Version classiqueVersion mobile

Migration Management?

Sandra Paola Alvarez Tinajero

Chapter 5. The contradictions of self-enterprising migrant worker subjects

Texte intégral

  • 1 For Foucault, the word “subject” has two meanings: “subject to someone else by control and dependen (...)
  • 2 Lan (2003) explores the construction and negotiation of social boundaries between Taiwanese employe (...)

1Migrant agricultural and care workers share similar conditions of work and social positions in the receiving labor market. The construction of their shared condition as low-wage laborers involves parallel processes of subject formation (or subjectification) and identity construction.1 The study of migration as a process of subject formation is not new.2 Here it serves to articulate the subject level of analysis to respond to the question about what the parallel experiences of migrant farm and care workers in Ragusa imply about current processes of neoliberal restructuring, including the perception of self.

2I explore two aspects of the subjectification of migrant care and farm workers in Ragusa: a) the emergence of contradictory class positions -- building on Salazar Parreñas (2001) -- linked to their conflicting self-improvement aspirations and the low-status reserved for the jobs they perform in the receiving context; b) the negotiation of their subordinate status in the receiving society, through specific practices (or ‘response tactics’) to maintain their dignity.

3I rely on Aihwa Ong’s (2006) Foucauldian reading of neoliberalism as a technology of governing to explore migrant workers’ subjectivity, to the extent that it entails “the government of free individuals who are then induced to self-manage according to market principles of discipline, efficiency, and competitiveness” (2006: 4). Migrant workers could be seen as self-enterprising subjects and migration as part of the process of constitution of self, guided by particular values and goals (e.g. accumulating capital, building an identity as consumer).

4Concomitantly, while migration enables many low-wage workers to realize their self-improvement aspirations, it exposes them to multiple forms of exclusion from the benefits of capitalist development, or in Ong’s terms, to “exceptions” to neoliberalism (e.g. the exclusion from the living standards created by market-driven policies; 2006: 4-5, 21). As knowledgeable subjects, migrant care and farm workers are aware of their subordinate status. However, according to Giddens, “[p]ower relations are always two-way; that is to say, however subordinate an actor may be in a social relationship, the very fact of involvement in that relationship gives him or her a certain amount of power over the other” (1979: 6). Indeed, migrant workers participate actively in the construction and negotiation of their own identities and social positions in their everyday interaction with employers.

  • 3 Giddens conceives “structure as the medium and outcome of the conduct it recursively organizes” (19 (...)

5The concept of the duality of structure3 is helpful to understand migrants’ practices as simultaneously enabled and constrained by the various axes of domination that intervene in their constitution as low-status workers in eldercare and farm work. The question then arises as to what extent these workers challenge the structures of inequality that intervene in their constitution as low-wage laborers. Building on Butler’s elaboration on the Foucauldian subject, Salazar Parreñas (2001) admits that while the enactment of power involves a shift from being the object to becoming the subject of power, agency is conditioned. The subject remains tied to the external forces that enable and simultaneously constrain agency.

6In what follows I explore how migrant agency intervenes in the construction of farm and care workers’ occupational and class identities and positioning in the receiving society, including constraints related to: a) the exceptions to neoliberalism that deny them other identities than that of low-wage laborers; b) the structurally asymmetrical employment relationships they maintain. I start by examining migrants’ subjectivities and the meanings of their migration projects. Then I identify some specific forms of exclusion that confirm migrants’ subordinate position in the receiving context, generating contradictions between their self-improvement aspirations and their low-status condition in Ragusa. Finally, I identify some of the ways in which migrant workers negotiate their status and maintain their dignity.

Neoliberalism as a technology of governing, migration and subjectification

  • 4 It is worth clarifying that Ong uses the term ethics (2006: 21-22, emphasis added) “…in the ancient (...)

7Ong conceives the neoliberal subject, in her analysis of neoliberalism as a technology of governing, as of a “self-enterprising citizen-subject who is obligated to become an ‘entrepreneur of himself or herself’” (2006: 14). This concept is quite interesting for migration studies, especially in the linkages between migration management discourses and practice and neoliberalism as a technology of governing migration. In Ong’s view, neoliberalism as a technology of governing, entails the construction of self-enterprising subjects that embrace a certain “ethics”, a “practice of the self, or normative techniques in self-care for attaining a particular mode of being” (Ong 2006: 21-22). This practice of self may be consistent with the (market) principles underpinning this particular way of governing individuals and populations, but several ethical regimes can coexist.4

8Migration could be seen as part of practice of the self; as an aspect of self-engineering to attain a particular lifestyle. Migrants’ self-improvement practices can relate to capital accumulation, which as part of migrants’ perception and construction of self; but they are not limited to it. It is my contention that the analysis of migration projects can shed light on the factors that shape migrants’ subjectivity and self-enterprising endeavors, as well as the construction of different social positions (e.g. in the contexts of origin and reception). In this section I explore migration as part of migrant workers’ self-improvement practices.

“Just like a dream!” Migrant workers’ self-improvement aspirations

  • 5 For Appadurai, imagination, understood as a culturally organized practice and a central element of (...)

9As stated above, international migration can be seen as one among many other self-improvement practices. Migration decisions and projects, even when they entail calculation (Harris and Todaro 1970, Borjas 1989), often occur in a context of imperfect information, and are influenced by the larger social structures in which migrants participate, as well as by imagination as social practice.5 Questioned about the meanings of their migration projects, many of my interlocutors emphasized the economic motivations underlying their decisions to come to Ragusa. Two of the most exemplary responses, given by a care worker and a farm worker, respectively, summarize the views of many of their colleagues:

Question: I’d like to know what it meant for you to come here.

Employee: Money, money, money. (Interview B.6.1.11)

Question: … And what did it mean for you to come to Ragusa?

Employee: Well, it’s better life. Better life.

Question: Could you explain?

Employee: We are much better here [than] in India.

Question: In what sense better?

Employee: Like, here we earn money and everyday [we’re] working, time flies, […] just like a dream!


Question: … would you like to do something else?

Employee: But earn the money is the thing, [laughs] but earn money is the only thing in the planet! When we [get] the money, slowly, slowly… life is building [up], then we like it here, yes […] we [would] move for a good job, I mean a job paying better money […]; [we want] more and more, mind is always thinking like that [laughs]. (Interview F.11.5.09)

10The second example illustrates how some workers conceive the material gains they yield from mobility as of means for attaining a particular mode of being. Other workers build their migration projects based on fantasy (e.g. “we dream of improving our lives, dreams which we can’t realize in Romania”); on curiosity or on the desire to improve their financial and social status (e.g. paying a mortgage, building or repairing the house, acquiring symbols of status such as big cars).

11The wage disparities that exist between the sending ad the receiving ends motivate some migration decisions. But rather than engaging in meticulous calculations my interlocutors relied on place-based-knowledge gathered through their relatives or acquaintances (see Chapter 3).

12Self-improvement projects are complex and can hardly be reduced to accumulation goals. They are shaped by migrants’ specific structural location, as well as factors such as gender, age and class. This is often overlooked in migration scholarship, perhaps because of the established image of the young male (and more recently female) economic migrant (see Castles and Miller 2009: 33). Some of my interlocutors embraced that image, for example, when explaining how they plan to use their savings: “… we’re always saving money, buying the television, buying the... DVD” (Interview F.11.5.09); “… I’m always thinking of getting better quality things, always… next year I hope we can buy other things, like cars. […] I have a car, but it’s old... (Interview A.12.5.09).

13Nevertheless, my data indicate that migrants’ priorities and practices of self-improvement go beyond capital accumulation and that they change, for example, with age. In Ragusa the ‘female migrant granny’ is replacing the archetypical figure of the young migrant in the care sector. Many care workers interviewed in Ragusa are aged 50 and over. The majority have adult children, some of whom are migrant workers themselves. Most women are retired and receive a pension in their country of origin; they are not always the main breadwinner. Many of these women came to Ragusa hoping to earn enough money to buy or renovate a house, to help their children to complete a cycle of tertiary education, to support their husbands or adult children who are unemployed, to afford medical treatments, or simply to gain supplementary income to make gifts to their relatives. Lidia for example, is a 59-year-old married woman who came to Ragusa to support her youngest, 20-year-old son, who is unemployed. She thinks that it is her duty as a mother to provide for him. Her role as a mother underlies her accumulation goals. Conversely, Urszula is a 59-year-old woman who is already retired and receives a pension in her country of origin. She is divorced and has a partner in Ragusa. Urszula did not prioritize her family obligations in her migration project. Questioned about her motivations to come to Ragusa, she clarified: “I like to work. In Poland there are jobs for retired persons but they are not well paid. I could work in a big supermarket like Lidl, like ARD, but I wouldn’t make as much money as I make here”. She also mentioned loneliness (a feeling shared by other care workers in my sample) as a factor influencing her decision to migrate: “I thought, ‘if I’m alone, why shouldn’t I come here?’ I wanted to try. When I saw that people here liked me, I thought: ‘Why should I leave?’ This is also a way of living my life.” (Interview R.21.12.10) Urszula does not remit cash; she says she is happy to help “when my children need money for important things, not for living”. She also enjoys sending gifts to her grandchildren and buying “beautiful things for the house”.

14The construction of self is indeed related to the multiple positions that migrant workers occupy in the countries of origin and destination. The examples above further suggest that there is still much to uncover about how migration affects the life cycle and vice versa; how welfare systems affect and are affected by the migration of senior women or men; how these migrations affect the composition of transnational households in adulthood; or how they differ from the migration cycles and trajectories of younger migrants, to name but a few topics.

15Furthermore, accumulation projects tend to be shaped by factors such as the social status reserved to migrants in the receiving context. Kearney noted that in the era of globalization, “time compression results from the imperative in capitalism to constantly shorten the average turnover time between investment and the taking of profit” (1995: 551). In the migration projects of my interlocutors, such time compression sometimes materializes in a desire to maximize the economic returns as quickly as possible, especially when the jobs are daunting and unattractive. One worker noted: “When the job is really awful, dirty, not nice, then the only thing you care about is your income. When the person spends two months here, all she wants is the money and arrivederci, bye!” (Interview B.6.1.11). Despite planning short stays, many workers are compelled to extend the duration of their stay in Ragusa, or to return there frequently, as owing to their low-paid and low-status jobs their accumulation goals may remain continuously unmet. Most care workers consider themselves temporary migrants, regardless of the cyclic nature of their visits to Ragusa. So do Indian and Tunisian farm workers; however, they tend to formulate long-term self-improvement projects (some wish to bring their families or secure their entitlement to retirement benefits in Ragusa).

16Piore further argued that “[t]he temporary character of the migration flow appears to create a sharp distinction between works, on the one hand, and the social identity of the worker, on the other” (1979: 54). On this basis, it could be argued that perceiving the low-wage laborer condition in Ragusa as temporary may allow some workers to cope with their hard conditions of work, and to picture the employment relationship in commercial terms, to protect themselves from strategic personalism deployed by employers (see Chapter 4). However, my data suggest that it is very unlikely that migrant workers (including ‘temporary target earners’) can fully detach themselves from class hierarchies, and conceal the subordinate position in the receiving society (this is further discussed below).

17Furthermore, although migrants’ projects seem to be, at first glance, built on accumulation concerns, my interview data show that multiple considerations (beyond self-improvement) underlie such projects. Accumulation goals can co-exist with such considerations as a sense of duty, migrants’ affection for employers, or simply their vocation to undertake a specific job:

Question: What did it mean for you to come here?

Employee: Well, as I said, in India, I can’t work as a farmer, and I don’t like any other job… (Interview I.12.5.09)

You know, if you only want to count your money, this job becomes unbearable, for your body and for your mind. If you don’t enjoy helping people, you can’t resist for a long time, three or four months, maximum. I like to help. (Interview B.6.1.11)

When I wake up, I don’t think this is a job, I always think this is my life; this is the way I want to live… I’m not here for the money. This is a way of living. (Interview R.21.12.10)

18In sum, migrant workers in Ragusa can be seen as self-enterprising subjects to the extent their migration projects are linked to specific accumulation goals. Ironically, through their labor, migrants contribute to reproducing the larger structural conditions of inequality underlying their migration projects. In addition, self-improvement projects may be achieved at the expense of assuming a subordinate position in the receiving context, and the consequent exposure to multiple forms of exclusion or “exceptions to neoliberalism”.

Exceptions to neoliberalism

19Migrant agricultural and care workers not only perform difficult jobs, but in the eyes of others, and sometimes their own, they also perform two of the lowest-ranked occupations in the receiving society. In their daily experiences, they are constantly reminded of their subordinate condition as low-wage laborers, foreigners, imperfect parents or consumers. Migrants in low-status occupations may experience contradictions between their self-improvement projects and the subordinate status conferred to them in the receiving context. Two major sources of frustration that emerged from the interview data relate to the characteristics of their jobs, and the various forms of exclusion that they experience. Workers cope with these contradictions in several ways.

20Central to the migration experience of care and farm workers in Ragusa is thus the conflicting construction of the self, the self-enterprising endeavor, and the confinement to low-status occupations, such as eldercare and farm work, where the conditions of work are far from ideal. Indeed, many care workers used the term ‘sacrifice’ to describe their migration experience. This kind of frustration experienced by (Filipina) domestic workers with high levels of formal education, who have difficulty in accepting the low status ascribed to them as domestic workers was defined by Salazar Parreñas as “contradictory class mobility”; which is, according to the author, the “central dislocation that defines [migrant] domestic work” (2001: 150).

21Similar to Filipina domestic workers interviewed by Salazar Parreñas, highly educated farm and care workers in Ragusa experience “contradictory class mobility”. However, my data suggest that men and women with lower levels of formal instruction also experience frustration with regards to the mismatch between their self-improvement projects and their subordinate position in the receiving society. This leads me to believe that class contradiction is less associated with the level of education than it is with a high level of inconsistency between workers’ low status position and their self-improvement projects, whatever the later may be. The following examples illustrate both arguments.

22An agricultural worker, who used to be a high school teacher, was rather surprised and upset at my question regarding his decision to accept employment at a cattle farm in Ragusa; his attitude demonstrated how he experiences the class paradox:

Question: You said you were a teacher […]. Why did you decide to take up this job?

Employee: Say again?

Question: Why did you accept this job?

Employee: What do you want to know? […] We said already that we’re working for the money, for a better life; ‘cause in India we don’t get that much earning. (Interview F.11.5.09)

23Likewise, when I asked the only care worker with a university degree in my sample what her main tasks were, she avoided my question and instead emphasized her material gains:

Question: Could you describe a normal working day? What are your main tasks?

Employee: Money [laughs], my tasks are not important, money is. It’s normal, I think, that’s why I came here; otherwise, I could have stayed there, but I couldn’t save any money, wages are lower in my country. (Interview A.27.12.10)

24Migrants with low levels of formal education face similar difficulties in accepting the low-status conferred to them on the basis of their occupation. This is especially true for some agricultural workers. The fact of doing ‘dirty work’ often transpired in their discourse. Mehdi, for instance, admitted: “I had to do this, because I have not much schooling, you know…” Jamal claimed “I have been working in agriculture for twenty years, it’s not a big thing I know, but I can’t complain, unfortunately, there’s nothing else I can do”. Another farm worker suggested that employment in the manufacturing sector is more respectable. He experiences a decline of status associated with the characteristics of his job and the fact of moving from an urban (‘civilized’) to a rural (‘primitive’) context:

Employee: I don’t like this work [laughs], [I’ll work] four months and then [I’d] like to do factory work.

Question: What’s the problem with this job?

Employee: Um… I’m already staying in India in the city, not do[ing] farm work, not doing farm work, I don’t like farm… […] For 17 years I stayed in city, I don’t like cows, vitello [calf]…This work is, um… I’m not thinking this work is dirty, no. No, I think [that] any work is good. [This] work is not dirty […] But is very is very hard work, […] if [you] don’t like this kind of work, [you’d better do something else]. (Interview Ch.11.5.09)

25Care workers have similar difficulties in accepting their low occupational status. In an attempt to maintain her dignity, the care worker cited below drew a boundary between a civilized here (Italy) and a primitive there (Romania):

In Romania no one respects this job, I’m sure about that. When you go back there and you talk about your job people laugh at you. They think it’s something to be ashamed of. I don’t think so, I feel like here I’m respected for what I do; not only by them [employers], but in general […]. Instead people there are really backwards; they can’t understand that the elderly need assistance. […] I think people are different here, they are respectful, even when they speak, they think differently; we’re backwards in that sense. […] In Romania people think that caring for two elderly and changing their diapers is shameful, is shameful to change diapers in Romania! People laugh at you, because “It really went downhill for you! You change diapers.” I don’t feel like that, I’m being helpful. It’s a job, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. (Interview V.3.1.11)

26In sum, regardless of their level of formal instruction, most migrants exhibit a conflicting perception of self, and experience contradictory class positions that emerge from the inconsistencies between their aspirations as self-enterprising subjects, and their condition as low-wage, low-status laborers in the receiving context.

27The various forms of exclusion to which migrant workers are exposed in Ragusa contribute to heightening such contradictions. As argued in Chapter 4, migrant workers’ formal qualifications rarely enable them to occupy higher positions in the receiving occupational hierarchy. Moreover, while migrants may succeed in improving their financial status in the context of origin, in the receiving context they may be denied a different status and identity than that of low-wage laborer. This is particularly evident in the difficulties some migrant workers face, for example, in reuniting with their families.

28Indeed, one of the prices that low-status migrant workers pay for embarking on migration as a self-improvement project, is the “the pain of family separation” (Salazar Parreñas 2001). Most care and farm workers in my sample experience this contradiction and cope with it in different ways, from ‘keeping their minds busy’, to highlighting their material gains, to denying their feelings, to downplaying their subordinate condition to concentrate in their relatives’ pressing needs:

Employee: In India I didn’t work like this, with cows, milk. This is the first time I work like this, in Italy. No problem […] I like mungire [milking], and cow, beautiful cow! No problem lavoro [work]; I like to work, always, no problem. And no remember India, during lavoro [work] time. I’m sad, I feel sad [when] I remember my mamma, and my sister, and my family, my nephew, and… I call every day. I buy a card and call every day.


Question: Would you like to do any other job?

Employee: Any job is fine. I work in the stalla [cowshed] always. [I] don’t want to leave. Any job is fine. Me, I came to Italia to work, I need money. Any job is fine. [It] Doesn’t matter, […] I think it’s just lavoro [work] and I can help my family [I] they need money. (Interview A.23.8.11)

29To be eligible for family reunification, migrant workers are required to provide proof of their means of subsistence (which should suffice to provide for their dependents), and demonstrate the availability of suitable housing. As such, migrant farm and care workers are required to demonstrate their worthiness as laborers and self-enterprising subjects to invite their families to join them in Ragusa. None of the care workers in my sample applied for family reunification, which can be explained by the fact that the majority has adult children who cannot benefit from such a scheme. Unlike care workers, many live-in farm workers in Ragusa have applied for family reunification permits for their spouses and small children. However, only a few of them can meet the conditions for their relatives to become eligible for family reunification, as illustrated below:

To bring my wife here, I... I’m thinking about it, but I need to demonstrate that my income is good, I need a high income to provide her with the necessary comfort. I need to demonstrate they will have a nice house; some of these things are obligatory […]. You can only bring your family here and have your children with you when you have a house, a car, and you can provide for them, that’s how it is. (Interview A.11.5.09)

As you can see, this is not a good house for my daughter, [...] I need to find another job, my boss agrees with me on this. The house is small and he can’t pay me more. (Interview I.12.5.09)

30The estimated cost of raising a child in Italy, for example, is 9,000 euros a year (Caritas 2010: 4), which is about nine times the highest monthly salary reported by farm workers in my study. Also, as illustrated in Figure 6, many live-in farm workers have difficulty in demonstrating the availability of adequate housing for their dependents. As such, migration policies directly affect farm workers’ family life, not only disregarding the responsibility and the costs associated with the reproduction of the needed low-wage workers (Salazar Parreñas 2001: 107), but also suggesting that migrant workers’ families are conceived of as obstacles to the optimization of their labor power (Ong 2006).

  • 6 Bourdieu, Pierre. “Utopia of Endless Exploitation: The Essence of Neoliberalism”, Le Monde Diplomat (...)

31Furthermore, we can say that migrant workers experience different but interconnected forms of structural violence across various dimensions of their lives, from the opportunities for family life to their conditions of employment. Bourdieu claimed that the essence of neoliberalism is comparable to a “Darwinian world” characterized by structural violence in the form of insecurity, stress and the permanent threat of unemployment at all levels of the hierarchy.6 One example of such threat was provided by Jamal, who has been working for twenty years for the same employer. His employer rents the land where Jamal currently works, but can no longer afford it. Jamal is compelled to find a new job. He would like to stay in Italy to enjoy his share of retirement funds, but has sent two of his four children back to Tunisia, because, he argues, “I don’t know where I’m going to end…” (Interview A.12.5.09), denoting the uncertainties to which all workers, and especially migrant workers are exposed.

32Overall, it can be argued that the mismatch between migrants’ self-improvement projects, and the low status associated with their occupational standing in Ragusa generates frustrations and sometimes hinders the construction of other identities (e.g. as parents) than that of the low-wage laborer. Other forms of exclusion that migrant workers experience in Ragusa are associated with their live-in condition.

“The dearest word to all peoples is freedom!” Spatial and symbolic isolation

33Migrants may experience different forms of spatial and symbolic isolation as a result of the live-in condition, which may limit their opportunities for socialization, or exclude them from the public space. Some examples of these forms of isolation are discussed in the following.

34Most workers in my study have limited leisure time. Live-in care workers have two free afternoons a week (normally from 14h to 19h). The majority spends these afternoons walking around the city, gathering in a park to chat, or window-shopping. They rarely buy anything, as they prefer to remit their earnings in full to their families (denoting their acknowledgment of their status as low-wage laborers and imperfect consumers in the host society). Unlike farm workers, who live in the countryside, caregivers are in an urban setting and sometimes appropriate the benches of a public park where they chat, exchange news about their country of origin, read magazines in their native languages, and exchange information about vacant posts. Some women also attend religious services catering for these specific groups of devotees, in perfect accordance with their working schedules. These activities, however, do not seem to alleviate the sense of isolation that many of them experience. Eldercare is psychologically demanding, as some care workers observed: “many people have psychological problems because it’s a hard job; you need contact; you need to speak, for your mental health” (Interview B.6.1.11). The sense of isolation is aggravated when their independence as adults is undermined by the employers’ techniques of control, as the following quote illustrates:

Woman 1: If you want to work here, you must understand that you have no freedom at all; if I want to go out at night I can’t. I have to always ask permission, like: “Can I go out tonight?”, like a child does with the mother [laughs]. And you ask permission for everything: “Can I do this, can I do that?” Do you see what I mean?

Woman 2: It’s awful! Sometimes I want to quit, I say to myself that I can’t continue like this.

Woman 1: Let me tell you something, the dearest word to all peoples in the world is freedom! (Interview R2.3.1.11)

35Although the live-in modality allows many care workers to accomplish their savings projects, most of them are aware of the lack of independence and privacy inherent in this condition, as well as of the different kinds of symbolic isolation they experience. Besides the potential language barriers that may exist between employers and workers, many care for elderly who are too ill or too weak to get out of bed or even speak. This imposes on them a tacit form of isolation because they have limited opportunities to socialize with their employers, let alone the mainstream population.

36Moreover, none of the workers in my study was formally trained a geriatric nurse or had previously worked with the elderly. In fact, the majority experience anxiety when they take up care jobs for the first time. Some women qualified their job as dangerous, aware of the fact that they were ill prepared to deal with complex situations that may arise while caring for an elderly person: “If anything happens, what are we supposed to do?” (Interview B.6.1.11) “We’re responsible for anything happens to them [elderly]” (Interview I.22.8.11). One care worker noted that she is constantly monitoring the person’s breath. Another worker qualified her job as stressful because she needed to monitor constantly the actions of her employers:

It’s a huge responsibility! I worked with two elderly, they were both ill. You know, it’s completely different when the person thinks and when she doesn’t think. You tell them to do something, you lose them from sight two minutes and they go straight to the door, they’re constantly trying to go out. First I didn’t know what to do […]. I didn’t even speak Italian. It was stressful. My boss was difficult […]. I was permanently stressed out; I was afraid that something was going to happen to them. Just imagine, I arrived on a Saturday; Monday morning Mr. [name of employer] had an ischemic crisis and I started to cry because I didn’t know what to do. I thought he was dead! […] Then, little by little I got used to it, but I was afraid because I didn’t know how the elderly are. (Interview V.3.1.11)

37Care workers have few opportunities to socialize, including conversing with a healthy adult person. This is another source of stress for many. The ‘tactics’ some workers use to assist some seriously ill elderly reveal other kinds of symbolic isolation. A care worker observed that caring for an elderly was comparable to caring for a child: “It’s like with the children, you need so much patience! You tell them please do this, they [say] “No!”, they do some other thing” (Interview V.3.1.11). Another worker uses ‘tricks’ to convince her employer to eat: “I tell her lies [laughs] like, if she doesn’t eat I say I’ll call the ambulance” (Interview T.24.8.11). In fact, it is not uncommon to hear care workers say that the main requirement to perform their job is to be mentally strong:

It’s really hard, because you work with the elderly … you’re always at home; you go out on Tuesdays but… it’s hard because you work with an ill person, and if you’re not strong enough here [points to her head] then you will need a psychologist later on. You must be healthy, you cannot be ill, because it’s hard work; for the mind, I mean physically and mentally. (Interview I.22.8.11)

38Intimacy, and more concretely bodily contact, seems to add to the sources of stress of some women who look after dependent elderly men. Lidia, for example, referred: “This was the first time I was with the man and I had to change his diaper; I had never done that before, I had never put a diaper to an old man! […] but I got used to it”. Another worker remembered that on her first day at work she was standing by the bed of the employer, with a diaper in her hands, and she felt sorry for herself. Most care workers in my sample reported similar experiences.

39In sum, care workers who normally live in the city, in principle, have more opportunities to establish contact with the mainstream population (including neighbors, clerks, members of religious congregations, etc.). However, their daily routine imposes on them symbolic forms of isolation. Not surprisingly, many caregivers assimilate the home-workplace to a prison. This is not to suggest that none of the women in my sample enjoy their work. However, they all emphasized the difficulties that characterize their jobs, and the majority insisted on the importance of maintaining their privacy and having the opportunity to talk about their problems to preserve their mental health.

40Migrant live-in farm workers are subjected to similar forms of isolation. Farm workers’ spatial isolation is a result of the geographic location of their home-workplace. Most of the farms I visited are scattered and are accessible only by secondary roads; they are not within walking distance from the main urban centers of the province. Public transportation in the rural areas surrounding Ragusa is scarce. Therefore, the location of the farms effectively renders farm workers ‘invisible’ and heightens the spatial and social distance that separates them from the (native-born or migrant) urban population. In fact, it is not uncommon that farm workers remain at the farms, including during their leisure time, unless they have ‘important things to do’, as they argued, such as renewing their residence permit, buying groceries, or visiting friends. Questioned about their leisure activities, some workers bluntly noted: “this work is life, I work, that’s what I do” (Interview Ch.11.5.09); “I have no free day, every day lavoro [I work]; every day work, no holiday” (Interview A.23.8.11); “I’m always here at the farm, unless my boss asks me to go to the city to do paperwork or to do something for him” (Interview A.12.5.09); “I’m always here, I don’t go out, except for important things like going to the supermarket” (Interview I.12.5.09).

41Most farm workers in my sample did not have specific days of rest. Many workers claimed that they are exhausted by the end of the day and, as self-disciplining subjects, they may restrict their leisure activities. Some workers reported to be permanently on call. Nevertheless, all rest for two to three hours every morning. Interestingly, the majority assimilated their leisure time to the time they spend in the markets or in the supermarkets. The former indicates that the spatial isolation of the home-workplace affects the range of the leisure activities they are likely to have access to. In addition it is worth mentioning that most workers depend on their employers to travel relatively short distances to buy groceries. Itinerant informal retailers also reach out to these clients and visit the farms every eight to ten days.

42No farm worker except one in my sample owned a private car. Because of the spatial isolation of the farms and the distances separating the farms from the urban centers, many workers associated the lack of a private vehicle with a sense of dependency. When I interviewed Sanjeev, for example, he needed to find someone who could take his wife, who was pregnant, to the closest hospital for a blood test. Stela relies on her employers to drive her children to school every morning. Lalit relies on his employer to be able to get the telephone cards he uses to call his family. While employers may be happy to do such ‘favors’, this may actually heighten workers’ sense of dependency and isolation.

43Many migrant farm workers experience other forms of symbolic isolation. This is especially true for Indian nationals who do not have a good command of the Italian language and who receive mentoring from their peers. Indeed, their opportunities to improve their Italian language proficiency, and for socializing with native-born Ragusans in the workplace and beyond are limited. The majority of Indian nationals in my sample reported not to have met many Italians. Conversely, Tunisian workers are less exposed to this kind of symbolic isolation thanks to their good command of Italian or Sicilian, and their firmly established social networks in Ragusa.

44Thus far, it can be argued that migrant farm and care workers’ different degrees of spatial and symbolic isolation affect not only their identity construction but also the way in which they relate to their employers, and to other migrant groups. This is further discussed below.

Response tactics

45Migrant workers participate actively in the construction of their identity and in the processes of subject formation; either by negotiating or contesting their subordinate status in their daily interaction with employers, as well as with other migrant groups.

  • 7 Foucault (1982: 780) referred to immediate struggles as those in which “people criticize instances (...)

46Some scholars such as Salazar Parreñas (2001) qualify migrants’ resistance tactics as “immediate struggles” (borrowing this notion from Foucault7); others such as Lan (2003) see them as “boundary work”.

47I build on the insights both authors to identify the strategies deployed by migrant workers to cope with their contradictory class positions and to negotiate their social standing vis-à-vis their employers and other migrants. Salazar Parreñas identified various strategies employed by of Filipina domestic workers in Rome and Los Angeles to cope with their “contradictory class mobility”: highlighting the financial status achieved through migration; the “fantasy of reversal”, which entails stressing the privileges gained through migration in comparison to poorer women in the country of origin; embracing the racialization of domestic workers and placing themselves in a higher status; and instrumentalizing the personalism and intimacy inherent in their employment relations, and resorting to emotional displays to manipulate the employers.

48Similarly, Lan (2003) elaborated a typology of boundary work deployed by foreign domestic workers in Taiwan to negotiate their positions vis-à-vis their employers, which comprises: a) seeking patronage or manipulating personalism, for example, using emotional displays (Salazar Parreñas 2001), or deliberately eliciting class guilt in their employers to gain material and non-material rewards (e.g. advance their status in the family, ease the workload); b) keeping distance from employers to protect their privacy, or avoid engaging in additional emotional work, and to define the frontiers between family and non-family; c) dissociating the work identity from other dimensions of identity; and d) highlighting status similarity resorting to principles of equality and mutuality or challenging employers. Lan argued that workers usually wait for the employer’s first move to deploy their own boundary work. However, my data indicate that migrant workers’ strategies can be deployed spontaneously to negotiate or contest their social standing in relation to their employers, as well as in relation to the larger receiving community (i.e. to other migrant groups), and in the transnational contexts in which they participate.

49In what follows I identify some of these tactics deployed by migrant workers in Ragusa either to alleviate their class contradictions or to negotiate their status, and complete Salazar Parreñas’ and Lan’s insights through the identification of strategies of equalization, strategic professionalism and cosmopolitanism, and class reversal.

Dirtiness vs dignity: contesting class

50Workers and employers are normally aware of the mutual perceptions of one another. This surfaced in most interviews. As an example, questioned about the reasons why migrant workers come to Ragusa, the owner of a farm drew an Us/They boundary based on the wage differentials between Ragusa and the sending area, arguing: “I mean, here in just one month they make the equivalent of four or five months of work there” (Interview S.14.5.09). One of his workers, aware of the employers’ perceptions, was quick to retort: “Italians, for example, Mr. [name of employer] thinks that if a person comes here is because she’s starving. They think that we’re all starving in India; they think that anyone who comes here is starving. But it’s not like that… We’re not starving. There are problems, yes. As I have said already, my problem is that I can’t be a farmer there.” (Interview I.12.5.09)

51Migrant workers are also fully aware of the subordinate position they occupy as low-status workers in Ragusa. To alleviate the contradictions generated by the inconsistency between their self-improvement projects, their low occupational status or their ‘invisibility’ many workers resort to highlighting the positive aspects of their job. One worker, for example claimed that he enjoys working on the farm because it feels like he’s at home; owing to the fact that he lives on the farm he has many opportunities to take short breaks during the day (Interview F.11.5.09). Another worker claimed that he prefers to live in the countryside that in an urban context because, he argued “I love the countryside, because of the fresh air, and nature, it’s beautiful! Instead in the city you hear all the time the ‘beep, beep, beep, ruuummmm’. Uh! It’s a mess! [...] (Interview A.12.5.09) Yet another worker highlighted the positive aspects of his job to play down his invisibility:

Question: Do you think people appreciate your work?

Employee: But people don’t see me, they don’t see an important job, what they see is a dirty job. Do you understand? That’s what they see, they think that way. I see it differently [...] you can see things however you like […] I can’t complain […] since I was a child, I’ve always loved the countryside, I like the countryside very much, it’s not that I… […] It’s my choice; since I was a child I have this passion for nature.

52Workers may also contest their subordinate status by minimizing class hierarchies. In the following example, a care worker downplays caregivers’ low occupational status in Ragusa and highlights the improvement of their financial and material status in the sending context:

Question: Do you think your work is appreciated?

Employee: Some say this is a bad job, a dirty job, they don’t respect you […]. When I arrived in Pozzallo, people thought that us, Polish, are poor, because we do this job. They can’t believe that a person who owns a pretty house and who is retired likes to work; they ask me all the time why I do this job, why I clean the bottoms of the elderly if I have money. You know what? Many Polish women live in big houses with big gardens. They work here for four months and they save all their money for when they go back to Poland […] they don’t spend a single euro here, apart from the money for the trip, because they want to return to Poland with their pockets full of money! (Interview R.21.12.10)

53Besides emphasizing the material returns of migration, migrant workers may question their subordinate status by separating their work and day-off identities. Tariq, who is 22 years old, works on a cattle farm. He is aware of his contradictory class position in Ragusa and in Tunis. When he is in Tunis, he places himself at a higher status than his friends: “they’re my age, but they don’t have what I have”, he argues. Tariq also thinks that his friends envy his financial status, commenting: “You’re so rich!” Nevertheless, he is also aware of his social standing as a farm worker in Ragusa: “I always tell my friends: ‘Look, it’s not easy, I get up at four in the morning, sometimes I even have cow dung in my boots’; I tell them, but they don’t believe me”. Tariq claims he is not ashamed of his job. Most importantly, he separates his work identity from other identities, as many of his colleagues do:

When I work I might be dirty. But when I finish and I go out: off-road vehicle, suit jacket and tie! But of course you can’t wear a suit and a tie at work […]. But when I finish I take a shower and I put on my good clothes. […] I love this job! I make money and I like what I do, if I work in the middle of shit I don’t care.

54One care worker, on the contrary, explained how her perceptions about her occupational status and her aspirations have changed over the years. While she asserted not being ashamed of caring for the elderly, she recognized that when she was younger she was more concerned about her social standing. However, she argues, her perceptions have changed:

When I have to clean up an elderly person who is ill, I have no problems. I’m happy, it’s not that I’m being forced to do this, I don’t think like “mamma mia! How did I end up doing this, me, who worked in the railway company in Poland?” No, I see this differently. (Interview R.21.12.10)

55In sum, many care and farm migrant workers in Ragusa may conceal their low-status condition in Ragusa by highlighting the positive aspects of their jobs, emphasizing their material gains or dissociating their work identity from other identities. In addition, some workers resorted to tactics that I refer to as equalization, strategic professionalism and cosmopolitanism, and class reversal in order to negotiate their subordinate status and maintain their dignity.

56Equalization, a tactic deployed (only) by farm workers in Ragusa, entails the denial of the class hierarchy. This involves embracing the symbolic position of Ragusa (and of its native-born population) as located at the southern end of the North-South developing divide. By emphasizing the fact that Ragusa is primarily a rural area, and by embracing the stereotype of the rural native-born population of Ragusa, or the fact that employers are also farmers, migrant farm workers are able to situate themselves in a similar or superior status than that of their employers:

Question: How do you think people view your job?

Employee: Good […] Normal, normal, because we’re all the same here, the boss and the workers we all do the same thing. We’re all the same, all the same. (Interview A.15.5.09)

I have never been ashamed of my job […] because Ragusa is an agricultural zone, everyone does the same… Ragusans, 100 percent of them are agricultural workers. Maybe now there are not many farmers, but there are still many farms, so this job is normal here. If we go somewhere else, let’s say to the north, to Milan, working with the cows may seem strange because there are more construction workers there. Here instead you have farms, so it’s normal. (Interview A.12.5.09)

57Strategic professionalism and cosmopolitanism refer to some tactics employed by migrant workers to maintain their dignity by emphasizing their level of education, linguistic or professional (job-specific) skills and ‘cosmopolitanism’. These strategies allow them to question the low-skilled label often ascribed to their jobs. Some farm workers, for example, emphasized functional job-specific skills (holding a driver’s license, being able to drive a tractor or to operate specific equipment), as well as their language proficiency and technical knowledge (e.g. knowledge of medical terminology or veterinarian techniques):

In this job it’s really important that you know how to milk the cows, it’s even better if you can drive a tractor, and milk the cows. If you don’t know how to milk the cows, well, they get mastitis, and then you need to give them the medicines, which are really expensive. An injection costs about 100 euros, 50 euros. But you must learn the language first. Because you work in Sicily, you need to speak Sicilian. I know how to speak English too […]. (Interview I.12.5.09)

There are lots of things you need to know, you must be always alert… sometimes, for example, you need to know what to do if a cow is dying, if it has the pressure too high or too low… you must know how and for how long you can milk the cow, milking it for a long time can cause mastitis; and then you’ll need antibiotics… […] you need to know lots of things […], when the cow has crooked legs, lots of things… In the beginning when I came here I didn’t know how to milk a cow, then little by little I learned how to do it, they told me about the fodder […] then helping a cow in labor is really difficult; the veterinarian comes only when there’s a Caesarian, we call him, otherwise we do it ourselves. (Interview A.12.5.09)

58Similarly, care workers stressed their formal training and educational achievements to contest their low occupational and social standing:

I have a Master’s. I completed three years of higher education […] I graduated in Psychology and then I studied two more years in Craiova, human resource management. I completed five years of higher education in total [...]. I’m not using it; this job doesn’t allow me to use that knowledge. But it’s okay, I don’t feel bad because I’m doing this job; as long as I make money, any job is fine. (Interview A.27.12.10)

I’m a high school graduate, I’m specialized in economic affairs, I’m an economist, but I didn’t go to the university, I mean, I graduated from high school and I have a technical diploma. My friends, some of whom I met at school […] they tell me: “Why do you do that job?”, or: “You don’t deserve that kind of job.” […] But for me it’s not a big deal. (Interview R.21.12.10)

59In addition, migrant workers may contest their subordinate positions by stressing their cosmopolitanism. Cohen (2006) uses the concept of everyday cosmopolitanism to refer to a range of “subtle forms of transnationalism” enacted by a wide range of actors, including migrant workers (as opposed to nation-states or multinational corporations). According to Cohen, cosmopolitanism entails a subject-level articulation of “complex affiliations, meaningful attachments and manifold allegiances to issues, people, places and traditions” (2006: 189). He argues that “functional” cosmopolitanism has become a matter of survival for labor migrants (Cohen 2006: 190), to the extent that it includes abilities and knowledge such as foreign language skills, knowledge of exchange rates and migration policies, familiarity with other cultures and the development of contacts in other countries (Cohen 2006 and 2008). In Cohen’s view, migration turns ordinary people more cosmopolitan “not in the sense of a louche playboy, a rentier, or a debonair, rootless, stateless member of the elite, but in a more prosaic sense. Cosmopolites can also be of working-class origin” (Cohen 2006: 193, emphasis added). In the following example, an agricultural worker emphasizes his “functional cosmopolitanism”, including his ability to speak two languages, and his familiarity with two distinct migration systems. The words in italics were pronounced in English, although the interview was held in Italian. By switching codes, in fact, this worker further highlighted his language skills during our conversation:

Employee: I’m a farmer. But I have studied, twelve years. Then I went to the university, I was enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts, you know? Only fifteen days [...]. My father said that I had studied enough and that it was already okay, that it was time to find a job. I went to Arab, UAE, United Arab Emirates, you know? I worked there for nine years, I was a driver, I drove a mechanical digger. I had a very good job, very good job.

Question: You said before that there were some differences in terms of salaries; that Italians have a higher income? Do Italians perform different tasks?

Employee: No, no, the work is the same, the work is the same, I milk the cows, they milk the cows, I drive the tractor, and they drive the tractor… I think sometimes I’m better at driving the tractor because I worked for nine or ten years in Arab, I drove a big excavator. I have an Arab driver’s license. This license is extremely difficult to get […] it’s not like here. There they’re really strict.

Question: In your opinion, what are the requirements to do this job?

Employee: Well, when I met my boss he asked me to move the [hay] ball, the ball, do you understand? “Okay, he said, put the ball in there, go ahead”, and he realized I could drive the tractor. Now the two brothers [employers] say I do my job very well, they say: “You’re better than us”, because I worked ten years doing this, I worked in UAE, in Arab. (Interview 12.5.09)

60In this example the worker also negotiates his social standing by drawing a boundary between Italy and the UAE, placing the later in a higher position, and stressing the value of the job-specific skills gained during his sojourn in that country or the stricter system for the delivery of licenses. This allows him to place himself in a similar (even superior position) to that of his employers in the current context of reception. This kind of practice could be referred to as class reversal. The construction of a “cosmopolitan self” further allowed the worker cited above to discursively change positions with the employers, affirming that they recognize he does things better than them. Class reversal is also frequently deployed by care workers. One care worker, for example, stressed her sense of taste and her multiple travel experiences in order to draw a comparison between herself and the employer who was present during the interview. During a private conversation that I had later on with this worker, she told me that she had deliberately mentioned her travel experiences to make her employer aware of her high social standing in Poland, which she considered to be comparable to that of her employer’s in Ragusa. She noted:

“I’m someone who likes elegance, I have taste; like [name of employer]. When I was in Poland I went to museums. I’ve been to many countries, Russia, Ukraine, Germany… in Austria I went to all the museums, I visited every single palace. I’m someone who likes beauty, who likes beautiful things.” (Interview R.21.12.10)

61Some workers use class reversal and take the place of the employers in practice or discursively. In the following examples the workers took the role of the employer by stressing their level of responsibility or of knowledge on a specific job-related matter:

Question: Why do you think that they hired you?

Employee: Because I worked in the UAE, and because here I’m responsible for everything, is all my responsibility. I’m the boss here. Mr. [name of employer] doesn’t come here during the week…I have everything under control, everything. If I need fodder or anything I call him. But I’m responsible for all the work. (Interview I.12.5.09)

Employee: I like this job; okay, it’s expensive, you have high operating costs. For example, if you have an inspection… well, in the last inspection we had the guy was very picky about the taxes, they also checked out all the cows, the udder… stupid things; the medicines, things like that.

Question: But, when you talk about the high operating costs and the expenses, you mean that the owner of the farm has to pay for this, don’t you?

Employee: Yes, you see, the liter of milk now costs 32 cents, fodder 34 cents, how are you supposed to cover the operating cost? You think: “These cows cost me a lot”. Actually, you raise them, but they are never ready on time. You have to calculate all costs, for example, let’s say a cow eats fifteen kilos of fodder, you have to add up the medicines, the milking… there are 45 cows […] Then when you sell the milk, you deliver but they pay after one month… this business is not convenient. (Interview, A.12.5.09)

62Some care workers resorted to class reversal to affirm their superior standing vis-à-vis employers (and the native-born Ragusan population), emphasizing the misery of some employers, highlighting the rural stereotype ascribed to Ragusan-native born employers, or stressing their superior moral and financial position vis-à-vis employers:

People in Pozzallo are so poor… these people have nothing! They’re poor in Pozzallo. Here [Ragusa] they have a different culture, it’s the same in Modica. In Pozzallo, you know, all people are peasants. They’re not like Mrs. [name of employer], they’re not stylish, they’re not like her, she appreciates beauty. In Pozzallo the elderly are really poor, they can’t buy nice clothes to dress up, how can you expect them to change clothes every day? They have only two sets of clothes, basta! They wear one set of clothes and they wash the other […] In Pozzallo people are really poor. Here’s different, they have a different lifestyle. (Interview B.6.1.11)

I’m happy when my vecchieta [old woman] is well dressed. My vecchieta didn’t have nice socks, she’s poor; she didn’t want to buy new socks, so I bought her a pair of socks! She said: “Ah! Why did you buy me this pair of socks?” I said: “Because when the doctor comes you need to wear nice socks and not those that you have full of holes.” I’m always like this […]; it’s perhaps because I’m retired that for me, one euro doesn’t make any difference […]. (Interview R.21.12.10)

You know what? There’s no heating in the houses! It’s a matter of money; here they think that it’s a waste of money to heat the house! In the summer I bought a fan, I said: “I don’t care, I can’t breathe! I pay!” They don’t want to spend money on electricity, and when we come we don’t know about this… we don’t know how these people live… life is hard here. For us, not heating the house is simply impossible […]; 40 euros to heat the house is nothing! For us this is unbelievable! (Interview R1.3.1.11)

63Other care workers take over the management of household including items that denote status (e.g. food), and confront their employers or use class reversal to assume their authoritative role through concrete subversive acts. In the example below a care worker affirms her authority over household organization:

I was really brave; I didn’t even speak Italian at the time. I threw away some rotten potatoes, and I noticed that the signora became nervous, because I threw those rotten potatoes away. But I didn’t understand what she said; she frowned; she was really angry at me, she said some bad words, and I said: “Okay, if you don’t want me here, I’ll pack my things and I’ll leave! I’m going back to Poland, just give me five minutes, I swear I’m leaving!” and she said “Oh, no, calm down, calm down.” Then I took the dictionary and I told her: “Excuse me; in my home I never throw anything away unless it’s rotten; but when the onions or the potatoes stink because they’re rotten you must throw them away!” I worked with her for two years! When I left she said: “If you can’t come back, please send your daughter, no one else!” (Interview R.21.12.10)

64Finally, some workers emphasize their high financial and material status in the country of origin to cope with their contradictory low-standing the context of reception, as shown below:

I built a beautiful house in India… I still need a lot of money for the house, because the works are not yet finished, they have put the bricks. I have to call the designer, you see, I have the drawings here. Now when you see the drawings of my house you’ll ask me: “How can you live here, in this apartment?” Because, as you will see, my house is really big, it’s like the houses here, and it has everything… (Interview I.12.5.09)

65While the worker cited above stressed his high status in the country of origin, he recognized the fact that his living conditions in Italy were precarious. The former illustrates the transnational character of migrants’ identity construction practices. One agricultural worker, for example, made a comparison between his situation in Ragusa and his in his country of origin: “In Italy I work, do you see what I mean? I’m poor in India but I become rich here”. Such an appraisal of transnational living is always present in the practices of identity construction of care and farm workers in Ragusa. To illustrate his material achievements, this same worker clarified: “I’m building a big, big house in India with five rooms, three big bedrooms, like the houses in Italy, with bathroom, kitchen, everything.” (Interview M.23.8.11)

66Similarly, many care workers seized every occasion to draw a comparison between their status and that of their employers, whenever the later were present in the interviews. A care worker drew comparisons between her house in Romania and the employer’s house. She described in detail the furniture, the kind of decoration she had chosen, the size of the garden, etc. Another worker seized the opportunity to show me pictures of her house, and pointed out the various fine items she had bought during her trips to different European capitals. Few workers confronted their employers openly, as in the case below:

When you work with the elderly what’s the first thing they think? That we’re thieves! When I started in this job, the woman I worked for had a big closet where she kept the sheets, blankets, towels, etc. Every week we took out all that stuff… she counted the all sheets, all the blankets, the pillowcases… Once she said: “Where’s my pillowcase?” I told her: “You must have put it in a different place.” And once I told her: “Excuse me, my house is just as pretty as yours. No, I have prettier things!” I have a beautiful house; I’ve bought many things, a big lamp, many things in silver, I’ve bought many fine and expensive things. (Interview R.21.12.10)

67In sum, the strategies that migrant farm and care workers deploy in order to negotiate or contest their subordinate standing in Ragusa, indicate that they participate actively in the construction of a complex self. Indeed, they deploy several strategies to cope with the potential contradictions they experience, between their self-improvement aspirations and the low status ascribed to them in the receiving context. These response tactics have an immediate effect (like the strategies deployed by Filipina domestic workers interviewed by Salazar Parreñas 2001), which has limited potential to change their structural position as low-wage laborers. Moreover, these acts of subversion are not limited to the creation of boundaries vis-à-vis employers, but extend to the creation of alternative boundaries to differentiate themselves from other migrant workers or groups in Ragusa. The former may, ironically, contribute to reproducing the prevailing class and ethnic hierarchies in the local labor market, as discussed below.

Othering strategies

68As part of their self-engineering, and in order to maintain their dignity or enhance their individual or collective social positions in the receiving context, migrant agricultural and care workers may resort to creating social boundaries in relation to other migrant workers or migrant groups. These ‘othering’ practices rely on a careful selection of the markers of difference that are emphasized depending on specific circumstances, for example in the daily interaction with employers in the home-workplace, or in the public sphere. These practices make part of migrants’ constitution of the self. By deploying such strategies, migrant workers in Ragusa affirm their individual or collective superior social and moral standing, in order to alleviate discursively the threat of competition in the local labor market.

69One example of how othering practices operate was given by a farm worker who simultaneously denounced the negative way in which migrant workers are portrayed by the mass media, and emphasized his superior moral standing: “[On TV] they say that foreign workers fight against each other, and that they beat the employers; but I have never beaten anyone and no one has ever beaten me.” (Interview A.15.5.09) One care worker, instead, drew a boundary between the civilized Me, and a primitive They, referring to her fellow co-nationals as ‘peasants’, embracing a marker of difference previously used by her employer during our conversation: “Many Polish who come here don’t know how to behave because they’re peasants.” (Interview R.21.12.10) Yet another farm worker underlined how as part of the construction of his professional identity he carefully chooses his friends (mostly Italians), avoiding his fellow countrymen. In this manner, he sought to build an image of the ‘good worker’ and to gain the employer’s respect (Interview A.11.5.09). The migratory status may also serve as a marker of difference, allowing documented workers to emphasize their superior standing in relation to undocumented newcomers:

Now it’s only illegal migrants who land on the coast; they take our money… I came across one of them, he arrived two months ago. I asked him: “How’s it going, how do you like Italy so far?” [ironic tone] He was illegal... I think in the future, perhaps in 2015 or 2016 we’ll be in trouble. Nowadays even Italians who finish their studies struggle to find a job. But, you know what? Those illegal migrants, they immediately find a job when they get here, and you wanna know why? Because the boss tells them: “How much do you want?” and they say: “200 euros.” I earn a thousand euros. Of course, I’m going to get kicked out if an illegal arrives here and asks for 200 euros! I’m being really serious! In fact I think it’s the fault of the Italian government; if they fired at the ships, then those illegal workers wouldn’t be able to land. But the mafia is also involved, so… (Interview A.12.5.09)

70Competition is certainly exacerbated when migrants’ wages are compromised. Many agricultural and care workers reported that Romanian nationals have the lowest wages in both sectors. In the agricultural sector, various workers (both Tunisians and Indians) suspect that Romanian workers accept wages as low as 400 euros, compared to their average 750 euros monthly salaries. In the care sector, a Romanian housecleaner observed that her ‘marketing’ strategy consists in charging lower fees than other workers (i.e. she asks for five euros an hour, instead of the average of eight euros an hour) to keep her client base. The perceived or actual availability of such a cheap labor force is a source of tension among the various migrant communities that co-exist in Ragusa. Competition may lead workers to embrace certain stereotypes and some criteria used by employers to justify their hiring decisions, including the essentialization of the manageability of workers, in order to advance their individual or collective professional and moral standing. The following quote captures how a care worker, for example, embraces personalism. Not only does she minimize the commercial aspects of the employment relationship, but she also emphasizes Polish workers’ professionalism and moral standing by deploring the work ethics of Romanian and Ukrainian personnel:

We’re really different from the women from Romania and Ukraine. I know many people who like to change their job every two months. Ukrainians, they do that. They find a job, they work for a short period of time, and they take the money and leave. Polish instead are affectionate, and they are attached to their employers. Because we have such feelings we can’t just take the money, and then pack our things immediately after that. Once I worked with a family for one month. A Romanian girl came to replace me. The girl arrived at 11am, at 3pm she had vanished. […]. This would have never had happened had she been a Polish woman. (Interview R.21.12.10)

71Migrants may also create boundaries along ethnic lines to differentiate themselves, individually or collectively, from other migrant groups and advance their social standing, which may contribute to reproducing the existing ethnic hierarchies among migrant populations in the receiving area. Questioned about the reasons why she thought she had been hired by her current employers, one care worker built her professional identity along religious and ethnic lines, and claimed that “[m]any employers like Polish, not Romanians, because of the Pope, and because Romanians are dirty, Polish are cleaner; the Italians want to marry the Polish women.” (Interview B.6.1.11) Another care worker observed: “The families prefer to hire Polish; they don’t want to hire Romanian or Ukrainian women, because Romanians are too loud, it seems that they’re always yelling at people.” (Interview K.1.03.12) In the example below, the worker affirms her superior moral standing using the Catholic religion as a marker of difference and a marketable quality:

The Pope was still alive when I arrived in Ragusa, the Pope Giovanni; and that’s why the people here like us, they have a positive feeling for us. I went to the shop one day and the clerk told me: “I know Pope Wojtyła, I know Pope Wojtyła”, and that’s why our first contact with the people in Ragusa is good; they have good feelings for our nation [...]. Maybe it’s because people feel safe around us, they feel sympathy for us. Most families have a good opinion of Polish women, they prefer to hire Polish women […]. For them, when you’re Polish you’re more than just a badante [care worker]. (Interview R.21.12.10)

72Likewise, farm workers, especially Indian nationals, embrace the ‘hardworking’ stereotype ascribed to them by employers, and also the essentialization of their manageability. In an attempt to advance their status in the receiving context, they may inadvertently contribute to reproducing the ethnic hierarchies that organize the zootechnical labor market in Ragusa, as the examples below illustrate:

Generally speaking, people say that Indians are good workers. Not like Arabs who come here and do this or that… or fake their documents like Tunisians, [we’re] not like them. There are bad workers too. But, have you ever heard that an Indian is a thief or anything like that? No. People think that you work well and they pay you. You have to be patient and save money, and slowly, slowly you become rich. You shouldn’t try to become rich overnight and earn 5000 euros, it’s not like that. (Interview K.27.12.10)

Question: You just said that there are differences between workers, could you explain further?

Employee: But I’m sure you have also heard about that. You know about this too. When I watched TV last night, I always watch the news, I’ve been here for three years, so I understand what they say on the news like Berlusconi, and Prodi and this and that… but whenever they talk about thieves I’ve always heard that the thieves are Romanian, they behave badly at work; I also heard that a woman was walking and was harassed, you must have also seen this, or that they always get into fights. Ten days ago they said that two Romanian children got in a fight at school, and one of them had a knife, just ten days ago… I saw it on TV [...] but I have never heard, in the four years that I’ve been here, I’ve never heard that an Indian did something wrong. They’re not thieves. (Interview I.12.5.09)

73The stereotypes ascribed to Indian workers in the local labor market are not only disseminated among employers but also among workers from different migrant groups, as illustrated below:

Employee: Italy is a mess now! You hear all the time about sexual crimes, robberies, murders, only these things. I hang out with Italians, but that’s what you hear in the news! Only these things. The only racial group that has not caused trouble in Italy are the Indians. That’s such a calm race, you know? Instead, Romanians and Polish, they kill each other.

Question: Have you met any Indians or how do you…?

Employee: Yes, I know them. The Indians of [name of employer] they’re really nice, whenever you talk to them they have a smile on their face, they’re… Okay, they might not speak perfect Italian, but that’s fine, no one is born knowing everything, but they’re making progress and they understand. You know what, even when they see you at distance they smile at you, they’re joyful people. (Interview A.12.5.09)

  • 8 The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) conducted a European Union Minorities and Di (...)

74Migrant workers may also embrace the negative stereotypes disseminated by the mass media to advance their professional and moral standing in Ragusa. According to a recent study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Romanian nationals are amongst the most discriminated minority groups in Italy.8 Anti-Romanian demonstrations took place in Italy in 2007-2008, in the aftermath of the accession of Romania to the European Union. Many migrant workers in Ragusa embrace the negative stereotypes ascribed to Romanian nationals by the mass media (e.g. their ‘dangerousness’), to advance their own standing. Some care and farm workers reported that they avoided interacting with Romanian nationals or limited their interaction to a simple exchange of greetings. Thus, the negative perception of Romanian nationals is simultaneously reinforced by the negative images disseminated by the mass media and by employers’ and workers’ othering practices:

Male employee: I’m not really friends with them [Romanians], I only greet them, like “ciao, how are you?” and that’s it […]. I’ve seen on the telefilm that they’ve done something wrong, so I just hang out with the people I know well. (Interview I.12.5.09)

Female employee: I’m afraid of Romanians, I don’t know why…

Question: Have you ever had a negative experience, why are you afraid?

Female employee: No, but I’ve seen on TV that… they were talking about Romanians, they behave badly. I’m scared. (Interview Z.27.12.10)

Male employee: I don’t know any Romanians, but a friend of mine told me that they stop you and they ask you: “What time is it?” and you say: “Five.” and if they get angry -- pam! -- they hit you, they start a fight, they don’t care, they think they’re the strongest, you can’t tell them anything … (Interview A.12.5.09)

75Romanian nationals are fully aware of such negative stereotypes. Interestingly, in the course of my research, instead of challenging such stereotypes, most of my interlocutors emphasized their superior individual moral standing drawing boundaries between themselves and ‘other Romanians’, as the care worker cited below does, using religion as a marker of difference:

I always pray, always, we pray together at home, with my mother-in-law. Here I go to the church too with mamma and papa [employers] […] In Romania there are bad people, men and women... there are many men and women who are not calm, they drink beer, they smoke, they have affairs, their parents are divorced… My family goes to church; we’re part of a good group, a group that doesn’t smoke, they don’t have affairs... you know, a group of educated people, church people, educated people. (Interview V.26.8.11)

76A married couple of Romanian workers, who used to work together on a cattle farm, emphasized their superior moral standing in relation to their (Romanian) co-workers condemning their behavior:

There were other Romanians on the farm, who misbehaved… Once we brought a bottle of grappa [liquor] from Romania, and these Romanians who were in the farm drank the whole bottle of grappa! They smoked and every time there were troubles they always said it was our fault. Because we didn’t want to get in trouble we decided to quit. We were nine Romanians in total. We all lived there, we had separate bedrooms, but they came into my bedroom and took my cigarettes and the grappa without permission. So we thought it was better to leave to avoid getting in trouble. But we stayed friends with Mrs. [name of employer]. I referred to her many badanti [caregivers] from Romania and we’re still in touch. (Interview I.22.8.11)

77Romanian workers almost invariably expressed their discomfort, pain, or embarrassment regarding their negative image in Ragusa. Most of them attempted to maintain their dignity by empathizing with the mainstream local population. However, all Romanian nationals I interviewed deplored the generalizations and judgmental attitude towards them. One care worker perfectly captured this point: “In your study, you have to specify that you’ve talked to some Romanian women [...] Maybe, with all the things you have [interview data] you tell them that we’re not all the same, […] if that changes the opinion of one single person, then the effort is worth it.”

78Finally, as self-enterprising subjects willing to build a good image in the host society, few workers deployed othering strategies in relation to the Ragusan native-born population. In the very few occasions in which migrant workers expressed their perceptions of the local population, the only markers of difference they used referred to mafia stereotypes and a ‘conservative’ mentality.

Chapter conclusion: Exceptions to neoliberalism and their interstices

79In the above discussion, three processes of migrant workers’ subjectification have transpired: the construction self-improvement projects; the deployment strategies aimed at advancing their standing or at contesting their subordinate positions; and the construction of boundaries, or the deployment of othering practices vis-à-vis employers and other migrant workers or groups. Capital accumulation embedded in migration as a self-improvement project denotes that neoliberalism as an ethos of self-governing pervades migrants’ construction of self. But the construction of self can in no way be reduced to maximization goals. Migration self-improvement projects are indeed shaped by numerous factors such as gender, age and even the work of imagination.

80Migrants’ aspirations of self-improvement are, however, contradicted by the low status conferred onto their occupations and the various forms of exclusion that they may experience in the receiving context. The different forms of spatial and symbolic isolation that farm and care migrant workers experience in Ragusa stem largely from their condition as live-in workers. While, in principle, care workers have more opportunities than farm workers to access and appropriate the public space, they may be exposed to various degrees of symbolic isolation associated with the nature of their jobs. Unlike care workers, live-in farm workers are effectively rendered invisible through spatial isolation. Their spatial isolation aggravates their sense of dependency, as they may need to rely on their employers to be able to carry out routine activities such as buying groceries or driving their children to school. Their status of low-wage laborers further hinders their ability to apply for family reunification.

81In order to contest or negotiate their subordinate status, migrant workers deploy various strategies that can be regarded as practices of identity construction. Migrant care and farm workers in Ragusa may highlight the positive aspects of their jobs, and dissociate their occupational identity from other dimensions of the self to maintain dignity. Likewise, when negotiating their social position in relation to employers, migrant workers may minimize or deny class hierarchies, highlight their professionalism and cosmopolitanism, or criticize the employer’s behavior and embrace the stereotypes ascribed to the Ragusan-native born population and the symbolic position of Ragusa as a rural backwater in southern Italy to place employers in a subordinate position. These subversive acts reveal the interstices of the axes of domination to which migrant workers are subjected, and which they are able to manipulate.

82Finally, one could also argue that market forces may shape the way in which migrants relate to one another, individually and collectively. In particular, labor market competition may encourage migrant workers to embrace some stereotypes and criteria used by employers (e.g. the essentialization of suitability and manageability) and by the mass media in order to build their identity as ‘worthy laborers’ and emphasize their superior work ethics and moral standing to distance themselves from other migrant workers or groups. These othering practices may contribute to reproducing the local and sectorial ethnic hierarchies in agriculture and domestic service.

83In conclusion I would say that twentieth-first century care and farm migrant workers are active, self-enterprising and self-disciplining agents, rather than objects, of the neoliberal restructuring processes. Nevertheless, their structural position as low-wage laborers in the context of reception limits the effects of their acts of subversion, which are unlikely to challenge the larger structures of inequality that shape their subjectification.


1 For Foucault, the word “subject” has two meanings: “subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge” (1982: 781).

2 Lan (2003) explores the construction and negotiation of social boundaries between Taiwanese employers and Filipina domestic workers in private homes, using the concept of boundary work. Salazar Parreñas (2001) investigates the multiple subject-positions of Filipina domestic workers, or their multiple “dislocations”, in Los Angeles and Rome, which stem “from their structural location as racialized women, low-wage workers, highly educated women from the Philippines, and members of the secondary tier of the transnational workforce in global restructuring” (2001: 31). Building on Foucault, Constable (1997) examines construction of the social identities of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, the modes of discipline adopted by their employers, and the ways in which migrant workers experience and negotiate some stereotypes on a daily basis.

3 Giddens conceives “structure as the medium and outcome of the conduct it recursively organizes” (1984: 374; 1979).

4 It is worth clarifying that Ong uses the term ethics (2006: 21-22, emphasis added) “…in the ancient Greco-Roman sense of a practice of the self, or normative techniques in self-care for attaining a particular mode of being. An ethical regime can therefore be constructed as a style of living guided by given values for constituting oneself in line with a particular ethical goal.” Furthermore, Ong asserts that “neoliberalism, as an ethos of self-governing, encounters and articulates other ethical regimes in particular contexts” (2006: 9). Thus, it is possible that accumulation goals co-exist with other ethical regimes.

5 For Appadurai, imagination, understood as a culturally organized practice and a central element of agency, plays an important role in the constitution of the self. According to Appadurai, the electronic mass media and migration have a joint effect on “the work of the imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (1996: 3). Both offer resources for the construction of imagined selves. The work of imagination further facilitates the dissemination of ideas, consumerist lifestyles and values, which are always reinterpreted at the subject- and local levels. Appadurai further argues that “fantasy is now a social practice, it enters, in a host of ways, into the fabrication of social lives for many people in many societies… Thus the biographies of ordinary people are constructions (or fabrications) in which the imagination plays an important role” (1996: 54).

6 Bourdieu, Pierre. “Utopia of Endless Exploitation: The Essence of Neoliberalism”, Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition) (8 December 1998),,

(accessed 23/05/2012).

7 Foucault (1982: 780) referred to immediate struggles as those in which “people criticize instances of power which are the closest to them, those which exercise their action on individuals. They do not look for the "chief enemy" but for the immediate enemy. Nor do they expect to find a solution to their problem at a future date (that is, liberations, revolutions, end of class struggle).”

8 The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) conducted a European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS) in 2009. The survey contained questions on perceptions of various types of discrimination faced by foreigners in their countries of residence, including awareness of rights, experiences of discrimination or crime related to a minority background, questions related to law enforcement, customs and border control and discriminatory practices by authorities. The survey results indicate that in Italy 77 percent of Romanian respondents considered that discrimination on the basis of “ethnic” or “immigrant origin” was very, or fairly widespread. While pointing to the need to interpret survey data cautiously, the report stresses the fact that findings reflect the extent to which minorities in the EU perceive themselves as vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of their ethnic/immigrant status (EU-FRA 2009, online).


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search