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The Emergence Of A Care And Domestic Migrant Underclass

A new migrant underclass seems to be emerging in Spain and Sweden, where immigrant women working in domestic and care services live a similar situation marked by precariousness.

They often face poor employment conditions characterised by low salaries and high levels of insecurity and instability. This comes to pass even if the extent of the care services that the welfare state covers in both countries is consistently different. In Spain, the care services sector is a private and cheap solution to compensate for the lack of public eldercare and childcare. In Sweden, instead, the welfare state secures the largest part of care needs so families rely mostly on domestic services such as cleaning or occasional child minding. 


Why two different welfare states generate similar precarious work conditions for migrants? Zenia Hellgren makes a contribution to solve this paradox by understanding the role played by institutions in each society and how migrant workers take actions to ask for better conditions. After interviewing female migrant workers, policy-makers and other actors (from NGOs, churches and trade unions) representing workers in the domestic/care sectors, Hellgren finds that, rather paradoxically, two different welfare states –Sweden and Spain- produce very similar unstable job conditions for migrant domestic and care workers.


Spain and Sweden: so close apart

Comparing the cases of Spain and Sweden, Hellgren argues that there is pressure to keep domestic and care workers wages low. While policy-makers in Spain confirm the importance of the availability of low-cost migrant workers to avoid a further increase in public expenditure for care, in Sweden there are few key institutional actors addressing the problems of this group of workers and middle companies are absorbing most part of the economic benefits.


The fact that poor job conditions for female migrant workers in Spain keep existing has several reasons: the gap between care necessities of families and the scarcity of dedicated public services, the high share of informal work in the national economy, the readiness of immigrants (largely irregular) to cover low-paid jobs that natives usually reject, and the effects of the recent economic crisis. 

In Sweden, the precarious situation of domestic migrant workers depends on the combination of two situations. The first is the occasional nature of domestic services, which are not requested by families as frequent as to guarantee a full-time employment position for domestic workers. The second is the existence of private companies acting as intermediaries between demanding families and migrant workers. In contrast to the Spanish case, in Sweden migrant domestic workers are not directly hired by families, but employed by middle persons to work for families. Such kind of middle-service is taking a great part of the economic benefits away from migrant workers.


*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116 for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties.

FamiliesAndSocieties ( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Thaís García Pereiro