.26.8.11)

67The former reveals that the employer deploys personalism both to alleviate class guilt and to enhance the care worker’s productivity. The example also points to a few disadvantages of personalism (e.g. the material costs associated with her investment in building a good relationship with the employer or non-material costs such as the concession of holidays). The employer is also aware of the fact that personalism may also be embraced and instrumentalized by workers to obtain material and non-material rewards from employers, for example, by eliciting class guilt (Lan 2003, Salazar Parreñas 2001). Personalism overlaps with strategies whereby employers seek to affirm their superior standing, as discussed below.

Maternalism, moral boundaries and ‘good employers’

68A relatively different dimension of personalism has been identified through the concept of maternalism. Maternalism entails downplaying the commercial dimension of the employment relationship and simultaneously emphasizing the class or ethnic hierarchies and familial inclusion (Lan 2003). Anderson (2000: 144) describes maternalism as an asymmetric feminized relationship whereby care for (i.e. protection of) the employee undermines her dignity as an adult worker. In reality, the boundaries between maternalism and personalism are elastic. Following Hondagneu-Sotelo (2001), Lan suggests that personalism is a two-way asymmetrical relationship, whereas maternalism is mostly defined by unilateral action, often materialized in the practice of gift-giving (Lan 2003: 534), which the author conceived of as an unilateral action that allows employers to affirm status, provoking mixed feelings in workers such as gratitude, dependence, and sometimes humiliation.

69It is not uncommon that employers give food, second-hand clothes and even animals to farm workers. Lan (2003) and others (e.g. Piette 2000) have documented ways in which food management becomes an important class marker in the organization of difference in the home-workplace. Employers often keep leftovers for agricultural workers, especially during special meals such as those of Easter and Christmas. Such gestures of generosity and charity contribute to constructing the identity of the ‘good employer’, and to affirming employers’ moral standing. The owner of a farm, for instance, affirmed her superior moral standing by highlighting her benevolence towards employers, giving them clothes, thus preventing them from having to spend money:

I try to avoid making them spend money in clothes. They accept second-hand clothes; we collect them, me and my relatives and my friends […]. During winter we organize ourselves… we collect sweaters, socks […]. We give everything to Indians […]. We give them the work-clothes, but we also give them clothes to go out. I mean, I seek not to make them spend money in these things. This is why, obviously, they don’t go window-shopping, because they don’t need to buy any clothes. (Interview R.23.8.11)

70Employers are aware of the asymmetrical relationships they maintain with workers. In the following example, not only does the employer reduce class boundaries and alleviate her class guilt through personalism (thereby permitting the worker to carry out certain tasks that would otherwise be out of bounds), but she also reduces family boundaries by allowing the worker to participate in family events while sparing no expense and invoking maternalism in the form of gift-giving. The employer also affirms her superior moral standing in comparison to other employers, despite denying this fact:

We all save for [name of employee]; we collect stuff… Sometimes we also buy stuff, we go to the supermarket ourselves because we don’t want her to make any effort because of her back problem […]; she doesn’t make any effort […]. She sends all the money she earns to Romania. Here she doesn’t spend any money. We also collect clothes for her son. We have sent at least one package every month […] every time she goes to Romania she leaves everything there to her sister, to the neighbor, etc. She comes back with her empty bags and we start all over again […]. My niece got married and she needed a cocktail dress, and where do you get it? You buy it. And you buy her matching shoes as well. She came to the wedding with us, because for us, they’re part of the family. At least, I was raised like this… […] I know some families where the badante is a second-class person. And I’m not telling you this to show off: “Oh, look at my family, how good we are.” (Interview N.26.8.11)

71While gift-giving and maternalism can denote employers’ genuine commitment to ensuring the employees’ well-being, some of these practices may heighten the structural asymmetries of the employment relationship. One example is the practice of providing employees accommodation free of cost (accomodato) in order to help them save money. This arrangement is often formalized through an official contract and declared at the local registry. As mentioned earlier, most employers have built housing infrastructure on the farms, reserved for foreign workers. This practice serves to declare workers’ residence and facilitates the administrative procedures related to the release or renewal of their residence and work permits. Interestingly, despite the contractual nature of this practice, many employers and workers themselves perceive this as a favor which allows affirming employers’ moral standing. Along these lines, the owner of a farm constructed her superior moral standing by mentioning that she had allowed a couple of workers to dwell in a house built for the workers, even when they no longer worked for her, as a proof of her benevolence. She further qualified her benevolence as a “weakness”: “We didn’t tie the house to a work contract; we offered them the house, without a lease contract, nothing. We’re weak.” (Interview G.4.1.11)

72Accommodation is not the only kind of favor that employers use to affirm their moral standing. Contributing to employees’ expenses (besides salary), making payment advances, buying them cigarettes or telephone cards, or lending them money are all examples of gift-giving practices. On two occasions in my sample, gift-giving went beyond the above-mentioned ‘generic’ displays of generosity. In one case, employers had helped the worker pay for a private daycare for her daughter (the same that the grandchildren of the employers attended). They also lent her money to buy a car and paid for her driving lessons. Such favors served to reinforce the workers’ loyalty, who claimed: “I’m not attracted towards other sectors; I’m used to my program. Besides, I will never leave these people, because when I needed a hand they helped me. And if they ever need my help, I cannot refuse, is not fair.” (Interview G.4.1.11) Helping workers’ children is a common display of benevolence used by many employers. One employer, for instance, described how the entire family was helping the worker’s child, who had some difficulties at school, by driving the child to school, feeding him and paying for private lessons (Interview C.26.12.10).

73Besides maternalism, employers may also affirm their status by creating moral boundaries that separate them from workers, either based on self-assessments of their behavior (e.g. treating workers in a respectful manner), or by highlighting practices that they perceive as immoral, which confirm workers’ inferior standing. One employer, for instance, constructed the identity of the ‘good employer’ by emphasizing her compassion towards workers. Her discourse further reveals how market calculations underpin her engagement in ‘emotional work’, and how strategic personalism is employed to increase the workers’ productivity:

This boy, God knows what he has seen in his life! His mother died when he was a child […], he was raised by the grandmother […], he grew up without a paternal figure […]; he was traumatized [...]. We [employers] must analyze the people, you know. There are employers who are arrogant, they pretend to be important, “You, do this, do that…” and there you go, the worker is not productive. It doesn’t pay you to treat them like that, and they don’t feel like staying with you for long time […]. Perhaps you find a good worker but he doesn’t feel like staying […]. Foreigners -- not only Romanian -- many faced serious difficulties during their childhood… God knows what they have seen! All these traumas, all these scars -- who can heal them? […] there are some employers who (I saw on TV) beat them or extort them, like: “I won’t pay you if you don’t…” […] but I think this doesn’t happen here in Ragusa. (Interview C.26.12.10)

74Other employers affirm their moral standing by disapproving the workers’ behavior. One employer, for example created a moral boundary between the moral Us (Ragusan) and immoral They, around workers’ drinking habits. She mentioned that she prefers to hire foreign farm workers who have a family, because single men are inclined to drink, she noted: “…unfortunately, they have a completely different culture from ours, they get drunk very easily […] All of them. Tunisians, Albanians, Romanians, even Indians, even Indians!” (Interview R.23.8.11). Another employer condemned the immoral behavior of a care worker who, at age 50, is dating a Ragusan man who is twenty years younger. She also built a collective immoral identity of care workers by ascribing them other negative traits:

Employer: […] They leave Romania for twenty days! It’s like they come here on holidays! […] The younger ones escape almost as soon as they arrive here... [...] don’t tell me about badanti [caregivers]. Then this 50-year-old woman seduced a 30-year-old boy […]. She was out of her mind! You should have seen my mother… [makes a gesture indicating disapproval]

Employers’ friend: But, how did it work? She went to his place or…?

Employer: Um, that’s the point…. [laughs]

Employer’s friend: They... [had sex] here; in your house?

Employer: [laughs] She got him in through the back door![…]

Anyways, I don’t trust them [...]. They do whatever they want; now they give old people the drops [medication to sleep], poor elderly! […] But it’s our fault, we’re ignorant, we treat them well. (Interview C.26.12.10)

75Finally, moral boundaries may also be constructed through concerns intended to highlight the employer’s superior moral standing (e.g. kindness, pity), in contrast with the workers’ disloyal behavior. The employer cited below at length creates such opposition by condemning workers’ disloyal conduct and the use of legal means of resistance, which entails a transgression of the informal arrangements that structure the local labor market. This example also shows how in agriculture, as in eldercare, employment relationships are emotionally charged:

I’m not one of those who discriminates foreigners […]; for me everyone’s the same, I could wash the feet of this person or the other, trust me. Then you find people… what do they have in their hearts! They’re evil inside, but... you’ve got to help them, because you have a heart. […] we had a Tunisian boy... he went on holidays to Tunisia and broke up with the girl […]. My husband told him: “It’s ok, you’ll find another girl.” […] He got married and he got her pregnant […]. My husband prepared a mini-apartment for them, with a bedroom, a kitchen and bathroom […] [I] did everything for her […]; they returned to Tunisia. When they came back: ‘Signora I want to work.’ [sarcastic tone] We had the cheese factory so we helped them […]; my nephews […] found a daycare for the child […]. Three days after -- these are things you never forget! -- they told me: ”We found a house in Ragusa.” Okay [pause]; after three days they told me “We will no longer work with you, it’s too much work.” [pause] I received a letter from the trade union [the workers had filed a legal complaint for long hours of work]. My husband had lent them money for the wedding, we gave them so much love! I’m not saying this because I want their love. Everything I do, I offer it to Jesus Christ, in heaven […]. I don’t need a ‘thank you’ […] but if you wanted something, why did you go to the trade union? Do you see what I mean? I think is a matter of character... (Interview C.26.12.10)

Chapter conclusion: Live-in jobs and local techniques of optimization

76The examination of how employers’ hiring decisions and practices affect the construction of migrant workers’ identity and social standing reveals that their suitability for eldercare and farm work is constructed by ascribing them ‘marketable talents’ that involve technical knowledge, practical know-how, language proficiency, ‘love’ for the job, and a range of behaviors that denote emotional intelligence. The intersection of job-specific and non-job-specific criteria in the construction of migrants’ work ethics and social positions points to similar subjectification processes of farm and care migrant workers. To some extent, the marginal positions filled by migrants are also regarded by employers as ‘labors of love’ as some main chores are directly related to the act of caring (for human beings and for animals). In conclusion, as Rollins (1985: 156) has argued, employers extract more than labor; following Anderson (2000), I might say that employers in Ragusa purchase not only labor power but also migrants’ personhood. Moreover, the identification of similar employment relations in two distinct sectors of the Ragusan labor market reveal the analytical value of the two emblematic figures of migration in my study.

  • 13 As Wimmer notes, “[e]thnic boundaries result from actions of individuals on both sides of the bound (...)

77Migrant workers’ positioning in the local occupational and social hierarchies is further shaped by social boundaries created by employers along the lines of ethnicity, class, gender and morality. These boundaries are constantly negotiated in the private sphere of the home-workplace. By essentializing some of the qualities that define the work ethics of ‘good workers’ (e.g. deference, reliability, manageability, solidarity), employers create ethno-national hierarchies that differentiate productive and manageable workers (e.g. Indian nationals), from unmanageable and shameful others (e.g. Romanians). Employers further employ gendered functionality criteria (physical and attitudinal characteristics) to naturalize workers’ suitability to perform feminized or masculinized jobs. Migrant workers do not always passively identify with or internalize such stereotypes (this is further discussed in Chapter 5).13 Interestingly, the workers interviewed in Ragusa did not overtly challenge the construction of their work ethics or the sexual division of labor. These findings may constitute a small contribution to the recent debates over the inclusion of a gender perspective in migration studies: they confirm that local gender structures and employers’ and workers’ subjectivity shape labor market outcomes for migrants.

78Regarding migration management, the shared live-in condition of farm and care workers provides opportunities for close supervision and for the deployment of techniques of optimization and control. However, the live-in condition renders migrant workers “intimate Others” (Lan 2003), complicating the negotiation of social boundaries. Employers resort, indeed, to different forms of boundary work to negotiate their respective class, gender, ethnic and moral standing. Using Lan’s (2003) typology of employers’ boundary work, I identified several ways in which employers participate in the subjectification of care and farm migrant workers: intruding workers’ privacy, using strategic personalism and maternalism, and creating moral boundaries that separate them from workers. Employers may use personalism or maternalism instrumentally, for example, to enhance workers’ productivity, dependency, and loyalty. Employers may also affirm their superior moral standing through practices such as gift-giving and by asserting their own morality and benevolence in relation to foreign workers.

79Overall, the analysis of the micro-politics of migrants’ employment relationships reveals that intimacy and the de-regulation of home-workplace in migrants’ live-in farm and care jobs is consistent with contemporary migration management trends. In these occupations, the confluence of home and workplace provides multiple opportunities for deploying local techniques -- or “forms of power” according to Foucault (1982) -- aimed at optimizing low-wage workers, which allow for the reproduction of global structural inequalities. The identification of such contextualized practices of optimization sheds greater light onto the ways in which the larger processes of marginalization of care and farm migrant workers are reproduced on a daily basis.


1 Anderson (2000) argues that paid domestic work involves the commodification of workers’ personal identity or personhood, which can be bought and sold for a wage, similar to labor power.

2 To refer to the processes through which one becomes a subject, I use the terms “subjectification” and “subject-making” interchangeably.

3 I use the terms identity and social position interchangeably.

4 Rummens suggests that social interaction compels actors to engage in determining the similarities and differences that exist between Self and Other (2003: 11) using multiple identity criteria. Furthermore, Rummens defines identity negotiation as “the political nature of personal and social identification of self and/or other between or among, and by or within groups, via the interactions of individuals (Rummens 2000). Identities can be ascribed, achieved or simply assumed by individuals and collectivities. Socially ascribed identities may not always correspond to the individual’s self-definition. This reveals the power dynamics inherent in identification processes (Rummens 1993, 2003: 22). Research on identity negotiation focuses on issues of identity ascription, contention, categorization and labeling, intersecting identities, and the determination of group membership and boundaries.

5 The human capital theory has been quite influential in migration studies. It makes a distinction between low ability and high ability workers, whose migration outcomes (or returns from migration) depend on their individual characteristics and abilities (e.g. education, ambition, intelligence, learning speed, decision-making proficiency, entrepreneurial skills, aggressiveness, tenacity, health). The favorable selectivity of migrants is explained through the favorable selectivity of the supply (e.g. high ability migrants); see Chiswick, 2008.

6 About half of the migrant workers interviewed hold a high school diploma in such areas as commerce, accountancy, teaching, and informatics. Only one out of the three workers who attended a higher education institution graduated. Other workers completed or attended some level of secondary education, and a few completed a cycle of primary education. Before coming to Ragusa, most women used to work in factories (of garments and shoes); a few were clerks in state-run firms or offices (postal services, railways). Most men in my sample were farmers or had prior experience in agriculture.

7 Jenkins studied the systematic discrimination of black workers in recruitment processes in the public, manufacturing and retailing sectors in the United Kingdom. He argued that direct discrimination and notions of acceptability and suitability as well as ethnic stereotypes determined the structural disadvantages of those workers. He divided the selection criteria into “functionally specific”, thus educational qualifications, training or physique that relate to job performance and competence, and “functionally non specific”, concerning the organizational context, or the criteria of suitability and of acceptability (Jenkins 1986: 46-47). Although Jenkins draws a distinction between suitability and acceptability criteria, he specifies that this distinction is analytical as both categories usually overlap. Overall, functional criteria tend to be more visible and measurable than suitability or acceptability criteria. Furthermore, for Jenkins the notion of acceptability is directly related to the managerial function of the employers, or their concern for maintaining control.

8 The national press has reported cases of death due to alcohol intoxication of Romanian women in Palermo who mainly worked as care givers for the elderly (La Repubblica, Cronaca 2007a and 2007b, Mignosi 2007). Other newspapers have reported cases of extortion, and the more common practice of forged travel and work documents.

9 Migration scholars have increasingly added a gender dimension to their analyses. In the mid-1970s, studies focused on gender “roles” assigned to men and women in different societies and in different realms (e.g. the public and private spheres). Gender was seen as a polar social construction. There has been a shift in the study of “gender” in migration studies from a dearth of research on women in migration to taking women as the primary object of study since the 1970s (Mahler and Pessar 2006). Nevertheless, since the 1980s there seems to be a consensus about the conceptualization of gender as relational, situational and performative. Gender is understood as a “subjective process” rather than a given or assigned status (Donato et al. 2006: 5). On this basis, this section explores the gendered nature of migrant recruitment, an important topic in the international migration research agenda (Mahler and Pessar 2006).

10 Lan elaborated such a typology on the basis of the analysis of three structural factors of the employment relationships in domestic service: “class positioning”, “job assignment” (the ratio of care work to housework involved in the job content) and “time-space setting” of the employment (the space that employers and employees share in the private homes, and the amount of time they spend together) (2003: 527). Building on Hondagneu-Sotelo (2001), Lan further argues that the extent to which care work is involved in the job content increases the likelihood of developing a sense of personal intimacy.

11 The term “maternalism” appeared in early domestic labor literature, dating back to Judith Rollins’s (1985) analysis of the interaction between employers and domestic workers in the United States, which built on Goffman’s teachings. Judith Rollins conceives “maternalism” as follows: “The maternalism dynamic is based in the assumption of a superordinate-subordinate relationship. While maternalism may protect and nurture, it also degrades and insults” (1985: 186). Moreover, precisely on the subject of gift-giving Bourdieu notes that “[g]enerous exchange tends towards overwhelming generosity; the greatest gift is at the same time the gift most likely to throw its recipient into dishonor by prohibiting any counter-gift.” (1997: 14)

12 Following Bourdieu, personalism could also be seen as a mechanism whereby the dominant class exercises domination. Bourdieu notes that “they have to work directly, daily, personally, to produce and reproduce conditions of domination…” (1977: 190). To this end, they resort to elementary forms of domination or the direct domination of one person by another; “[t]hey cannot appropriate labour, services, goods, homage, and respect of others without ‘winning’ them personally, ‘tying’ them – in short, creating a bond between persons.” (Bourdieu 1977: 190) Obligation, gratitude, respect, and loyalty are some examples of the outcomes of these modes of domination.

13 As Wimmer notes, “[e]thnic boundaries result from actions of individuals on both sides of the boundary and from their interactions across the boundary” (Wimmer 2007: 14, emphasis in original). Andreas Wimmer introduced the boundary-making paradigm in migration studies, calling for the de-ethnicization of migration (2007, 2008). Building on the work of Barth (1969) and others, Wimmer argues that ethnic groups are “the result of a reversible social process of boundary making”. He further contends that “[…] actors mark ethnic boundaries with cultural diacritica they perceive as relevant…” and that ethnic groups result from acts of social distancing and closure vis-à-vis other groups (2007: 13-14). Under this perspective, therefore, ethnicity is not a fixed property contained in individuals or social groups, but a social construction. Wimmer believes that migration scholars should not take ethnicity for granted and should focus on the processes of formation and transformation of ethnic groups as the product of boundary-making. Such a perspective, he argues, would allow migration scholars to think of “assimilation” and “integration” processes as reversible and power-driven and not as the result of overcoming cultural difference and social distance.


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