Toksöz G.: Gendered Experiences of irregular migrant workers, 2011

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New trajectories in international labour migration as a worldwide phenomenon have evolved in the globalizing world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries as developed countries continue to impose restrictive migration policies and increase surveillance at their borders. New migration hubs are emerging in developing countries, which depend on various factors such as the development level of the economy, its place in the international division of labour, the prevalence of an informal economy and geographical location. In particular the existence of a widespread informal economy, which means precarious working conditions that are detrimental to all of the workers, serves as a magnet for attracting irregular migrant workers as it offers them employment opportunities. Simultaneously it offers employers the ability to lower labour costs to a great extent by recruiting a group of workers who are, because of their illegal status, excluded from protective schemes and not in a position to struggle for their rights. People are forced as part of survival strategies into labour migration due to political unrest or market-oriented economic transformations in their countries. However as they are confronted with difficulties related with migration towards developed countries they are obliged to migrate to  these new destinations.

Within this global context Turkey, long known as a “sending” country started witnessing increasing irregular migration flows into the country in the 1990s. The main groups of irregular migrants coming to Turkey consist of transit migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and migrants coming for work purposes. Transit migrants are from the Middle East, Asia (mostly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Africa (mostly from Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and D.R. Congo) and are fleeing civil wars or economic collapse and poverty; they usually enter Turkey illegally. While some of them apply for asylum, the majority try to use Turkey as a stopover on their way to the West. Migrants from the former socialist and Soviet Union countries (Moldova, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Armenia) who enter Turkey with tourist visas obtained at the border, aim to find work in various branches of the economy (İçduygu 2008). All migrant groups join informal labour markets for their subsistence during their residence in Turkey. As a middle-income developing country that is still among the twenty largest economies in the world, Turkey’s growing informal economy resulting from an export-oriented growth model based on deregulation and flexibility in its labour markets offers informal employment opportunities for migrants.

This article focuses on the situation of labour migrants coming specifically for employment and the experiences of female and male workers in two areas of occupation, namely domestic/care services and the construction sector. In Turkey’s highly gender-segregated labour markets male and female irregular migrants are concentrated in different branches of economic activity. Males are mainly to be found in small- and medium-sized construction enterprises, while females primarily work in domestic/care services as well as in entertainment and prostitution. Workers of both sexes are employed in agriculture; manufacturing such as garment-textile, leather, metal and plastics; and services such as hotels and catering. There is no precise data on the number of foreigners working informally in Turkey, but it is estimated to be reaching several hundred thousand (İçduygu 2004:33). The migration of these workers is of circular character as they work for transitory periods to save money and then return to their home country, only to return when in need. Their situation can be explained with Morokvasic’s term “settled in mobility” (2004).

Female Migrant Workers in Domestic and Care Work

Although we do not have exact information about the sex and occupational distribution of irregular migrant workers it can be assumed that the feminization of migration (Castles and Miller 1998:9) is taking place in Turkey as the employment of migrant women as domestic and care workers proliferates in middle and upper class families. İçduygu also states that according to case studies on specific groups or sectors it is possible to say that the majority of migrants are women (2008:4).The care deficit observed in Southern European countries due to the insufficient provision of public care services for children and the elderly resulting in the prevalent employment of migrant women as domestic and care workers (Kofman et al. 2000; Lazaridis 2007), is also the key issue in Turkey.

Although women migrating from rural to urban areas in Turkey provide care services and do domestic chores, they do this as live-outs. It is quite exceptional for them to provide live-in services in others’ homes since they have their own family responsibilities. Therefore families from middle- and high-income groups prefer child care and especially nursing care provided by migrant women, since they can deliver live-in care services, are usually trained in child/nursing care and are considered to be as industrious and disciplined. Starting with Moldovan women, this type of work is now also performed by women from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia and Armenia. Women coming with tourist visas and staying illegally after the expiration of their visas also prefer to work as live-ins as they can stay clandestinely with minimum expenses and maximum savings. Various studies on migrant domestic and care workers have pointed to their precarious working conditions and also shed light on the solidarity function of social networks, the different psychological aspects of care work and the women’s empowerment process (Keough 2003, 2006; Kaşka 2009;  Akalın 2010;  Rutishauser 2010). Some migrant women develop a kinship-like relationship with the older people for whom they care. This pseudo-kinship is similar to the affection migrant women working as nannies have for the children for whom they care, which stems from their personal loneliness. Acknowledging that this affection is beneficial to the children who are being taken care of and to their families, but is detrimental to the migrant woman’s own children left at home Hochschild considers this to be an extraction of emotional resources from the Third World to enrich the First World (2003). For migrant women confined to living with and caring for older people this affection can have a professional dimension: loving them and being loved in return can be more satisfying and less alienating than a job performed with total indifference for the cared-for person. However this emotional aspect, which is also welcomed by employers, namely the children of the care recipient, depends very much on the personality of the elder. In this respect there seems to be a mutual dependence between the employer and the employee that ensures the relative regularity of wage payments. Although women have diverse experiences and cases of abuse and exploitation are also reported, the empowering dimension of work, namely earning money, enabling the university education of their children or sometimes divorce from oppressive or alcoholic husbands also comes to the fore in the narratives of women.

Male Migrant Workers in Construction Work

All over the world construction is one realm of economic activity in which informal employment is very common due to the large number of small owner-operator enterprises as well as the nature of the work, which can be divided into smaller components and assigned to subcontractors. Subcontracting is a mechanism used intensively by large construction firms obliged to act in the formal economy to lower costs by allocating jobs to smaller firms that can work and employ people informally. As the main instrument of cost reduction this type of employment entails working without any social rights or protections to earn bare wages. In various European countries, as in Turkey, the construction sector constitutes the first step of entry for male migrants. Dividing up the work on the basis of ethnicity appears to be one of the strategies adopted by employers to further decrease labour costs. The recruitment of migrant workers and organizing work teams on the basis of ethnicity enables employers of small firms to pay lower wages, to use them as a very mobile source of labour readily transferable to work locations and then to dismiss them when the work is over (Martinez Veiga 1999; Sole et al. 1998; Malheiros 1999; Reyneri 2002).

The construction sector in Turkey operates similarly. It is one of the sectors in which informal employment generally, and the employment of irregular male migrant workers in particular, is most common. All migrant workers are employed by subcontracting firms and the availability of migrant workers enables small firms to get jobs at reduced prices and to pass on this burden to the migrant workers. These firms pay extremely low wages to their workers who perform the most unqualified work, and avoid any other labour costs besides wages. There are even cases of non-payment of promised wages or threats of physical violence. According to a field survey conducted in Istanbul in 2007 (Toksöz, Akpınar 2009) migrants working in the construction sector are mostly from Turkmenistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. Aside from Georgians, migrants from the other three countries are ethnic Turks. In fact, migrants coming from these three countries consider themselves Moslem-Turks. The Afghans say they are Uzbek Turks. While they are not ethnic Turks, workers from Georgia are admitted to jobs by referrals to traditional ties of friendship and kinship with people living on the Black Sea coast of Turkey. Afghani migrants enter Turkey illegally and seek to establish residence in the country. Migrants from the other three countries enter with a tourist visa and use intermediary agencies or networks to find employment and remain in Turkey illegally after the expiration of their visas. While recruiting migrant workers, employers try to build a sense of loyalty and attachment among these people by saying Georgians are “old friends” and that others are Moslem-Turks.

We can thus speak of a pseudo-nationhood that can be compared to the pseudo-kinship among the domestic workers and their employers. In the case of construction employers, this pseudo-nationhood works to guarantee the industriousness of their migrant workers, and from the worker’s perspective to increase their preferability for a continuous employment relationship. The emphasis on being Turkish can be interpreted as a nationalistic attitude towards workers of Kurdish origin who are citizens of Turkey and who comprise the majority of workers in the construction sector. Although informal, low-wage work is a common feature in the employment of Kurdish workers, in cases of the non-payment of wages or very long working hours they are not as vulnerable as irregular migrants. Therefore the real causes of employer strategies that divide workers on the basis of ethnicity should be seen as incentives for increasing profits through higher levels of exploitation.

Comparing the work experiences of irregular female and male migrant workers, one main difference is the degree of precarity. Whereas construction workers can be easily replaced by other migrants even without the payment of the promised wages due to the temporary nature of such unqualified work and the abundant labour supply, the personal character and emotional dimension of care work and mutual dependency provide female care workers with somewhat stable work relations with employers.

Although the level of precarity may demonstrate differences between groups of workers according to their working conditions, irregular migrant workers generally live and work in precarious circumstances. In the EU accession process, Turkey is under pressure to adopt the restrictive migration regime of the EU. Instead of implementing restrictive policies that increase the vulnerability of migrant workers, combating informal employment and developing strategies for native and migrant workers could be more meaningful. It is also the responsibility of labour unions to step up and help to promote gender-sensitive migratory policies that protect the basic human and labour rights of informal migrant workers.


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Gülay Toksöz, Ankara University, Department of Labour Economics and Industrial Relations, 2011