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The Careers of Migrant Domestic Workers in Greece:
Perceptions of Intra-Occupational Mobility and Status Differentiation in Times of Crisis

This article examines the effects of the current recession in Greece on the careers of migrant domestic workers by tracing the changes in the way they understand their occupational and socioeconomic situation during the crisis. Through a comparative analysis, it is argued that the lack of career-track options for these domestic servants has complex ramifications that affect their perception of both themselves and their place in society. The findings indicate that the recession has triggered a negative shift in their workplace responsibilities and the tasks they are asked to perform. This study examines the qualitative aspects of their careers, highlighting a reversal in the values held by live-in and live-out domestic workers, as well as decreasing levels of discretion, intra-occupational mobility, and life expectations. Despite these changes for the worse, however, domestic workers remain deeply rooted in a framework of thought and action that only strengthens the negative tendencies of inter-occupational mobility, especially for those that cannot dissociate their self-images from the context of domestic work.

Introduction: The problem

In a period of economic crisis and rapid social change, the experiences, routines, and values associated with certain jobs and types of employment are important in shaping workers' career choices. The case of migrants—and in particular immigrants—who are employed in domestic work is one of the most interesting, especially if we take into account the fact that in the past these [End Page 67] workers had already undergone similar experiences of sudden destabilization in their lives, which impacted their career paths.1

In the context of the crisis, social and occupational status may lose their importance as work values and, in turn, may have specific practical implications, such as the inability to ensure a place to work or even a place to live. With the above perspective in mind, revealing changes that occurred in the understanding of their occupational career may help sociologists to understand social transformations and how these affect both people's lives and the structure of society.

The understanding of occupational career is an integral part of a sociological perspective on how the economy and the types of occupations and employment people undertake influence their life prospects and differentiate the way they perceive the self and society (Goldthorpe et al. 1968; Lockwood 1966; Brown and Brannen 1970; Newby 1977).2 Traditionally, the notion of the occupational career has been related to the paths workers follow within or between certain occupations, but also to their perceptions of this trajectory. What the crisis seems to have brought about in the Greek case is a potential destabilization of career prospects and roles (Komarovsky 1940; Gray 1966; Gallotti and Mertens 2013).

Contrary to approaches that seek to explain immigrants remaining in domestic work for over twenty years exclusively in terms of objective factors, such as the barriers imposed by migration policies and labor market restrictions, sociological studies reveal that domestic workers' career choices are also related to how they perceive the subjective meanings that they give to their work. More specifically, these migrants' perpetual engagement with domestic work is motivated in part by the formation of new aspirations that deter them from leaving these occupations (Cohen 1987; Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008; Lazarescu 2015). In this context, the question arises as to how these newly formed values regarding intra-occupational mobility may change due to rapid social and economic developments. Specifically, this paper aims to analyze if and why the nature and values associated with work and employment in times of crisis perpetuate intra-occupational hierarchies and status differentiation—and how, in turn, these hierarchies lead to variable perceptions about work and mobility. [End Page 68]

Approaching the problem: The narrative of domestic workers' understanding of their careers in Greece

There are only a few studies of domestic labor in Greece, even though personal service and the work force that performs it seem to have been key elements in the organization and functioning of capitalist societies like Greece's for some time (Psimmenos 2014). Although certain theories emphasize that domestic work gradually disappears as a result of economic factors and modern ethics regarding work organization and the division of labor (Coser 1973), this type of work nevertheless persists in numerous societies (Psimmenos 2013).3 In many places, female immigrants constitute the primary labor pool for domestic service (Psimmenos 1995; Campani 2000; Lazaridis and Psimmenos 2000). Recent studies stress that of the approximately one million immigrants residing in Greece (Triandafyllidou and Maroufof 2011)—the majority of whom are occupied in various low-status service industries—more than 60% of women are employed in domestic work in private households or in cleaning agencies (EKKE 2005; Alipranti-Maratou 2007). At present, this figure still seems valid largely because domestic work is still for the most part the only job available to them (Bellas 2012; Cavounidis 2013). Indeed, even if the number of migrants employed in domestic work seems to be declining in the context of the Greek economic crisis,4 as late as 2013 the number of women employed as domestic workers remained almost the same as it was in 2005 (Table 1).

Table 1. Migrants employed in domestic work (2005–2013) Source: EL.STAT 2005–2013.
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Table 1.

Migrants employed in domestic work (2005–2013)

Source: EL.STAT 2005–2013.

Domestic work, like other types of low-status occupations such as prostitution, is portrayed in the sociological literature as a dead-end job. Scholars emphasizes the importance of objective factors, such as restrictive immigration policies and labor market conditions, that push women into these types of work (Triandafyllidou 2013). The problem, however, is not only that people are pushed or pulled to the margins of the labor market and into domestic work. Of equal importance is the question of how domestic work shifts the burden of [End Page 69] responsibility on to the worker. As with other forms of informal employment, this type of work tends to increase gender and ethnic segregation, while entrapping women in occupations that affect their life expectations and diminish their opportunities for bettering their lives (Psimmenos 2011). In this regard, the literature reveals how, over the last 25 years, certain mechanisms and specific subjective parameters affect workers' understanding of intra-occupational mobility, while also reducing their mobility toward other occupations.

In Greece, research on domestic work reveals that the understanding of their careers among domestic workers is related to certain parameters of an objective nature, such as a steady income or the ability to ensure residence. Economic need, some argue, is a decisive factor that pushes people into certain labor sectors and keeps them there. In functionalist-oriented studies in particular, the remuneration derived from employment in domestic work appears as a key factor in the social integration of migrant domestic workers (Lambrianidis and Lyberaki 2001; Thanopoulou 2007; Maroukis 2009). While these studies recognize the problems that arise in domestic work, they argue that these problems can be redressed through the professionalization of this type of employment. In other words, by imposing certain labor standards, domestic work can be adapted to the needs of the labor market and the economy in general (Cox 2006; Maroukis 2009; Bellas 2012). At the same time, employment in domestic work and the constant exposure to the value systems of the employers seem to empower workers (Thanopoulou 2007; Metz-Gockel, Morokvasic, and Münst 2008), while the career-track they pursue may be understood as a process of integration into community life (Papataxiarchis, Topali, and Athanasopoulou 2009).

However, while domestic work, by virtue of being waged labor, unambiguously has an economic content that may contribute positively to the survival of the domestic worker and her family, it also has an important social dimension. This aspect has been defined in terms both of unequal power relations (Lazaridis 2000) and of how workers' values and perceptions of themselves and society are shaped through their interactions with their employers (Xypolytas and Lazarescu 2013). Moreover, a migrant's paths within domestic work, at least in terms of improving or worsening their workplace and employment conditions, are subject to work control and depend upon the discretion not only of the employer but also of the clients (Bickham-Mendez 1998).5

Moreover, the functionalist oriented approach seems to ignore the fact that the problems of work and entrapment in this profession are not purely labor-related. On the contrary, these problems stem from the deferential nature and the strong emotional dimension of domestic work itself (Addams 1896; [End Page 70] DuBois [1899] 1995; Glenn 1986; Vassilikou 2007; Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008; Hantzaroula 2012).

Originating in studies in industrial sociology arguing that instrumentalist reasons alone were not sufficient to explain why workers prolong their stay in particular jobs (Goldthorpe et al. 1968; Brown 1984), critically oriented research in Greece has focused on more qualitative aspects of domestic work that seem to play an important ancillary role in the persistence of migrant workers in domestic labor. These relate to cultural aspects of work relations (Anderson and Phizacklea 1997; Styliou 2004; Kampouri 2007; Papataxiarchis, Topali, and Athanasopoulou 2009; Bellas 2012), gendered forms of stratification and stereotypes (Kassimati and Moussourou 2007; Hantzaroula 2012), informality and welfare marginalization (Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008), community context (Fouskas 2012), family relationships (Vassilikou 2007; Xypolytas 2013), perceptions of work and the self, and new mobility aspirations emerging from the type of work and employment in which workers are involved (Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008; Lazarescu 2015).

In general, what we learn from these studies is that workers arrive at career choices through a process shaped by their social interactions and their understanding of their economic status, and in particular through what is referred to in sociology as a sense of group position (Bulmer 1958). Thus, social relations within a particular workplace and type of employment lead to the development of certain workplace cultural values, expectations, and routines. These factors, in addition to all the others, contribute to the development of an understanding on the part of workers as to which jobs are better, given their expectations of the workplace, their economic goals, and their sense of their place in society.


A study of immigrant domestic workers' careers in Greece during the crisis that focuses on the factors perpetuating intra-occupational hierarchies and status differentiation raises several conceptual and methodological issues. To address these, our research relies mainly on qualitative data gathered through in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 50 migrant domestic workers employed in service for more than ten years.6 Most of the interviews were designed so as to allow further comparisons between migrants' experiences of work in their native country and early and late in their residence in Greece, on the one hand, and between employment and social settings, on the other (Coxon, Davies, and Jones 1986). Furthermore, we accounted for and compared data from two [End Page 71] specific time periods: 2005–2008 and 2010–2014. The data from the later period includes all of the interviewees from the earlier period, along with additions. As for data analysis, we considered specific parameters when attempting to show changes in workers' understanding of intra-occupational mobility and status differentiation. In this regard, emphasis was given to elements related to the labor process—for example, the conditions of work—as well as the workers' orientations to their work. More concrete structural and value criteria concerning whether or not a domestic worker stayed in service, such as the nature of the job, workplace control, job status, and self-image, were also examined.

Previous research on domestic work (Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008; Lazarescu 2015) has focused on the effects of work on migrants' incentives to remain in that particular occupation, even if they could, in theory, opt for other, less stigmatized jobs. Within the framework described above, our research in 2014 concluded by examining the consequences, understandings, and collective actions of migrant domestic workers concerning their careers in the midst of the crisis (see also Psimmenos' paper in this issue).

The findings: Orientations to work and zero-mobility incentives

Irina, 45 years old, who emigrated from Moldova, is divorced with one son. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she was unable to ensure the survival of her child and parents, so she decided to take a break from her job as a teacher and move to Greece. Today, 15 years later, she still lives in Athens, where she works as a domestic servant in private households.

Cases like Irina's are examples of how migrants remain trapped in low-status jobs due to barriers imposed by Greek migration policies and labor market restrictions. For the workers themselves, however, their work and employment have more complex meanings and implications that lead them to develop certain self-images and ideas about society that affect their outlook on life. During Irina's years in domestic service, her career changed considerably. Having started as a live-in caregiver for an elderly couple, she changed jobs after one year and started working as a live-out servant. However, the transition from one type of work to another represented a change not only in her work conditions but also in her social status. If her orientation to work when she started could be characterized as mainly instrumental for her survival, as time passed, she felt more empathetic toward her employers as she became increasingly involved in her work. Gradually, being employed as a domestic worker became more than merely a means to ensure her livelihood; it became a sort of personal calling. The question that arises at this point is what changes [End Page 72] may have occurred in her social standing and in her self-perception, particularly those related to rapid transformations in social and economic life in her adopted country.

Qualitative survey data seems to support the view that workers' career choices are influenced by a number of factors, which relate both to work conditions and to personal motivations and life expectations. One finding that appeared frequently in the interviews concerned the women's lack of interest in shifting from domestic work to other occupations, even when the conditions of their current job had gotten worse. What drew our attention was the fact that the more established women became in their jobs, the less interested they were in the specific tasks they performed, thus leading to a blurring of intraoccupational hierarchies and status differentiation. This finding does not mean that these two elements ceased to exist, however, but rather that older forms of work and employment seem to have become more attractive.

Nevertheless, significant objective conditions, such as a reduction in income, are increasingly recognized by social scientists as factors that demonstrate how the current crisis is impacting women's working lives, as well as the survival strategies they are adopting to cope with the crisis (Maroukis 2013). As our data has shown, however, objective conditions do not fully account for the lack of women's job mobility in these cases. This limitation is clear from what the women in our study said about the meanings they attach to work and their self-image.

The interviews showed that, in the course of their employment, migrant domestic workers adopted new work orientations in contrast to those they had held when they began work in Greece. These new orientations were apparent in the ways women understood their jobs, their contractual obligations to employers, and their social relationships with other workers, as well as in how they perceived their prospects of being able to change jobs. Incentives to seek other employment seem to have been associated with their working conditions, the specific tasks they were told to perform, and the status their current jobs afforded them. Our analysis shows that the factors that led women to remain in their current jobs were income security, working conditions, and prospects of advancement. In addition, the level of autonomy they experienced in relation to their work schedules and the social status they enjoyed through their personal relationships with their employers appear as important reasons, as well (Lazarescu 2015).

In both live-in and live-out domestic service, objective conditions led to the development of similar forms of economic and social dependency for workers. At the same time, intra-occupational mobility and the prestige associated [End Page 73] with certain job responsibilities led to different perceptions and expectations of domestic service work from those that workers had initially held. In turn, these perceptions and expectations influenced their work choices, their social status, and their orientation toward making a change in their careers.

Analysis of domestic work in Greece emphasizes that immigrant women initially understood paid work in personal services as a necessity for their survival; sexual services aside, domestic work represented the only job available to them. However, they gradually came to see their work as an activity that offered them more than just an income. Domestic work seemed to offer them new opportunities to explore their capabilities as they came to acquire and master new skills. Tefta, a live-out domestic worker from Albania, explains:

We have to survive in life. What we can do, we cannot choose (we have to learn to do the best) this is what we are doing. At the beginning we leave behind (initial plans), a person gets into chaos, she does not know what happens, what will follow. … After a while you come to terms (with realities). … You do your job as part of survival but you also feel (this job) as your own home. … This is what I think always, where I work with my soul, not in order to fill my day, I work so that I would feel better and the people I work for.

(Tefta, 44 years old, in Psimmenos 2007, 23)

The most recent data from our survey reveals that, even after changes occurred in employment conditions, domestic workers still perceived their work as more than just an occupation; it also provided certain noneconomic incentives. As Tess, a live-out domestic worker from the Philippines, emphasizes:

It is OK … it's basically your house, in your own home, working as [if you were] a mother … this is it.

(Tess, 60 years old)

Structural criteria of stabilization in domestic work: Conditions of work

According to data collected during our research with domestic workers in 2005–2008, it was in their live-in service jobs that they had their first experiences with caring for strangers and cleaning houses other than their own. Those who from the very beginning were employed as live-out servants only performed house-cleaning tasks, such as mopping, sweeping, dusting, ironing and the like. At the same time, live-in domestic workers usually offered their services to a single family, whereas live-out workers had many employers (Table 2). [End Page 74]

Table 2. Conditions of work-changes (2005–2008 / 2010–2014) Note: (♿): increase tendency, (Δ): decrease tendency Source: Authors.
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Table 2.

Conditions of work-changes (2005–2008 / 2010–2014)

Note: (♿): increase tendency, (Δ): decrease tendency

Source: Authors.

The most recent data (2010–2014) shows a shift in these work conditions, whereby live-in domestic workers are now providing services to more than one employer, while live-outs are increasingly becoming unemployed.

With regard to the tasks performed, another clear change has occurred. Rather than preferring women who specialize in only certain jobs, employers now seek and appreciate those who can perform multiple types of work. According to Boika, a Bulgarian live-out domestic worker:

As fast as I can accomplish two jobs in one move. … Let's say while I wait to fill a bucket with water I have to do something else. To [be able] to combine one [task] with another so that I can perform work faster, there must be no delay.

(Boika, 54 years old)

Concerning the criteria of task allocation, in the case of live-in domestic workers, these are based on the personal needs of employers, while for the live-out [End Page 75] migrant domestic worker they depend on the needs of the employer's entire family. Moreover, there seems to be to shift in expectations at the workplace, with employers expecting more from their servants than they had in the past. As Natalya, a live-in domestic worker from Georgia, explains:

At first it's different, after you get used to it … it's different. … At first they are embarrassed, they are more restrained and then … [they ask for more].

(Natalya, 60 years old)

In terms of workplace control for live-in maids, regardless of the type of work performed, the employer dictates when and how quickly certain jobs get done, when the worker can take her breaks, and when she can have personal downtime (Friedman 1977; Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008). Thus, one of the attractions of being a live-out domestic is the greater self-control that it affords workers. But women who live in the house where they work develop greater emotional bonds with their employers and their families than live-out workers do. In the words of Amalia, an Albanian live-out domestic worker:

How to say … where I work, I thank them very much and I am indebted to them, I'm never impatient to leave. I work with my heart, since I have never left empty-handed from these households. Food, clothes for kids. And they love me and I thank them very much, I love them too.

(Amalia, 58 years old)

Regarding the number of days domestic servants work, data from 2005–2008 shows that live-ins and live-outs tended to be employed, respectively, for seven and six to seven days a week. The more recent data indicates a slight reduction, with live-in domestic servants now working six days a week on average, and live-outs only five.

Regarding working hours, the data shows a very high level of variation. In the case of live-in domestic workers, this variation is related to the obligation for workers to be at their employing family's disposal at any time of the day or night. In the case of live-out domestics, their work schedule is unstable by definition, since it is tied to the needs and demands of their different clientele. For these workers, changes evident in recent years include fewer regularly scheduled work days, a reduction in the hours they work per week, and a freezing of the so-called "double wages," which refers to the practice of paying a worker twice their normal wage for working on a holiday (Lazarescu 2015). The testimony of domestic workers also reveals changes in their salaries, which not only continue to be unstable but also are in fact mostly declining. As Tess explains:

Before, I had a day's work in several households in the morning, because when the child went to school. … the first class went to school … and I found many [End Page 76] households in the morning. … I used to work from 8:00 until 1:30 earning 30 [euros] a day. And because of this crisis … it's worse. By 2011 I had a very good salary, money, income … but when it started, in 2012 … I lost some of the parttime [jobs] because [my employers] have no money, lost their jobs, so for the time being I only have one part-time [job].

(Tess, 60 years old)

On the other hand, job security for domestic workers does not seem to have changed dramatically because of the crisis; it has remained, as it was before, practically nonexistent in most cases. Both for live-in and live-out domestic workers, whether they stay employed still depends on the good will of their employers.7 This lack of job security affects, among other things, a worker's access to basic labor rights, such as medical coverage or pensions. Moreover, the research data reveals that domestic workers are often not eligible for many social benefits provided by the state because of their ambiguous legal work status. For example, many of them get healthcare only through their husbands' social insurance (Psimmenos 2007; see also Skamnakis and Malekaki in this issue).

Why women remain in domestic work: Perceptions of work and the self

Integration in domestic work marks a change from an initial stage, where migrants' orientation to work provided mainly extrinsic satisfactions (the means to their livelihood), to a more expressive meaning of work that they develop gradually. More precisely, the integration into live-in domestic work brings about an important change, as a regression can be observed in terms of their income, while at the same time feelings of solidarity toward their employers start to grow (Table 3). Meanwhile, elements of bureaucratic orientation begin to develop, since involvement in domestic work leads to a moral involvement of the self, especially in terms of a more acute sense of duty.

Remaining employed in live-out domestic work led to a significant change in women's work orientations, since solidarity toward their employers' families took precedence over solidarity toward their own families. This does not mean that the economic criterion was not an important factor in their perceptions of work, but rather that its influence was limited by strong feelings of loyalty on the part of domestic workers toward their employers (see also Xypolytas, Vassilikou, and Fouskas in this issue). Migrant domestic workers are at the disposal of their employers at any given moment, not because of contractual commitments or the physical confinement of workers to the workplace, but rather because workers understand themselves as available to their employers in that way. As Stefania, a Ukrainian live-in domestic worker, says: [End Page 77]

Table 3. Perceptions of work and self—changes (2005–2008 / 2010–2014) Source: Authors
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Table 3.

Perceptions of work and self—changes (2005–2008 / 2010–2014)

Source: Authors

Each employer has his own problems, his tastes, his quirks. You have to work, that's how it should be. I am aware of my position. … If young Greeks cannot dream, should I be dreaming, at my age? I ceased to be an engineer many years ago. Now I am a KAPI [Elderly Open Care Center] worker.

(Stefania, 63 years old)

Moreover, the driving force behind not only the development of workers' perspectives toward changing jobs but also their social status is their relationship with their employers. The employer gradually becomes not only a person who ensures the worker's daily bread but also someone whom she can trust and who in some ways fulfills certain psychological and emotional needs. Suela's story captures well this sentiment:

[I don't see them] like bosses, they are my friends, they are like my brothers, how to tell you, I learnt. I do not mind the things [they do].

(Suela, 27 years old)

Furthermore, the social and professional position of their employers appears to become a criterion for the image that domestic workers have of themselves. In other words, our study reveals that, in an informal hierarchy of prestige among domestic workers, employers' occupations continue to play an important role; in the eyes of their peers, in other words, servants obtain a status that derives [End Page 78] from that of their employers (Lazarescu 2015). As Vera, a Russian live-out domestic worker, explains:

All those I work for, and I'm telling the truth, they are all educated, they have good jobs, and they know what it means to be a foreigner, to be in a foreign country, they know all these things. Very smart people, really smart people. I didn't even have such people in Russia. And I open the front door of their house, as though it were my own.

(Vera, 47 years old)

Related to the matter of status, interaction with employers leads domestic workers to perceive work as an activity that provides them with a certain cosmopolitanism. This relationship appears to contribute significantly to their adoption of cultural patterns related to the everyday practices of servants. As in the first phase of research (2005–2008), the majority of women in the later interviews also perceived their job as a potentially gratifying and promising activity. After ten years of cleaning houses, Tefta from Albania argues:

Now after so many years on the job, having the experience, I don't feel [the negative aspects]. I feel quite relaxed and the employer sees me as part of his family. I appreciate them and so do they. … I feel as if [being at work] I am out with friends. … I am also saying that I have acquired experience [since I started]. … [My employer] was an older "hand" [experienced woman]. … She appreciated the family and I have learned from her. I love her.

(Tefta, 44 years old, in Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008, 234)

In addition to the status they derived from their relationship with their employers, for domestic workers, the sense of their own self-worth in comparison to other workers is well developed. However, our study reveals a difference in the way that live-in and live-out domestic servants perceived their status during the later phase of research compared to the earlier data. It seems that status perception has been reversed, in fact, since live-in domestic workers compare themselves to workers employed in other types of employment in domestic work, whereas live-out workers mainly compare themselves with workers employed in other types of jobs, such as sales clerks in supermarkets and factory workers. As Chryssoula explains in her testimony:

I know how to take care of Grandma, I don't like to go and work outside, it is better, I have dignity at work, I do not like to go elsewhere. If I found myself without work, I would wait to find another grannie, I did not think to find other work. … I can't.

(Chryssoula, 61 years old)

For many immigrant women, their first exposure to domestic work was as live-in servants; they perceived this as a type of work that provided them [End Page 79] with a relatively steady income, as well as protection from the law, a need many felt because of their immigration status. At that early stage in their working lives, however, immigrants also learned that they were not just part of an exploitable workforce. In contrast to their previous working lives, where this understanding was usually related to being part of a collectivity, in domestic work, exploitation takes place at an individual level. Thus, gradual integration into domestic work brings about an alteration in workers' understanding of themselves; they come to see themselves as individuals who are "suitable for exploitation" (Lazarescu 2015). Aside from the difficult nature of their work and uncertain employment conditions—being uninsured, for example—that lead to the denial of certain basic labor rights, employment in domestic work also deprives migrants of any ability to organize or control their lives (even their dreams are shaped by their work environment). Data from the first phase of research showed that migrants perceived their employment as live-in domestics as a temporary situation on their path toward other forms of employment. In this sense, their employment as live-ins contributed to the development of employment options; their main objective was to change not their profession but rather the type of work and/or employment within domestic work (Lazarescu 2015).

In this sense, using live-in domestic work as a temporary option for future employment in other types of employment, such as live-out domestic work, migrant women develop different perceptions of their relationship to the larger economy. Thus, workers sacrificed higher and more predictable wages in exchange for gaining some degree of autonomy at work regarding matters like the pace at which tasks are performed and the separation between work and nonwork spaces (that is, privacy). As Boika explains,

[Live-in] is hard, very hard, because you don't belong to yourself. It is a big difference when you work as a live-out because you are a human creature, you belong to yourself, after work you can go home, take a shower, go out, you belong to yourself as a human creature while when you work live-in, you don't belong to yourself.

(Boika, 54 years old)

At the same time, Boika's narrative emphasizes the importance of a distinction between jobs, which rests not only on gender or racial and ethnic segregation, as was commonly believed in the past (Psimmenos 2007; Bellas 2012), but also on the type of work performed. In other words, it seems that, on the one hand, workers' motives have changed, for example, regarding the possibility of isolation. On the other hand, their routines and habits have become increasingly tied to the organization of personal services. For some women, live-out [End Page 80] domestic work became both a criterion of and an incentive for mobility. However, in contrast to self-employed workers in other professions, for whom the main incentive to change jobs is work autonomy, in the case of domestics what prevails is a form of responsible autonomy (Lazarescu 2015). Even if these workers gradually gain a degree of autonomy in terms of issues like who decides what tasks are to be performed, their employers have the final say. This has resulted in workers' increasing dependency on employers, since the confidence that they display toward domestic workers results in increased stress and sense of responsibility. At the same time, workers' autonomy is associated with each one's so-called skills as a good housewife, since labor and prestige are personified and associated with each worker's character. In this context, and in accordance with results from previous studies (Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008; Hantzaroula 2012; Lazarescu 2015), traits such as truthfulness, decency, and dedication toward not only employers but also their possessions remain an important source of consideration for them. As Stefania, a live-in domestic worker from Ukraine, emphasizes:

[A] woman is like a tree that grows where you plant it. She adapts. I started working in this house six years ago. I love it, I got used to it. But I do not change anything. I take care of it. I clean it but make no changes at all. This is here, that is there. I am aware of my position.

(Stefania, 63 years old)

It is probably the high degree of adaptability developed through their years in domestic work that, in light of the recent changes in the Greek economy and labor markets, leads live-out domestics to see live-in service as a supposedly safer type of work. In the words of Silvia, a Romanian live-out domestic worker:

Instead of paying rent, food, etc., [I] go and work as live-in. But I would go to work for one or two people at most. Or, as in the household where I clean, four persons, two children, and it's a quiet family. They go along and each [of them] doesn't tell me its own "story." If I say that the man said something, the lady will not tell me to do something else. Yes, I could handle it.

(Silvia, 30 years old)

Moreover, domestic workers' perceptions of occupational and social mobility emphasize individualism, autonomy, and adaptability to changing social conditions. In this context, the problems of domestic work cannot be overcome through collective action. Instead, the profession and the problems it creates are perceived as obstacles that may only be overcome individually. As Suela mentions in her testimony:

No, no, no one. I keep [my problems] to myself. I do not open my heart to anyone; I keep it to myself because I do not trust anyone. Whom? I have my sister-in-law [End Page 81] next door, should I open up to her? Should I say something to my brothers? I do not want to upset them. To my father and mother? Neither that I feel like this, nor that Ι had that difficulty, or that I quarreled with my husband, or … no, nothing. I keep it to myself and so I am very stressed and sad, because it would be good to share it with someone. … [The unions, the associations], I don't like them either.

(Suela, 27 years old)

Another interviewee, Tefta, clearly explained that domestic work not only limited her relationship with her friends and relatives but also affected her self-image.

When you are [psychologically] loaded [from work] you think of nothing. You are so tired that you want to go to bed and sleep … you have no life. You are a zero. And you cannot look yourself at the mirror, or care for yourself. … [D]omestic work limits your actions, you don't have [the stamina] to look at yourself, or to give [anything] to the people that surround you.

(Tefta, 44 years old, in Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008, 159)

However, one way these migrant women believed they could counteract the uncertainties associated with their employment was to identify their very existence with the provision of personal service to others. Even if domestic workers never deny the importance of labor rights, they insist that it is even more important to know how to cope psychologically with domestic work. As a Georgian live-out domestic worker explains:

[Work is] everything, if I didn't have a job, that means I would feel old and could only expect death. Because when I work, this means that I am useful and when you are useful, this means so much. For people I am useful and even if I were sick I shouldn't die. Even if you were hurt, even if you were psychologically down, no, you have to stand on your feet because you are helpful.

(Liana, 57 years old)

Another interviewee went one step further, explaining the changes that occurred in her self-image and her perception of her social status over her working career. Reciting the lyrics of a song she used to listen to when she was young, she compared herself to the main character:

Well, everybody is asking me. One thing is to make a call and to ask for something, to control other employees and another thing is what I do now. How is it possible not to perceive the difference? But [in] life … you fall . … Listen to Sergiu Zagardan's words: "Life's pathway is complex / When falling down you must climb / You should give without asking / You should first love and then hope." It is so meaningful, so similar. If we analyze it, each word has a meaning. I adapted.

(Elena, 55 years old) [End Page 82]

Being employed in domestic work during a recession has additional consequences for the way immigrant women perceive themselves and their life prospects. Even if the current situation might seem familiar to them, as they had already lived through similar experience in their country of origin, they are no longer as optimistic as they once were, since they have already undergone drastic economic and social transformations. Being employed in domestic work for so many years has apparently shifted the way workers perceive the impact of the economic crisis; they identify it not so much with the economy but more with morality. As Vera explains:

Well, of course it is the second time in my life. … I know what that is. But now I am more afraid, because I'm older now and this thing plays its role but I know what this is. In my home country I was not so scared. I have my house where I live, no one will take it from me. Here I have nothing, if I don't pay, I will end up on the street. But there is another thing I fear more. Not hunger or things like that, but I saw how it begins, and this is more important, when people don't have money they lose all that is good in a person.

(Vera, 47 years old)


This article has examined how women immigrant domestic workers in particular have experienced the economic crisis. Emphasis has been placed on the way that the nature and values of work and employment perpetuate intraoccupational hierarchies and status differentiation. Previous studies have stressed the effects of domestic work on migrants' material conditions and how their work has informed their understanding of the possibility of changing employment. Our analysis takes these questions further, considering structural and evaluative factors that help to explain why so many women persist in domestic service rather than pursuing other employment opportunities. That has led us, in turn, to examine how these workers viewed their jobs and how the nature of their work has shaped their self-image.

Concerning the objective conditions that affect their decision to remain in domestic work, we suggest that negative changes have occurred in terms of their employment. These changes have led to their reevaluation of the basic incentives that motivated them to stay in service before the recession, including more permanent employment, workplace stability, regularization of duties, task specialization, and pay increases. Particularly important changes include a tendency to shift from live-out to live-in domestic work; an orientation toward working for multiple employers; and a negative shift in terms of both the tasks that they are asked to perform and the control that they have over their work. [End Page 83]

The crisis has not only altered work and employment status, but it has also changed work values. These values are related to qualitative aspects of the career choices made by domestic workers. In this vein, the crisis has modified domestic workers' perceptions of the desirability of working as either live-in or live-out servants. Nevertheless, newly adopted work values continue to strengthen these immigrants' willingness to stay in the profession and to remain committed to domestic service. Even though the bonds previously created with their employers have loosened, workers do not pursue a different line of work. Instead, they have lower expectations about their jobs and workplace conditions, which in turn negatively impact their self-perception and their prospects for mobility.

At present, perhaps more than ever, immigrant domestic servants do not have an image of themselves that can be dissociated from their job. Variations in the way live-in and live-out servants perceive their work prospects regressively affects intra-occupational mobility and status differentiation, further embedding them in a framework of thought and action that strengthens the negative tendencies of inter-occupational mobility and leaving no room for expectations or desires to shift to other professions. These workers thus remain trapped in a labor sector that offers little more than hard work and few prospects of change for the better.

Daria Lazarescu
Panteion University of Social and Political Studies
Yiorgos Kouzas
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Daria Lazarescu

Daria Lazarescu holds a PhD from the Department of Social Policy at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens (Greece). Her areas of concern include work orientations, low-status jobs, and migration. She has participated in research projects related to work, migration, and economic crisis. Her most recent publication is Σταδιοδρομία στην υπηρετικότητα: Η περίπτωση των Ρουμάνων μεταναστριών οικιακών εργατριών στην Ελλάδα (Career pathways into servitude: The case of Romanian migrant workers in Greece; Papazisis, 2015).

Yiorgos Kouzas

Yiorgos Kouzas studied Philology and Folklore at the University of Athens, writing his thesis on the sectors of urban folklore and urban ethnography, and in particular on beggary in Athens today. He has worked in research programs at the University of Athens and the Panteion University in relation to the work, the immigration, and the social marginalization of population groups. He has published articles in Greek and foreign journals. He has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Athens (2015–2016). During the current academic year (2016–2017), he has been teaching Folklore at the University of Peloponnese.


1. The case of immigrants allows a high level of comparability in the way people face similar situations across different social and labor contexts. This may invite further discussion on the way in which work has a decisive influence on people's actions, values, and thoughts.

2. According to Tony Watson, an "occupational career represents the sequence of positions through which the members of an occupation typically pass during the part of their life which they spend in that occupation" (Watson 2005, 231). Furthermore, the notion of career also implies a subjective dimension that is defined as "the way an individual understands and makes sense of the way they have moved through various social positions or stages in the course of their life" (Watson 2005, 134).

3. In contrast to this approach, Marxist or general critical approaches link personal services to the development of the capitalist economy and the manipulation of the working class. Moreover, the contemporary increase in employment in personal services seems to be directly linked both to market reforms in the welfare state (that is, the transfer of responsibility of social [End Page 84] protection from the state to individuals and families) and to the globalization of the capitalist economy.

4. As Papademetriou, Sumption, and Terrazas 2010 highlighted, "at the onset of the recession, the unemployment rate among immigrant women was higher than among immigrant men, but that has since reversed" (104).

5. This is mostly the case for immigrant workers employed by cleaning service agencies.

6. The members of the research team that conducted the interviews were: Kleopatra Antonopoulou, Maria Dima, Theodoros Fouskas, Theodoros Kollatos, Giorgos Kouzas, Daria Lazarescu, Effrosini Malekaki, Kostas Mylonas, Dimitris Stathis, and Christina Tsakalou.

7. There are, nevertheless, cases of women who at times pay in order to cover their own insurance. However, this procedure most often appears to be instrumental, in that it allows domestic workers to obtain a residence permit or to enroll their children in school.


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