We are all affected, but not equally: Migrant domestic workers in pandemic times

We are all affected, but not equally: Migrant domestic workers in pandemic times

Lise Widding and Lena Nare

Beata, a Polish domestic worker who has lived in Italy for more than 20 years, told an interviewer from Internazionale.it that the old couple she cared for, died of the Covid-19 virus and left her without a job. She thinks she was lucky because she quickly found a new client to care for. Her new client is a ninety-year-old woman living in the neighbouring village. However, she has no car and, due to the curfew, she has to wait several hours for public transport to get there. Buses depart only twice a day during the curfew times.

Beata is not alone in facing a challenging situation. Thousands of undocumented migrant domestic workers working in Italian homes are going through tough times. It is not just about infection and viruses, but about a vulnerable economy, and the experience of living in a society that needs their work, but casts them into the cold in these times of crisis.

Many live-in care workers have also lost their housing since many lose their job and must move out when the cared-for person dies. Others are left behind in empty houses and apartments. Migrant women wanting to go home and longing for their families in insecure and unpredictable pandemic times are met with closed borders and strict infection control measures. We can easily imagine the difficulty, vulnerability, and complexity they face these pandemic days.

During the last decades, due to rapidly ageing populations and austerity measures seeking to cut public spending on care, elder care in a number of countries is increasingly organized informally and in private homes. Since the mid-1990s, Italy has solved its care deficit problems in eldercare by outsourcing care work to migrant domestic workers (Bettio et al., 2006; Näre 2013a). Most of the elder care workers come from Eastern European EU countries, such as Romania (the number one country of origin of foreigners in Italy according to ISTAT 2020) and Poland, and non-EU countries, such as Ukraine.

Most of the domestic workers are live-in, looking after dependent elderly persons 24/7, usually with only Thursday afternoons and Sundays off-duty. It is estimated that there are over 2 million domestic workers in Italy of which 1.2 million are undocumented. The number of registered domestic workers was over 850,000 in 2018 (INPS 2020). Domestic and care work is an intersectionally stratified field of labour (Näre 2013b). According to the most recent figures for 2018, over 70 per cent of registered domestic workers are foreigners and 88 per cent are women. Most domestic workers are employed in the North, with Lombardia, the region that is most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, having highest number registered workers (over 155,000).

The high number of undocumented workers is due in part to the limited number of annual quotas for domestic workers that allow employers to apply for registration and the reluctance on the part of employers to register domestic workers, as this would require them to pay for the social security benefits. Many dependent older persons have lost their lives due to the Covid-19 virus. We do not know how many of them received help and care from migrant domestic workers, since numbers are hard to find due to lack of registration and exact statistics.

In addition to live-in domestic workers, many are live-out workers coming to families’ homes to clean, care, and do more general housework. Some travel between five and seven homes every day and are dependent on access to public transport and unrestricted local mobility. For many day workers with a reduction in access to public transport (due to reduced departures during times of self-isolation rules), fewer passengers and greater social distance between individuals, it has become a challenge to remain invisible and protected among a mass of anonymous strangers. The fear of being ‘seen’ and asked for documents, but not having them, has become part of their new everyday lives so the meanings attached to public and private spaces have changed. Public spaces have become riskier. Working in the homes of the elderly, doing intimate care, has, in turn, become more related to the danger for infecting care recipients and/or being infected by the Covid-19 virus.

Due to austerity measures an increasing number of dependent elderly are being cared for in their own homes, depending on numerous visits from home-care workers with very tight time slots. The tight time slots put the lives of older people in danger because of limited time for proper protection. The elder-care system that is based on alternating care workers in which care workers rely on public transport to travel between homes of those they care for is placing the lives of the elderly at risk. As we have argued elsewhere, an important but neglected aspect of the organisation of care consists of the daily micro-mobilities that are created around care, what we have termed local care loops (Isaksen & Näre 2019). The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates well how the daily organisation of care is also structured through daily mobilities around care.

For women in the Italian majority population working full time, access to financially affordable informal elder care is crucial for work-family balance. In the last week in March 2020, the Italian government presented their financial support package for crisis-affected workers, named ‘Cura Italia’, i.e. ”Care for Italy”. To domestic workers, who for decades have been doing the hands-on care for Italy, the naming must have seemed ironic, as they were explicitly excluded from the financial package. Luciana Mastrocola, responsible for domestic work in the trade union Filcams-Cgil, suggests that this group of precarious workers is excluded from the government’s corona-crisis packages because they are foreigners, they are women and they are doing low-status, invisible housework and care work in elderly persons’ homes. They are invisible even if Italian society is totally dependent upon their ‘warm and caring hands’.

The corona-crisis economic compensation packages consist of 25 billion Euro. In addition, the state response to the troubles of many workers in informal labour markets is to offer residual funds aimed to cover precarious workers excluded from governmental compensations. The problem is that only documented migrant domestic workers with work-and-stay permits can apply for the compensation of 600 euros per month for lost income. Due to the strict focus on migration legality, thousands of domestic workers are left out of the financial help structures.

The precarious situation of care workers and as a consequence those they care for are by no means limited to Italy. Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how undervalued care work is in other societies as well, including Nordic welfare states. The pandemic has revealed how extremely poorly resourced and understaffed the elder-care sector is. In the metropolitan regions in the Nordic countries, the elder-care sector has increasingly turned to workers with migration histories (Wrede & Näre 2013). High staff turnover and reliance on temporary workers is exposing both the elderly and their carers to risk of infection as nurses alternate between working in care homes and in home care.

Society’s responses to ‘grand disasters’ can reflect and reveal the social structures and inequalities on which the society is built. For many multi-generational Italian families, migrant domestic workers have become a crucial part of their everyday lives and their own opportunities to provide for their families. The pandemic demonstrates how interconnected we all are. The corona crisis tells a story of an Italian society which is based on a welfare state that is about to collapse if and when migrant domestic workers stop taking care of the many dependent elderly. Solutions and responses to the crisis must be inclusive and cannot allow precarious groups in society to fall through security nets and services.

Bettio, F., Simonazzi, A., & Villa, P. (2006). Change in care regimes and female migration: the ‘care drain’ in the Mediterranean. Journal of European Social Policy, 16(3), 271-285.
Isaksen, L. W., & Näre, L. (2019). Local loops and micro-mobilities of care: Rethinking care in egalitarian contexts. Journal of European Social Policy, 29(5), 593-599.
Näre, L. (2013a). The ethics of transnational market familism: Inequalities and hierarchies in the Italian elderly care. Ethics and Social Welfare, 7(2), 184-197.
Näre, L. (2013b). Migrancy, gender and social class in domestic labour and social care in Italy: An intersectional analysis of demand. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 39(4), 601-623.
Wrede, S., & Näre, L. (2013). Glocalising care in the Nordic Countries. Nordic Journal of Migration Research 3(2): 57-62.


Lise Widding Isaksen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Bergen, Norway. Lena Näre is Associate Professor of Sociology at the  University of Helsinki, Finland