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Migrant Domestic Workers:
Family, Community, and Crisis

This article examines the consequences of the economic crisis in Greece on the families and community organizations of migrant domestic workers. After spending more than a decade in individualized low-status jobs, migrant women are facing the effects of the economy on their primary and secondary solidarity groups, families, and communities. The research suggests that although this tendency is not new, it has been greatly exacerbated by the ongoing recession and has resulted in the emergence of new forms and perceptions of family and community. These changes further undermine the social position of migrant women, who were one of the most atomized and vulnerable sectors of the workforce even before the advent of the economic crisis.


This study revisits, in the context of the ongoing Greek recession, the main sociological questions that were examined regarding the nature of migrant domestic work during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Looking at workers' primary and secondary solidarity, family, and community groups has always been of central concern to the analysis of domestic labor.1 This seemingly narrow focus on a specific aspect of domestic work is in no way coincidental or unintentional. For over a century, social scientists have been greatly concerned with the impact of laboring in domestic service on workers' families and communal organizations (Addams 1896; Du Bois [1899] 1995; Coser 1973; Chaplin 1978; Cock 1980; Glenn 1986; Anderson and Phizacklea 1997).

But how does the economic crisis affect migrants' social relationships in this particular labor sector? Are migrants able to get social protection from their family members and coworkers, or does domestic work expose them even further to the economic consequences of the crisis? Does protection from the [End Page 89] effects of the crisis require an increased level of dependency on their employer? If so, what are the consequences of such a development on the worker? In our effort to answer these questions, our focus in this article will be on three areas. First, we will investigate the consequences of the economic crisis on the familial relationships of domestic workers. What changes do we see in the structure of and relationships within migrant families over the past five years? Second, we will focus on the employer-worker relationship, in particular on the employer's ability to offer the migrant further social protection. What are the consequences of this in an employment situation that already operates on the basis of patronage? Third, we will offer an analysis of the effects of the crisis on the formation and ongoing activities of immigrant associations. Do domestic workers seek refuge in these organizations, and can these organizations mitigate some of the effects of such a disastrous recession?

Changes, unemployment, and future plans of family organization

The emphasis on family is a central aspect of women's discourse on the consequences of the crisis for the economy and its impact on women's emotional and relational worlds. The relevant literature addresses this feature of the problem, as well as the importance of family and social ties, in equal measure: "The distinctions between work and family, public and private, labor and leisure are blurred by social, affiliative networks that transcend these dichotomies" (Cowie and Heathcott 2003, 272–273; see also Vassilikou 2007b). Family is the filter through which migrant domestic workers perceive the Greek crisis. The transnational nature of their families, meanwhile, shapes their perceptions, values, actions, and response strategies.

The main question here concerns changes in family structure and the redefinition of life goals concerning migration along with family and personal needs.2 After an initial crisis in their homeland that led to their emigration, migrants facing the current economic crisis in Greece are now reconsidering their options. Women are indecisive about having children, especially when faced with unemployment and often their husbands' lack of work, as well. The options are to stay in Greece and struggle for work on a daily basis, to return to their country of origin with the knowledge that the situation back home has not improved, or to search for another destination where they could start a new life. Children can also play a central role in the family's plans; children who grew up in Greece, often speaking Greek better than their parents' native language, are to a greater or lesser extent integrated in Greek society. The actual situation [End Page 90] is critical, even if it is not always expressed in such terms. The simple fact of the matter is that wages have gone down and jobs are more difficult to find, even though there is still demand in Greek society for domestic servants. This continued demand is due to the weaknesses and deficiencies in the structure of the national welfare and social support systems. More specifically, domestic obligations and tasks continue to lie on the shoulders of Greek women, despite increased female participation in the labor market. Migrant domestic workers in the 1990s, unlike those employed in earlier times by the upper class, were employed by the emerging middle class for reasons of both household reproduction and status attainment (Vassilikou 2009, 2013). The crisis has created two distinct problems for domestic workers. First, the middle class has experienced a major income loss that makes domestic servants unaffordable. Second, the rising unemployment rate in the Greek population has resulted in the redomestication of many women who previously had worked outside of the home and hired a servant to perform domestic duties. Due to these reasons, wages fell and jobs became scarcer, leading to smaller remittances that could be sent back home by domestic workers. Dani, a fifty-five-year-old woman from Albania, expresses this in her testimony:

Now there are no jobs. In my house, I am the only one who works. My husband doesn't work, my children are studying, and we have financial problems. This goes for everyone, not just us. So we can no longer support our parents in Albania. It is not possible, even if from time to time we send them some money just to make them feel we haven't forgot them.

(Dani, Albanian, aged 55)

There are additional reasons for the limited financial support that migrant domestic workers are able to give their families. First, the children left back home by the women who arrived in Greece in the 1990s and early 2000s are now grown. These women do not financially assist with the well-being and education of their grandchildren as they did with their own children; it is seen as time for their now-adult children to work and provide for themselves, and time for the workers themselves to rest. Second, since these women now tend to save money for their old age, their remittances are fewer and smaller; most came to Greece in the early 1990s and are now getting on in years. Some now own a house in their country of origin, but others who have supported their children for a long time are left with no significant resources for their old age. The crisis hit them in the midst of their effort to save for themselves, while they were also providing for their children. A woman from Bulgaria by the name of Valeria relates this in her testimony: [End Page 91]

I never make plans because I don't have the right to. If the kids find a job, I will go back to my country because there I won't pay rent. I will take the pension and go back there. I won't go to work there again.

(Valeria, Bulgarian, aged 55)

Mira, another Bulgarian migrant, expresses a similar sentiment, saying:

If the time comes I'll go back; all those years here I work and I pay the rent. There, at least, I have a house, I will get a pension and there I will die. If I had a house I could live here, I wouldn't mind. Here is better. … People are good and I could live here, but I cannot buy a house or work until I am sixty or seventy years old. I will go where my home is.

(Mira, Bulgarian, aged 54)

For these women, the age at which they will start receiving a pension is identified with retirement and rest, even if this goal is often unrealistic. Getting a pension from Greece is at present more of an imaginary prospect than a reality. Even if some employers have registered their domestic servants in the social security system and paid for their contributions, the postcrisis system has become much less generous to foreign workers, and the years they have spent working in Greece do not quite meet the requirements for obtaining a pension. Sustaining themselves with a pension from their country of origin, if they could earn one, would be nearly impossible. Although their pensions would not be sufficient for a decent living in Greece—and this contributes significantly to their anxiety—the word "pension" does frequently appear in their discourse as an expression of hope for a comfortable future.

In the "good years," as they often describe the time before the crisis, even with no social security coverage, these women had created relations of "sympathy" with Greeks—employers and others—that permitted them to benefit from informal social assistance (Vassilikou 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). During the crisis, with all the economic difficulties and rapidly rising unemployment that followed, they have experienced rather less "sympathy," and less time and effort are devoted to social relationships. This situation has seriously affected their ability to obtain help.

In light of the above, we can say that for these women, as their children have grown up and less money is now saved for their own benefit, their work becomes a source of meaning in their lives in addition to or instead of the family. A fifty-four-year-old Albanian woman named Anna makes this explicit in her testimony:

Work is life. I get up in the morning and I say thank God I have a job! The crisis hasn't affected me. I know that some people are hungry, homeless. … I worked hard and I still provide for the house.

(Anna, Albanian, aged 54) [End Page 92]

The crisis is nevertheless present, leading to tensions when men are unemployed, which potentially affects family relations as well as family plans. For men, returning home appears a viable solution. Women, however, generally wish to stay in Greece if they can find work due to bad conditions back home, as Dani suggests in her testimony:

My son had a fight with his father because he said that now only mom works at home and she gets tired. My husband doesn't like sitting down doing nothing, but what can he do about it? And now they don't talk to each other.

(Dani, Albanian, aged 55)

Another Albanian, a woman by the name of Moza, says:

If you have a family, there are also disputes when there is no work … and when the man doesn't work. … With this crisis, a lot of people have gone, they went back to Albania—so many separations. If I go there, I will stay with my father and my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law. I cannot stand it. The way I am now, I cannot stand being with my husband and child.

(Moza, Albanian, aged 27)

For Moza, moreover, unemployment also changes her family plans:

This year, this winter, was the most difficult of my life. I had never been like that. My husband has still not started working [again]. I have a job, just got one, that's why I cannot make the decision to have a second child.

(Moza, Albanian, aged 27)

For now, these women see the Greek crisis as less serious and devastating than the one in their own countries that initially motivated their decision to migrate to Greece. This aspect of their social memory is important for understanding their perception of the situation. However, they readily admit that the Greek crisis is terrible and disastrous for Greeks.

Migrant domestic workers admit that their purchasing power has greatly weakened, but they remember that they had been more successful than their men in equipping their households with electronic devices and other expensive goods via remittances that they sent back home. Thus, they feel pride when recalling their history of consumer spending, while admitting that they now have to cut back on food expenditures.

New social and family dimensions

Previous studies on these workers' transnational domestic arrangements highlighted the cohesion and strengthening of the family (Kampouri 2007; Thanopoulou 2007; Vassilikou 2007c; Topali 2008; Vassilikou 2009, 2010, 2013). The family for migrant women was ideally perceived as a strong entity that [End Page 93] prevailed over other forms of identification. According to the findings of these studies, during the economic crisis, even if the family has remained a central entity to which these women refer, there has been nonetheless a loosening of family ties as planning for an uncertain future becomes more difficult.

Women domestic workers today make their plans without having, as they once did, their adult children as their primary center of attention (Vassilikou 2014). They are now concerned more with themselves, support during their old age, and their pension. Their life circumstances changed during the years they lived and worked in Greece; they became older and less able to support the families they had left behind, feeling the weight of working conditions much more than before. The economic crisis of the last five years has worsened their situation: wages have dropped, jobs are scarce, and there are fewer opportunities to change employers if they are not satisfied. In addition, where there is a husband, he is mostly unemployed. And even if it is not as strong as it was before, the sense of duty to send money back home persists, as does the will to return. According to Maria, a forty five-year-old woman from Georgia, "Our blood is calling for us, our land is asking for us. There, we have everything, our family."

The actual crisis for migrant domestic workers presents two main characteristics. On the one hand, the economic support in the form of remittances that these women had provided to their family for a very long period and up until the crisis had to be reduced substantially. The solidarity among family members, often dispersed across multiple countries, is also weakening, which has decreased women's sense of familial obligation, as well as the significance that family has acquired in their life. On the other hand, the harsh conditions and low pay they face in domestic work, the feeling of helplessness they experience, the lack of choices they confront, and their sense of being caught between two countries in crisis all deepen the dependence and isolation inherently felt by those who work in domestic service. Also, when compared to previous studies on transnational families, the present study shows that women domestic workers are now more pragmatic and hold far fewer illusions about family.

The chief aim of the qualitative analysis undertaken here was to locate and elucidate the changes in mentality among women domestic workers that resulted from the social and economic crisis. One must certainly consider the fact that these women had already experienced lives as immigrants before the advent of the crisis. The question, then, is to trace the disparity between disappointment as part of the progression of what they consider an ordinary migration history and the transformations to that notion caused by the crisis. In particular, one must distinguish between changes that are due to a [End Page 94] past history of migration and those that may be traced to the crisis. These differences are not easily perceived, and the fact that these women display an understanding and even a degree of acceptance of the crisis conditions must be interpreted accordingly.

Changes within live-in and live-out workers

One of the most important consequences of working as a live-in domestic servant, even before the crisis, was the undermining of roles and relationships within the transnational family (Kassimati et al. 1991; Psimmenos 1995; Lazaridis 2000; Cañete 2001; Petronoti 2001). This is related to at least two important parameters. The first has to do with migration policy itself, together with the distance and time workers spend away from their families. When many migrants in this study entered Greece, it was with a visa that lasted for only a few months. During that time, they had to find a house to live in and a paying job that could provide them with the money needed to repay loans they had taken out to secure their papers. Similarly, the employers' households may protect them from the authorities, as migrants become illegal the moment their tourist visa expires, but police do not have the right to raid houses looking for undocumented workers. After a tourist visa expires, migrants have to wait years to legalize their status, which would allow them to live and work legally in Greece. The waiting period is very long (five years or more) and during that time migrants cannot leave the country. Given that a domestic worker may thus live in Greece for several years and never see her family during that time, it is clear that migration policy can affect the relationship between a migrant woman and her family abroad (Xypolytas 2013).

Women often left underage children behind, entrusting them to the care of their father or grandparents. Meanwhile, their relationship with their husbands appears to be problematic, an issue that, according to the literature, preceded migration and is a consequence of the economic and social crisis in their country of origin during the 1990s.3 After spending a decade away from their families with only brief visits annually, domestic workers grew apart from their husbands and children back home. As Stefania, a sixty-three-year-old woman from the Ukraine, explains,

We're a bit like strangers with my husband. We don't talk and when we do, we don't have something to say. With my children it's a little better. We talk, we share some advice. … But my husband doesn't want to see me. But it wasn't going well between us even when I was there. And what can you expect? I've been away from them for 17 years.

(Stefania, Ukrainian, aged 63) [End Page 95]

What Stefania describes is familial relationships being undermined, not necessarily as a result of the economic crisis, but rather because of her lengthy stay in domestic work in Greece, which distanced her from her family.

Another important consequence of the economic crisis for the familial relationships of live-in domestics has to do with the relationships formed between workers and their employers. As the literature suggests (Anderson 1996; Anderson and Phizacklea 1997; Anderson 2000; Phizacklea et al. 2000; Vassilikou 2007a; Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008), strong emotional bonds often form between domestic workers and their employers. These bonds are critical, from a sociological perspective, and are the foundation for the analysis of domestic work as labor based on patronage rather than contractual obligations. Building on this approach, recent studies have looked at how the labor process of live-in domestic work results in "pseudo-familial" relationships between workers and employers (Xypolytas 2013). This analysis does not characterize the intimacy of the employment relationship as straightforwardly familial. Rather, it explains how undertaking domestic duties and providing care for the elderly or underage children involves specific tasks that generate a high level of emotional attachment, mimicking familial relationships.

Several observations may therefore be made about the consequences of domestic work when considered in light of the breakup of familial relationships in the country of origin. First, strong emotional bonds provide safety in a context of insecurity, possibly replacing the loss of security that was experienced as a result of migration. Second, workers identify their interests with those of their employers, which facilitates their consent to highly problematic work conditions. Third, workers become more isolated from their families in their countries of origin and from migrant associations in Greece. Although the first two observations are critically important for the sociological analysis of domestic work, for the purposes of this article we will focus on the third, namely, the ways in which the crisis strengthens pseudo-familial relationships with employers, and how this in turn influences the relationships between domestic workers and their families.

This transformation in the relationships between workers and their employers as well as their families could result in a new perception of family, one that is not necessarily based on lineage or blood ties. As Liana, a fifty-sevenyear-old woman from Georgia, relates in her testimony:

If I have a problem, I'll talk to Stefanos and his family [recent employers] or to Gina [previous employer]. They are my family. I raised their children and when [End Page 96] I go there it's like I have a younger sister. They are my family and when I have a problem with money or anything I tell them and they try to fix it.

(Liana, Georgia, aged 57)

This interview suggests that economic and social insecurity leads to a higher degree of dependency on the employer, which reinforces and enhances the existing relationship. Such pseudo-familial relationships add to the existing distance between workers and their families. After a decade in domestic work, migrants often adopt a money-oriented relationship with their own family.

If it wasn't for my son or my daughter, when she got sick … Who will take care of them? The mother. All this burden is on the mother. No one else. The father died and so the mother has to deal with all this. I had some dreams. I made some money. I can't say I haven't. I worked all these years, but now I have no money. I give [them] everything.

(Mitra, Bulgarian, aged 62)

What Mitra hints at here is a critical sociological issue related to subjects' perception of social phenomena. Work, family, and other social institutions have certain structural characteristics that sociologists may analyze, but the way in which social actors themselves perceive these institutions is of paramount importance. In the case of live-in migrant domestic workers in Greece, work—that is, paid labor—is perceived in familial terms, and familial relations are understood as economic obligations. This unusual substitution of perceptions is a strong indication of the alienation of domestic workers, who disassociate themselves from familial bonds only to become more deeply associated with the demands of their employment.

This process of internalization of the demands of the job leads to the entrapment of domestic workers in low status and low pay (Glenn 1981, 1986; Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008). One consequence of this process is the inability of the workers to perceive themselves outside of their employment. The findings of our research corroborate previous studies showing that domestic workers, trapped in the day-to-day reality of their work, are unable to establish life plans. A sixty-three-year-old woman from the Ukraine by the name of Sylvia presents this in no uncertain terms:

I never thought I would stay all these years. In theory, I came for a couple of years only. Just to gather some money so my son would go to university. But I stayed my whole life. And he didn't even go to university, but I left 2,000 dollars in the bank for him. … That was my initial intention. Then I got sucked in by Greece. And now I am between earth and heaven. Here I am bored and over there [Ukraine] I have nowhere to go.

(Sylvia, Ukrainian, aged 63) [End Page 97]

It is important to note that what has been presented so far in this article indicates the exacerbation of the consequences of domestic work by the crisis. The recession seems to have created a heightened sense of insecurity among live-in domestic workers due to a reduction in their wages, mainly because of their increased dependency upon their employers.4 This dependency further isolates migrants and could possibly undermine their relationships to their families in the country of origin.

On the other hand, live-out domestic workers face slightly different problems when it comes to their familial relations. This is due to the fact that these workers live with their husbands and children, and thus one might expect that their job—even in the context of the crisis—would have a less negative effect on family relationships. In line with previous work on the topic, however, this study suggests that this is hardly the case. The long hours that cleaners spend outside their home does not allow them to strike a balance between work and home life (Anderson 2000; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2002). Moreover, the key problem that the literature points to in the case of domestic work is not exploitation, but rather that work generates values based on patronage, reproducing workers' subordinate position in the labor market and society. Our research finds that live-out workers during the recession also seemed to have strengthened their relationship to their employers, elevating their level of dependency on them. Although the basis of these relationships is not the same as with live-in domestics, the employers' ability to intervene in transactions with authorities and on other issues make them indispensible to workers. According to Amalia, who lives together with her sister in Athens:

Say I explain my problem to my sister, or even my husband. What will they do? Will they do something? They won't. But if I explain things to my boss, she will do something and that's it. It's better this way.

(Amalia, Albanian, aged 58)

Amalia's words suggest the negative effects of individualized labor on primary (family) and secondary (community) social solidarity groups. Working in isolation from other colleagues—especially in unofficial jobs and where the job description rests solely on the particular demands of a given employer—creates a context in which workers align their interests with those of their employers. This is very much the case in the context of increased socioeconomic insecurity, in which the employer becomes a strategic ally in combating the effects of the recession. This results in the delegitimization of family as the primary mechanism for social protection and solidarity.

However, familial relationships for cleaners are undermined even further by the purely economic side of the recession. The evidence collected from [End Page 98] previous research suggests that migrant cleaners in Greece work in multiple households and that their income is large enough to sustain an entire family when the husband is unemployed (Kampouri 2007; Thanopoulou 2007; Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008; Lazarescu 2015). As a result of the economic crisis, working-class Greek families find it increasingly difficult to employ a cleaner on a weekly or even monthly basis. This alters the ways in which migrant families organize their lives generally. Some women return to live-in domestic work, while their husbands move to places farther away from Athens in search for work. The case of thirty-year-old Sylvia from Romania is an example of familial relationships that are already being undermined, being impaired further by the economic crisis. Her husband found a job far from Athens, and she lives alone with her two children.

Now there are three men in a studio flat [her husband and two coworkers]. I've never been in this place. I went to a previous one they were staying at. Now they cook by themselves. The others, that is, because mine doesn't know how to cook. He just does the dishes. They buy their stuff from the supermarket. He only comes in the weekends to have his clothes washed and get meat here from a friend of his who works at the butcher's. In the beginning, I used to cook for him on the weekends so he could take some with him, even for a day or two. Now I've had enough with that. I am tired of doing that.

(Sylvia, Romanian, aged 30)

Sylvia displays an understanding of family relations that is far more instrumental than one would expect. Her relationship to her husband seems quite detached rather than a more traditional description of the family's role, like support or economic protection. However, this detachment is not limited to the couple; this is not a matter merely of marital disputes or problems within the couple. The same problems seem to apply, as well, to the relationship between parents and children. Again, Sylvia describes what she expects from her children.

I don't think I will have my daughters with me. They will migrate as we did. If they go to university they might move forward and search for different things. But regardless, I would like for them to see something different. For example, I grew up in Romania and I ended up somewhere different. They will go some place that is different for them. Maybe Romania, who knows?

(Sylvia, Romanian, aged 30)

Sylvia's description of her aspirations for her children reveals an instrumental orientation towards family. Insecurity and volatility seem to be the basic conditions under which a different notion of family developed. This kind of family is based on loose bonds and was adapted to crises through detachment and an understanding of each individual family member as an economic unit (Angell 1965; [End Page 99] Elder 1999). In the kind of family that is produced by economic and social uncertainty, every member must be ready to find their place in the world that is unchained, so to speak, from people and places. This new cosmopolitanism of survival is affecting familial relationships by creating loose ties and adapting to economic circumstances rather than protecting its members from them.

Consequences of recession on migrant domestic workers' communities and union organizations

This section examines whether migrant domestic workers chose to undertake collective action, such as joining community associations, during the recession.5 It also examines what perceptions and practices domestic workers developed towards collective action.6 As noted above, the characteristics of domestic work isolate migrant workers not only from their families but also from their communities. Most of our interview subjects function in an atomistic manner: they are isolated from their compatriots and confront their work-related and social problems alone. The overwhelming majority of female domestic workers are not members of any migrant community association (see Table 1).

Table 1. Attitude of migrant domestic workers towards immigrant community association participation during the recession Source: Authors.
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Table 1.

Attitude of migrant domestic workers towards immigrant community association participation during the recession

Source: Authors.

Financial difficulties have made many domestic workers spend more time at home, thus preventing social interaction with the community. The low level of trust that migrants feel towards community associations of their own nationality is evident; many prefer to seek an informal, private, and individual solution to their problems. Some do not know the people in charge of associations, and they are not members. Many were not interested in joining, either because they believed that an association was not necessary or because they did not approve of the structure or collective character; others did not have free time or were too tired to attend activities. A Georgian worker named Tamara explains this phenomenon: [End Page 100]

Now that things are difficult, I spend my free time surfing the web. I rarely go out, because the two days that I have off, I prefer sitting at home, talking to my family over the internet, to seeing them—that is what I actually miss. Once a month or so, I may go to a cafeteria for coffee.

(Tamara, Georgian, aged 37)

Moreover, migrant domestic workers do not seek membership in Greek trade unions (see Table 2). Those who knew about the existence of an association were not aware of the details of its operation, as they had only visited it a few times many years earlier.

Table 2. Attitude of migrant domestic workers towards trade union participation during the recession Source: Authors.
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Table 2.

Attitude of migrant domestic workers towards trade union participation during the recession

Source: Authors.

These workers believe that no community association can effectively represent them, offer advice, or help them in finding work or claiming their labor rights. Instead, they prefer to seek advice or information on their own. Some turn to relatives living in Greece or to informal solidarity networks:

I do not belong to any association. I do not like these things. I do not like to tell anyone about my personal issues; only if I had a very close girlfriend that I could trust.

(Suela, Albanian, aged 27)

Others consider it more important to participate in religious associations, where they also discuss issues related to their work and labor rights. For example, many live-in domestic workers prefer to attend church and religious meetings. In fact, they often look forward to spending their days off in such gatherings. Only few seek support from family members or other relatives, such as cousins, nephews, and brothers-in-law, even in cases where these relatives are present in the country:

I have my brother with whom we occasionally discuss certain issues. I have helped him with money, and he has helped me. But if there is a problem, I try alone. I do not like the whole world to know what I have to do.

(Sylvia, Romanian, aged 30)

Regardless of how well-informed the representatives are or how well-organized work associations may be, there is a general skepticism and criticism from migrants. Female domestic workers are indifferent towards community [End Page 101] associations. There are several reasons for this. First, the formation of migrant community associations does not derive from the structure of the social relationships that the migrants experienced prior to emigrating from their countries of origin. Second, most women consider such organizations as spaces reserved for men. Third, and finally, there is evidence that while advocacy associations were created to help migrants overcome certain difficulties in the work sector, they have proven unable to do so or simply do not handle such matters, while pushing migrants towards specific occupations, such as domestic work. Clientelistic relationships are formed within the framework of the associations. Most workers therefore use various social contacts to trade advice, mainly with family members or Greeks, because they believe that their compatriots or coworkers cannot help them. As one worker by the name of Tamara points out,

If there is a problem, I have Greek friends, my old employers with whom I maintain friendly relations. I do not turn to Georgians, because if you have a problem, they will probably have the same problem, too. So it makes no sense to turn to them.

(Tamara, Georgian, aged 37)

When asked about participation in community associations, Tamara went on to say:

I believe that there is an association here, but I haven't contacted them. And if I want to find a job, I turn to my old employers who know me. They will find work for me, first of all because they trust me and the people I will work for will also trust me. I ask for the same type of job because I think I can do it better than any other. I have never done babysitting because I don't know how to work with children.

(Tamara, Georgian, aged 37)

Female migrants are trapped in a web of domestic work. They are exposed to several forms of exploitation, to flexible working hours, and to an unsettled, low-level, unstable lifestyle. Being employed in domestic work, they are distanced from any form of collective organization that may take up workers' claims. The splintering of family ties, which formed the binding element of the community in their countries of origin, has a negative effect on the collective organization of migrants. What results is a job where work is shaped according to the employer's specific needs. This labor is characterized by long, exhausting working hours, very low wages, appalling working conditions, impermanent employment with frequent changes in employers, no national health insurance or work benefits, an unstable residential status, fear of arrest and deportation, bureaucratic obstacles in matters of family reunification, isolation from [End Page 102] compatriots, and an inability to obtain union representation. Moreover, workers experience subjective barriers to collective protection, such as the development of individualistic practices and views regarding collective organization, with an emphasis on religion. Advice and help is thus sought not from associations but from informal networks, which means that the domestic workers refrain from demanding work rights and benefits, or at least fail to do so with any success:

With my employer I do not discuss my problems because he is a very old man. I have got used to solving my own problems. I do not discuss them here and there. I have one or two friends from my country, and I discuss some of my personal issues with them. There is a Bulgarian association, but I don't attend [their gatherings]. Where can I find the time to attend when I work seven days a week?

(Violeta, Bulgarian, aged 55)

It was repeatedly observed that interviewees avoided contact with compatriots and had great difficulty trusting or associating with one another:

I have many acquaintances. Friends, that's another thing. You have to trust one another: I had a friend who betrayed me, naturally! She was from my place. From my employer I do not expect much anyway. You must have confidence in yourself; you must have strength so as not to suffer much pain later. If I have a problem, I do not address anyone; I speak to myself, I guess. At work, I cannot burden others with my problems; I see that they have their own (Irina, Moldavian, aged 45).

Many domestic workers consider that the time, lawyer's fees, and other legal expenses required for them to claim their labor rights pose a great obstacle. Moreover, the effort would not necessarily lead to a positive outcome. Some migrants doubt that any migrant community association is capable of resolving their individual problems, regarding, for example, national health insurance, benefits, or compensation (Milkman 1976; Fouskas 2012b; Marchetti 2012; Maroukis 2013; Fouskas 2014). Others are self-insured and obtain their documents on their own. Consequently, they do not see association membership as necessary, since they can become familiar with the procedures on their own. A detailed assessment of the interviews confirms that the division of labor in contemporary Greece pushes migrants into wage work, especially low-status and low-paying jobs, differentiating them by gender, race/nationality, religion, and means of entry into the country. When a work-related problem arises, unless they take action on their own (for example, by soliciting legal assistance), there is no one to help them—not even migrant advocacy associations, regardless of whether or not they are members. Even for finding work, they seek individual solutions: [End Page 103]

Now I have no need for a job. I'm full. I do not think about the past any more, only about the future. I can think of a few people I'd ask if I were looking for a better job. Let's say cleaning a hospital so I don't have to go to houses anymore, or cleaning an airport. I don't think that others would help, but by talking with others I found out how they got there and I know how to do it now. I think I would find another job or deal with a problem myself.

(Sylvia, Romanian, aged 30)

The majority of interviewees say that they would advise and encourage a newly arrived female migrant from their country to claim her work rights by herself. They would guide her to seek advice from individuals from her broader network who had been in Greece longer and had become familiar with the official procedures. Alternatively, they would advise her to look for a lawyer:

When there is a problem, I turn to my family for advice. It's a priority. Of course, the first thing to do is to pray to God to show us a person who will help us. Turning to God is the first thing we should do. Then move on to the next step I will first ask my employers. They help us, because we cannot do many things by ourselves. So I ask them if they can recommend a lawyer. Even when I have a problem with my employer, I do not go to KASAPI [Union of Solidarity of Philippine Workers in Greece]. I will face it on my own, and of course this is why I have the power of God, because when you turn to Him for help, He is there for you, He will answer to all your needs. And this is different from KASAPI. Even if KASAPI invited me to participate or accept its help, I would say no: I do not belong to them anymore. I do not compete with others like employers and so on.

(Roselia, Filipina, aged 50)

Overall, the perceptions migrant domestic workers have about community associations, collective organizations, and unions are not very different when compared to those from the years before the economic crisis; these workers were and still are characterized by atomistic behavior and a reluctance to engage communal organizations. The findings of this study support the results of previous studies (Fouskas 2012a, 2012b, 2013, 2014), suggesting that not much has changed regarding the collective organization of migrant low-status/low-wage and domestic workers in communities, associations, unions, and workers' centers. If anything, these changes suggest that domestic workers face a greater degree of decollectivization by adjusting themselves to the needs and demands of employers in order to enjoy some level of social protection from the consequences of the financial crisis.

In general, then, the results of this research indicate that domestic work is responsible for the following: the adoption of atomistic behavior and values, as well as actions that promote individualism; the formation of a patronage-based relationship between workers, employers, and association representatives; the complete alienation of migrants from collective and social support networks; [End Page 104] and the formation of individualistic and materialistic beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of themselves and others around them in Greek society. Migrant domestic workers treat social solidarity networks and personal relations with an impersonal and utilitarian attitude until the extraction of information, individual profit being their only aim. They are characterized by a loose or indifferent attitude towards trade unions, advocacy and community associations, workers' organizations, and solidarity networks and organizations.


In summarizing the consequences of the crisis on immigrants' familial relationships and their attitudes towards collective associations, we can say that, since they arrived in Greece, migrant domestic workers have faced serious social and economic problems that have been greatly exacerbated by the ongoing recession. Our study points to three main conclusions. First, when it comes to family structure and form, female migrants in general, and live-in domestic workers in particular, are part of geographically dispersed families. The isolation, vulnerability, and exploitation they experience as a consequence of being separated from their families have been a continuing reality for these women for decades. When it comes to family relationships, however, the seven-year recession is not merely a period during which the effects of isolation were felt more deeply; it was also a period during which migrants saw the level of their dependency on their employers increase. An unappealing alternative would be to return to their countries of origin, only to repeat the breakup of their families.

Second, live-out domestic workers have faced a heightened sense of insecurity during the recession and are trying to hang on in the households that employ them. Their families are facing the consequences of the crisis in the form of domestic disputes or even separation between spouses. However, the most important consequence, which was felt to a much lesser degree before the recession, relates to the loosening of family ties as a response to growing economic and social uncertainty. In other words, the family seems not to have functioned as a source of protection from the market, but rather as a means to adapt to the economic changes, in ways that exposed individual members even further to the dangers inherent in neoliberal capitalism, such as a heightened sense of insecurity and atomization.

Third, even before the crisis, immigrant community associations proved largely inadequate in providing protection from working conditions for those in isolated, low-status/lowwage jobs. For many years, domestic workers have [End Page 105] attempted to solve their problems alone or with the assistance of their employers. In addressing their day-to-day problems, such methods are seen as being far more effective than appealing to any immigrant community organization. This has facilitated bonding between domestic servants and their employers, which has led to them being further isolated from their families and communities. The recession, however, seems to have deepened female migrants' feelings of isolation and separation from others, fostering in them a belief that in hard times everyone ought to look after oneself.

Nikos Xypolytas
Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences
Katerina Vassilikou
Academy of Athens
Theodoros Fouskas
Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences
Nikos Xypolytas

Nikos Xypolytas is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Social Policy, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens. He specializes on migration and sociology of work and has published on the entrapment of migrants in low-status jobs and the importance of the country of origin in understanding migrant constraints and choices in the host country.

Katerina Vassilikou

Katerina Vassilikou is a Researcher at the Research Centre for Greek Society of the Academy of Athens, specializing in domestic work, women's migration, transnational family, and sociology of health. She has published a book on migrant women and human rights and articles on related issues. She is currently working on the topic of the social effects of the economic crisis in Greek society.

Theodoros Fouskas

Theodoros Fouskas teaches in the Department of Social Work at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens (Greece) and specializes in migrant labor, community associations, and labor solidarity and organization. He has published articles and books, including «Κοινότητες» μεταναστών και εργασιακή αντιπροσώπευση (Migrant "communities" and labor representation; Papazisis Publications, 2012), Nigerian Immigrants in Greece: Low-Status Work, Community, and Decollectivization (Nova Science Publishers, 2014), Contemporary Immigration in Greece: A Sourcebook (coeditor with Vassileios Tsevrenis, EPLO Publications, 2014). He is currently preparing an edited collected volume on immigrants and refugees in times of crisis internationally.


1. This research is a follow-up study to the 2005–2008 Pythagoras Research Project (Kassimati and Moussourou 2007; Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2008) undertaken by the Center of Social Morphology and Social Policy, Panteion University, Athens. In addition, the authors of this article have contributed through their own research on the topics of transnational families (Vassilikou 2007a), pseudo-familial relationships and patronage (Xypolytas 2013; Xypolytas and Lazarescu 2013), and community associations (Fouskas 2012b).

2. A large part of the article is influenced by the theoretical and methodological insights of the classic study by Mirra Komarovsky (1940).

3. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and divorce are social problems associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist states of Eastern Europe (Xypolytas 2013).

4. A common reason for ending employment in a specific household is the death of an elderly person for whom the worker cared. With the advent of the economic crisis, it has become more difficult for workers to find employment. In the interviews we gathered, the women frequently expressed their fear that if their present employer passed away, it would be harder for them to find another household to work in.

5. For further reading on low status jobs and their significance for collective representation, see Vosko 2006; Choudry and Thomas 2012, 180–181; Gleeson and Bloemraad 2012; Fouskas 2013, 2014. In addition, there is literature both on the occupational role of domestic work on collective association that shows its personalized features (Chang 2000; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2004; Glenn 2010; Anderson and Shutes 2014) and on how emotional labor has contributed to the reproduction of the domesticity of the worker (Parreńas 2001; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2002; Psimmenos 2007, 2011; Triandafyllidou 2013).

6. For the topic of the perceptions of migrants' collectivities, see the work of Jaakkola 1987; Moya 2005; Pojmann 2007; Anderson 2010; Fouskas 2012b; Abrantes 2013; Catron 2013; Rosenfeld and Kleykamp 2013; Fouskas 2014. Decollectivization is treated by Portes, Castles, and Benton 1998; Castles 2011; Schneider and Williams 2013; Fouskas 2014; Fouskas and Tsevrenis 2014; [End Page 106] Ridgeway 2014. The issue of research on past experiences of collective associations and how present forms of labor impede the understanding of social identities is analyzed by Psimmenos and Kassimati 2006.


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