Feminization of Migration: Female Migrant Labour


The notion of migration is as old as the history of humanity, but the contemporary time, in which we are, is specifically called as “age of migration”. This is because permanent and temporary mobilization of people has transformed and gained new characters. In the last two centuries, migration of people has become a part of international relations discipline as it shapes the societies and the politics of the nation-states. In our times, the study of migration has also brought new concepts such as globalization and its changing direction, acceleration, diversification, and feminization. The aim of this article is to focus on the feminization of migration with regard to female migrant workers.

Feminization of Migration

As it is stated, one of the main characteristics of the current wave of global migration is its feminization. Today, women constitute approximately half of international migrants in the world. According to the IOM data, from 1990 to today, the proportion of female migrants has usually been around 45%-50%. In last year, 2019, this was 47.9 %[1]. Nonetheless, while women migrate as much as men, until recently, they were mostly ignored in migration studies. Although Ravenstein, regarded by many scholars as the father of migration studies, said: “Woman is greater migrant than man”, gender-based factors have not been taken into consideration until the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the studies carried out until then, either women have been considered as a dependent actor or a gender-neutral approach has been adopted. On the one hand, women have not been considered as active and independent migrants but instead they have been included in the studies as wives, mothers or daughters that follow the male migrants. On the other hand, gender-blinded studies have led to the belief that the motivations of women and men to migrate are the same. Moreover, it can be stated that the male-dominated orientation in migration studies has been a reflection of the general attitude in the discipline of international relations. In it, women have not been seen as a real actor as in migration studies.

Coming to the 1970s, women have begun to be examined as an active and independent actor both in international relations and migration studies. There could be two interrelated factors that cause this shift in the academic realm. The first, is the spread of the feminist ideas in the world, but especially in Western Europe and the USA following the 1968 events. The feminist views that circulated all around the world, have made women more visible in the public arena. This had certain effects in academic studies such as women becoming more visible in it. This impact can be seen specifically in migration studies. The second factor is the shift in the demand for migrant labor from men to women in the 1970s.

The demand for male immigrant labor had arisen in many European countries to rebuild their economies deteriorated by World War II. However, after a few decades, it has come to end. On the other hand, with the increasing participation of women to the labor force as a result of spreading feminist ideas in developed countries, there were nobody left in home to do housework and care children and elderly people. Therefore, a need for the people who would do these domestic works had arisen. This need has generally been met by migrant women, which has led to the increase of migrant labor demand towards them. As a result of such a shifted demand, more women in developing countries have decided to join international migration alone, and thus gained an independent meaning in migration studies. It is not the proportion or number of female migrants that has changed, but rather the position of women both in migration and academic studies.

Female Migrant Labour

Towards the end of the twentieth century, as it is examined above, women’s visibility in the public sphere has increased in developed countries as a consequence of spreading feminist views. Female participation in the workforce has started to rise rapidly. As it can be seen in the chart, while the female labor force participation rates in many Western European countries and the United States were around between 30% – 40% during the 1950s – 1960s, these rates rose above 40% in the 1980s and even exceeded 50% in the United States[2].

As a result of women leaving home in order to work in a salaried job, a gap occurs in home. Domestic works, such as cleaning, cooking, and child / elderly care, are usually ascribed to women. Unlike men, when women start to work apart from home, their responsibilities are doubled both as the requirements of their professional jobs and their own housework. But, working women returning from work to home at the end of the day, usually neither have time nor energy to do housework. Also, within their working hours, female migrant workers also need someone to care for their children or elderly people at home. Although welfare states provide support in this regard, in many countries, these assistances generally remain insufficient. Especially, towards the 1970s, the idea of welfarism adopted by many European countries after World War II gradually was replaced by the neoliberal principles. And thus, in many European countries, these types of benefits were decreased or completely disappeared. Together with the lack of any state support with a settled understanding of the gendered division of domestic work, it is needed for a person to take working women’s responsibilities in the home. This demand has been met and continues to be met by hired maids and caregivers.

Those domestic works attributed to women are usually low-paid and -status. They are generally regarded as trivial as they take place in the private sphere. Therefore, European local women are not likely to prefer these jobs. They seek a job providing a better salary and prestige instead of these domestic ones. When this demand cannot be satisfied locally, international migrant women can step in. In addition to such sectors as prostitution and textiles, international migrant women mostly work in domestic jobs such as maidships and babysittings. Besides not being integrated into the economies of the receiving countries, they have also disadvantages based both on gender and race. Many times, they can be discriminated double for being both women and migrants. For instance, female migrants earn less than male counterparts and are also more likely to lose their jobs compared to them. According to the report published by the European Union, the unemployment rate of migrant women in Europe is 14%, the same rate is 11.3% for male ones[3]. Moreover, migrant women are often employed as undocumented and illegal. Many of them have no legal status in the country they migrate. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for them without legal status to find a ground to defend their rights.

To conclude, female migrant labor should not be understood as a new phenomenon. In the past, women and girls that were brought from rural areas to cities for domestic employment under the slavery system, can be considered as a historical example for it. Back then, such mobilities usually happened within the country at the local level. In our contemporary world, the female labor of migration has started to keep pace with the globalizing world and adapt to the principles of the capitalist market economy.

As Parrenas (2000) argued, meeting the demand for domestic workers in the developed countries by women migrating from developing countries is the transfer of the gendered division of labor according to the international capitalist order.

Female Migrant Workers in Turkey

Turkey was an emigrant country until recently. In the 1990s, it faced with new waves of migrations, and then it started to be evaluated as an immigrant or a transit country. According to the World Bank data, until 2007 the number of people emigrating from Turkey was more than the number of people migrating to Turkey[4]. However, the gap between them has begun decreasing gradually in the last two decades of the twentieth century.  In addition, when coming to the gender division of migration in Turkey, according to Migration Data Portal, the share of female immigrants in Turkey is around 45-50%[5]. Moreover, according to data released by Turkstat, in 2015 the number of female immigrants settled in Turkey was 45,446, while that of male was 42,483. In 2019, 271.46 female and 313.913 male migrants started to settle in Turkey[6]. Based on these data, it appears that the proportion of men and women who have migrated to Turkey are very close and there is no domination of any gender.

One of the reasons why Turkey has become a migrant receiving country, can be the migration wave from the newly established Post-Soviet states. The main cause of why many Post-Soviet people -especially the women- have increasingly migrated from their home countries to Turkey is economic problems of the region. At that time, the motivation of most men and women migrating to Turkey was the hope of finding a job and earning money. On the other hand, besides the economic incentives of those migrants, there has been a demand for female migrants to run in domestic work by Turkey, as a result of the increase in the participation of women to the work-force. As a response to the demand in Turkey, many of those female migrant workers have been employed as maids or caregivers in the domestic sector in Turkey. The jobs in which the migrant women work shows striking parallel with the sectors in which female migrants work at the global level.

Welfare state understanding in Turkey is similar to that in South Europe and the USA and it puts the family at the center, presumes that the care of the dependent -children or the elderly people- should be undertaken by the family. Unfortunately, the state supplement on care and domestic work is very limited in Turkey. Moreover, due to the existing gender-based division of labor at home, domestic works are usually attributed to women and seen as their responsibilities in Turkey as well as in the global scale. (Williams et al., 2020). As a consequence, many women in Turkey have no opportunity to join the workforce. The labor participation of women in Turkey is relatively low compared to many Western European countries[7]. Though the rate is low, there is a group of women participating in the workforce in Turkey and their number continues to increase day by day. Unlike their male counterparts, these women have always double responsibilities coming from both their professional careers and the household as the situation is similar all around the world. However, most women are not able to do both. Therefore, many working women in Turkey have to employ a maid or caregiver. Generally, the people hired to do these jobs are female workers who are internal or international migrants.

Actually, in Turkey, there is a market of domestic that consists of women workers internally migrating from rural to urban. The demand for daily housework and non-live-in child or elderly care is mostly met by them. But, the demand for domestic work cannot be completely satisfied by that way. If the jobs require an extending and flexible working hours or live-in, Turkish women are often unable to accept such job offers because of the paternalistic family life. The patriarchal and conservative sense of family in Turkey limits women to accept these jobs. As such, the deficit in the supply-demand of domestic work is usually filled by international migrant women. As they are independent and alone in Turkey, they become more suitable for long and flexible working hours and live-in jobs. In addition to this, in Turkey, the female migrant workers are usually employed by middle or upper-class families. Since the women of middle / upper class usually work, they both need someone to do the housework and can afford the employment of the employed.

Furthermore, by being employed, female migrant workers could be exposed to an implicit discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, and religious believes, which is also reflected in the wages and working conditions. Employer families can be also selective while choosing them.  For instance, Turkish-speaker migrant women mostly more preferred compared to others. Selmin Kaska’s work (2009) on Moldovian migrant women who work in domestic work in Turkey shows us that Moldovian Gagauz women who speak Turkish the most preferred among all by the families. Also, the two most favorable groups among immigrant women are British and Filipino because they can speak English, which is considered as a significant skill for the education of the employers’ children. Furthermore, the religious and ethnic origin of migrant women may also affect the families’ choices. The Muslim families do not usually want non-Muslims and non-Turkish people to work in their house, so it is difficult to find a job for many female migrants having a different religious and ethnic background.

On the other hand, despite the hierarchy among female migrant workers, there are two facts that are common to all: illegality and the harsh work conditions. In Turkey, many of them are undocumented and illegal and thus work under difficult conditions, like all around the world. Generally, they do not have a clear job description. That means, what they have to do and their working hours are not concrete. Live-in female migrant workers are expected to be ready for 24 hours a day. Moreover, many female migrant workers are not employed legally. Indeed, according to the law enacted in 2003, foreign immigrant women may be allowed to employ for domestic work in cases where there is not enough supply. Despite this law, many immigrant women continue to be employed as illegally.  Besides, although the Turkish government wants to prevent irregular migration to the country, it shows a significant tolerance for female migrant workers employed in illegal ways.  Furthermore, the data obtained from the state’s statistics are questionable, since many of female migrants are employed illegally and undocumented. Thus, it is difficult to reach accurate and reliable data on the female migrant workers in Turkey. For instance, according to the 2018 data released by the Ministry of Family, Labour, and Social Services in Turkey, the number of permitted migrant workers in the elderly care activities are 93 people, regardless gender[8]. Considering all Turkey, this number remains highly unrealistic. Also, due to the unreliability of the data on female migrant workers in Turkey, in the literature, many studies on the issue are based on qualitative research.


In conclusion, today, migration has become a part of international relations discipline, which as it shapes the relationships between nation-states and societies. The new studies of global migration has changed, diversified, and feminized. In this article, dimensions of feminization of global migration have been evaluated. Although gender is a very significant concept in migration study, it has been ignored for a long time. Recently, women have been seen as part of migration in academic studies, as a result them becoming more visible in public sphere and also in migration. One of its reflections is in migrant labor all around the world. More female workers compared to men have started to migrate and female migrant labor has become a subject in the migration studies. However, the studies on the issue are insufficient. Many female migrant workers are being employed under harsh conditions in illegal ways and yet much more academic attention is needed on the issue.

Sena Nur YAMAN

Göç Çalışmaları Staj Programı


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[1] https://migrationdataportal.org/data?i=stock_perc_female&t=1990

[2] https://ourworldindata.org/female-labor-supply

[3] https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiQz53Ik-nrAhUppIsKHXdRC1sQFjAAegQIBRAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fec.europa.eu%2Fmigrant-integration%2F%3Faction%3Dmedia.download%26uuid%3D2A77D3B8-90AC-3D46-7F52E41D1157FE6C&usg=AOvVaw3azKltFWTcpJGtxA2HDqwd

[4] https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/net-migration?tab=chart&country=~TUR

[5] https://migrationdataportal.org/data?i=stock_perc_female&t=2019&cm49=792

[6] http://www.tuik.gov.tr/PreTablo.do?alt_id=1067


[8] https://www.ailevecalisma.gov.tr/media/32481/calisma_hayati_2018.pdf

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