Paral, J.: Migrant domestic workers in Germany, 2009

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Within the last few decades, a new emergence of the importance and scope of domestic work has taken place across industrialised societies. The demand for ‘housemaids’, which had lost its significance in the early 20th century, was expected to have disappeared resulting from structural changes within European societies. One main cause for the re-emergence of the sector of domestic work is the increase of women’s labour market participation, which is not compensated by the existing options of domestic help.
Scientists furthermore assume an increase of demand of cheap and flexible domestic help caused by the ageing of industrialised societies as well as structural changes within families. The number of children and therefore the number of family members who can engage in caring for the elders is decreasing. Additionally, due to the general higher mobility of people, family members often do not live in close proximity to each other. Another reason for the increasing demand for domestic help is seen in the change in lifestyle of many families, who are concerned in cultural activities and an environmentally friendly and healthy way of living, which is more time consuming than a ‘fast food’ lifestyle.
Reasons for the particular demand of migrants as domestic workers are seen in their lower financial demands compared to local men and women, the flexibility of migrant workers as well as the particularities of this kind of job, such as little opportunities for promotion, which cause the market to be unattractive for locals. The presence of large numbers cannot, however, be restricted to these factors. Other reasons such as networking effects have yet to be scientifically explored.
In this paper, the general situation of migrant domestic workers in Germany is explored, followed by an examination of political reactions to their presence. Finally, implications of political reactions are assessed. Main focus of this paper is the question whether, what kind of and with which impact political decisions are made in this field

The Current Situation in Germany

Currently, there is an estimate of 100 000 to 600 000 migrant domestic workers employed in Germany. The sector is dominated by women, but a small number of men are also working in this field. Women and men migrate to perform domestic work mainly intending to migrate only for a limited period of time in order to enhance their financial situation at home.
There are very few legal opportunities for migrants to participate in this segment of the German labour market, corresponding with the generally small amount of options for non-skilled migrants in terms of labour market participation in Germany. Only citizens from the new member states are allowed to work as domestic workers for a period limited to three years due to an agreement, which was made between the German ‘Zentralstelle für Arbeitsvermittlung’ (German Federal Employment Office) and the new EU member states in 2002.  Initially, the program was limited to finish in the end of 2002. It was reinstalled in 2005 when the new ‘Zuwanderungsgesetz’ came into force. Eastern Europeans working under this agreement are, however, only eligible to perform domestic work tasks, they are not allowed to engage in any caring activities. They work 38.5 hours per week and they receive monthly wages between 1000 EUR – 1400 EUR before tax. The German Federal Employment Office announced that there was a “high demand” to employ migrants under this contract, as a number of 9000 households took advantage of the programme since it was installed in 2005. Compared to figures of an estimate of up to 600 000 migrants being employed in German households in total, these figures appear marginal. The major problem regarding the program is the fact that participants are not allowed to perform care work whereas the main demand of domestic help nowadays exists in this area.
The only legal way for third country nationals to perform domestic work is to apply for an Au-Pair visa. Au-Pairs can live and work in German households, performing child caring as well as cleaning activities for up to one year. The program, however, was not designed to function as a working agreement but for cultural exchange. Nonetheless, increasing figures of young women applying for Au-Pair visas in countries, which do not provide alternative options to work such as Germany and the Netherlands illustrate that they might be used for employment rather than for cultural purposes.
Apart from Au-Pair Visas and work under the bilateral agreements with the new EU member states there are no options for third country nationals to work in the domestic work and domestic care sector legally. Apart from that, people can only enter the country on a tourist visa or apply for a student visa and ‘over-stay’ after the expiry of their visa. Both, furthermore, only give them the right to reside in Germany and do not provide the right to work.
Private households show some peculiarities compared to other work places, which need to be taken into account when assessing the situation of migrant domestic workers. First of all, the so called ‘private sphere’ remains relatively untouched from official intervention. For the migrant domestic worker this means that there is a low chance of being discovered when working illegally. At the same time, however, the well-being of the employee, his or her pay and other factors which would be guaranteed in official employment is entirely dependent on the employer goodwill and financial situation. Most domestic workers perform their tasks without receiving any social benefits as well as legal protection of their demands. These factors cause the employment situation of migrant domestic workers to be highly precarious. Additionally, domestic work is physically as well as psychologically demanding. Domestic workers perform a wide range of tasks including cleaning, child rearing as well as care and service activities and they often establish emotional ties to household members.
Migrant domestic workers either live with the family they work for, or they rent their own accommodation, often working for several households at the same time. In Germany, in contrast to other European countries such as Italy and Spain, the ‘live-out’ employment option is prevalent. ‘Live-out’ refers to an employment situation, where the domestic worker rents his or her own place somewhere else, whereas the domestic worker stays with the family or – in case of care work – the elderly in case of ‘live-in’ employment. ‘Live-in’ workers receive free food and accommodation but often have to be available 24 hours. Employment relationships can be further differentiated into part- and full-time ‘live-in’ or ‘live-out’ as well as daily employment, in which case the domestic worker only visits the household once or twice weekly for a few hours. The latter form is assumed to be the most prevalent one in Germany.

Current Political Reactions

One might assume that due to the large demand for migrant domestic workers there is political examination about this topic. It is mentioned that illegal domestic workers (migrants as well as locals) might have caused a lack of tax and social insurance contributions as high as an estimate of 16% of the German GDP. The illegal employment of domestic workers might also have a negative impact on the job market for low qualified people.
The first political reaction regarding the increasing presence of migrant domestic workers was caused by a TV documentary in 2002 that focused on this matter. The screening of the program caused the federal employment office to control households in the Rhine-Main area. They discovered 200 women working illegally in private households, sent them back to their countries of origin and pressed charges against the household members. In the aftermath of this incident, people concerned formed an initiative and demanded a “Green Card for care workers”. Their demands were only partly met by the government introducing the above explained program in 2002, which allowed citizens from the EU accession countries to perform domestic tasks, but no caring activities in a private household for up to three years. This program was followed up by the above mentioned agreement between the German Federal Employment Office and the new EU member states in 2005.
In 2004, the red and green coalition focused on the topic discussing a new law to counteract illegal employment. Instead of examining the root causes for the existing illegal employment of migrant domestic workers, it only focused on the outcome illegal employment. The discussion was followed by wide media coverage due to the fact that many people felt directly affected by this law. This caused the coalition to assign an extra status to domestic work after a short period of time. Domestic work was considered to be only a weaker form of illegal employment instead of addressing the issue in its full scope.
Other regulations introduced since the early 90’s, such as the support of ‘Service Pools’ and the ‘Haushaltsscheckverfahren’ did not take the situation and the presence of migrant domestic workers into account, either. The main goal of the various measures taken was to regularise the sector by making legal options more attractive to draw on for households as well as making it more attractive for German women to work in this field. The programs did not have an affect on the status and the situation of migrant domestic workers; neither has any measure taken proven to be very successful in improving the general situation of the sector.
In political discourse, the issue is not assigned large importance, either. Neither the ‘Federal Ministry Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth’ and their Federal Minister Ursula von der Leyen, nor the ‘Federal Office for Migration and Refugees’ (BAMF) or the ‘Federal Ministry of the Interior’ (BMI) address the topic in depth.
In contrast, a review of newspaper articles illustrates that the phenomenon is considered important for the German public. In German media, criticism is prevalent declaring that the government pleads ignorance of this issue by excluding the presence and the situation of migrant domestic workers from their discussions. In November 2007, the weekly ‘Die Zeit’ read “A big German lie”. On November 13 2008 the daily ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ announced “Legal, illegal, never mind. Dishonesty is prevalent in the debate about domestic care.” The magazine ‘Das Parlament’ dedicated a whole issue to “The future of the care sector” in July 2008. Two articles deal with the situation of migrant domestic workers in this context. One article emphasises that the number of people working illegally rises due to the fact that the phenomenon is not addressed politically. The other article states that the existing bilateral agreements with the new EU member states “are far from reality”. It criticises that the topic is dealt with solely as a judicial problem and that competencies regarding the problem are neglected by the involved ministries.

Implications for migrant domestic workers

The fact that migrant domestic workers are politically tolerated while nothing is done to improve their status brings about several implications. As mentioned above, many third country national domestic workers neither have the right to reside in Germany after the expiry of their student or tourist visa, nor are they entitled to work. This leads to a situation Norbert Cyrus defines as “dual illegality”, lacking residence and work permits at the same time. This results in very restricted options for migrant domestic workers to claim their rights. As for every illegalised person, migrant domestic workers become highly dependent on their employer due to their lack of legal and social rights. This as well as their lack of knowledge regarding those few rights they are eligible to claim causes migrant domestic workers to become easy prey for exploitation by employers, as well as dependence on the income from their positions. Working arrangements often do not remain as temporarily as initially intended caused by those financial dependencies. Due to qualitative research performed in this field, scientists assume that a significant number of female domestic workers suffer from financial exploitation by withholding their pay, direct dismissals in case of illness or pregnancy, force to work extra hours especially in ‘live-in’ work relationships or even domestic violence. A lack of health care as well as the permanent fear of removal also has an impact on the situation of migrant domestic workers.
It is furthermore assumed that the more restrictive policies affecting foreigners as well as asylum policy are designed, the more precarious is the situation of migrant domestic workers, the bigger their danger of being exploited and the smaller their perception that they do have some rights they can claim. Moreover, the higher the restrictions on entry, the more people are willing worldwide to invest and to cooperate with professional smugglers.
Another issue evolving is the fact that many female migrant domestic workers are well educated with some of them even holding university degrees. Working in households in Germany and other Western European countries leads to what scientists call the ‘brain waste’ in their countries of origin. Since their educational certificates are not accepted, they are not able to work in a profession which would comply with their level of education. Domestic work can additionally often be monotonous and offers only few opportunities for promotion.
Finally, the global scope of the phenomenon must be taken into account. An evolution of what scientists call a ‘global care network’ is taking place. Polish or Bulgarian women leaving their families to perform care work in Germany find replacement by women from countries such as the Ukraine or Russia, who would have larger difficulties entering Germany to work there. These women again suffer from precarious working conditions and also need to leave their families behind. Countries such as Malaysia are highly dependent on the income their citizens send back as remittances, working in households for instance in the Middle East. Scientists see the evolution of a continuum that contributes to the illegalisation of a large number of people.
From a gender perspective (Lutz; Hess; Anderson et al), the evolution of a new hierarchical division in society is emphasised, which is not determined by class or gender but by ethnicity and origin amongst females. At the same time, the fact that an increase of female labour market participation is not accompanied by an increase of male work in the private sphere, but substituted by migrant females, keeps up the status quo of gender hierarchy between the private and the public sphere even in those societies which claimed gender equality for years. The presence of migrant domestic workers can therefore not only be seen as a result of the increasing labour market participation of women, as mentioned initiatively, but also as a causing or at least facilitating their ability to participate.


Examination of political reactions to migrant domestic work as well as the worker’s situation raises the question why there is nothing done in order to improve the situation in this sector despite the public importance assigned to the topic, which is illustrated by broad media coverage. An answer might be the fact that addressing the issue would bring about the need for major structural changes on several levels. First of all, the phenomenon illustrates that the German state does not provide sufficient welfare for households, which accounts for more than only the ‘male bread winner’ to work, whereas at the same time there is a financial as well as a personal demand for women to participate in the labour market. Addressing the issue would subsequently mean rethinking fundamental conceptions of welfare in Germany. Secondly, addressing the issue would raise questions of migration control, access for migrants to the German low-skilled labour market segments as well as their access to social and other benefits. The regularisation of illegal migrant domestic workers as performed in Italy would bring about general questions of dealing with illegalised migrants, and establishing a new scheme for migrant domestic workers including domestic care would probably cause major changes within and dissents from actors in the existing care sector. Ignoring the issue and accepting migrants to support the German welfare system under precarious conditions this far appears to be the easiest and most efficient solution for those matters.


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Judith Paral (MA Internationale Migration und Interkulturelle Beziehungen; Institut für Migration und interkulturelle Studien (IMIS), Universität Osnabrück)