Is Migration Feminized?
A Gender- and Ethnicity-Based Review of the Literature on
Irregular Migration to Turkey
Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
Turkey today is both a sending and a receiving country in migration. In the
1960s and 1970s, there were flows of mass migration from Turkey to various
European countries, including Germany in the first place, to cover the labor
shortage then existing in these countries. When the countries of Western
Europe stopped receiving migrant workers, the direction of migrant workers
from Turkey shifted to oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and, starting from the
1990s, to the Commonwealth of Independent States including the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, Turkey encountered the immigration of ethnic Turks from
Bulgaria in the late 1980s as a result of political pressures there and irregular
migration inflows swelled from various countries nearby in the period after
1990. While some irregular migrants traveling and/or staying without satisfying
specific requirements related to migration eventually target Western countries
after temporary stays in Turkey, there are others who come to find jobs to
work specifically in Turkey.
There are three fundamental patterns of development that trigger irregular
migration. The first is the radical transformation that the Eastern Bloc countries
underwent in the 1990s, which led to the collapse of hitherto existing economic,
political and social regimes. It was followed by a transition to a market economy,
accompanied by unemployment and poverty as major drivers of migration. Rigid
migration regulations introduced by the EU countries closed the doors to
new migrants, redirected people to look for other countries where they can
find jobs and consequently Turkey became a center of attraction for these
86 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
people with her employment opportunities in a rather large, informal economy.
The second is the fact that irregular migrants originating from various
Asian and African countries who have no chance of being legally accepted as
migrants by EU countries use Turkey as a transit country while they wait for
opportunities to move ahead to Europe. Migrants in this group as well move to
informal sectors for subsistence during their stay in Turkey. The same also
holds true for the third group of migrants who flee from some oppressive regimes
in the Middle East and reach Turkey for seeking asylum.1 While their
motives for arrival may differ, the common characteristic of all irregular migrants
is their participation in informal labor markets either for short or longer
term. Migrants’ participation in labor markets that are structured on the basis
of gender and ethnicity certainly takes different forms in regard to sex, and
migrants encounter different working conditions as well as different forms of
exploitation and exclusion depending on their countries of origin.
By focusing on the state of migrants coming to Turkey for employment
and within the framework of existing literature on migration, the purpose of
this paper is to seek an answer to the question of the extent to which the global
phenomenon of migration is feminized. The increasing share of female migrants is
true for Turkey, and, while seeking an answer, we hope to shed light on the comparative
employment status of males and females from different ethnic origins.
Though remaining scarce for some time, studies on labor migration in Turkey
and working conditions of migrants as actors in this process of migration have
recently been increasing. What is interesting to note at this point is that these
studies mostly focus on migrant women in domestic and care services.
Labor Migration to Turkey
Leaving aside a tiny minority with legal permission to stay and work in Turkey,
migrants in Turkey largely consist of those who work illicitly without any official
permission. The status of those staying and working legally in Turkey is
provided for by the Law No. 4817 (2003) of Permission of Employment Granted
to Foreigners. According to the provisions of this law, the Ministry of labor and
Social Security (MoLSS) examines applications and, considering the needs of
labor market, grants permission to the employment of expatriates given that
domestic laborers cannot be found for any particular area of employment. Ac-
1 İçduygu (2006, p. 2).
Is Migration Feminized? 87
cording to information available in regard to those employed on the basis of
permission, newly granted and extended permissions increased in the period
2003–2009, jumping from 7,302 in 2004 to 14,023 in 2009.2 Of the countries of
origin of these migrants with work permission, China leads the list with 18.4 %,
followed by the Russian Federation (11.2 %). The combined share of EU countries
in total is 20 %. Looking at the distribution of work permits granted in
2009 by fields of employment, we see that those from China constitute the
largest group as private company employees. It is known that Chinese firms
engaged in mining in particular bring along their employees. This is further
confirmed by the fact that Zonguldak is among the top five provinces in terms
of the number of work permits granted to migrants. Migrants from the Russian
Federation and Ukraine, on the other hand, make up the bulk of permits
granted in the context of tourism. As for those coming from the EU countries,
they mostly enjoy permits granted for academic purposes. As for gender distribution
of work permits, males constitute the majority with 61.6 % while the
share of females is 38.4 %.3
Since the legislation in effect envisages the granting of work permits to
expatriates only in case domestic laborers are not available, the number of permits
granted is extremely limited. A large part of migrants employed in Turkey
work informally for unqualified jobs that can be taken up by domestic
laborers. Though origin countries of irregular migrant workers may change in
the course of time, these are mainly the republics of the former Soviet Union or
Eastern Bloc countries. These include Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova,
Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Migrants
arriving without the need to get tourist visa or by getting their visas issued at
the border find jobs in an informal economy and turn out to be illicit when
they remain after the expiration of their visas. According to data provided by
the General Directorate of Security, there were over 700,000 persons in the
period 1999–2009 identified while illicitly entering the country or leaving
after delay. It can be said that the second category mainly consists of migrant
laborers.4 These persons stay in the country legally with tourist status; some
maintain this legal status by leaving and re-entering depending upon their
visa periods and others continue to stay in Turkey illicitly. Those who exceed
2 MoLS (2011).
3 Ministry of Interior, GDS, cited by IOM (2010, pp. 37–40). An absence of studies on migrants with legal permission is
the reason why our assessment in regard to such migrants is limited to statistics.
4 IOM (2010, pp. 15–16).
88 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
their visa periods have to pay a fine at the border and they are not allowed to
re-enter Turkey unless staying in their home countries for a period of time calculated
on the basis of the period they stayed in Turkey in excess of their visa.5
Consequently, some migrants continuously postpone return and the penalty
mentioned produces an impact, which extends the period of stay in the country
rather than dissuading irregular migration. Making money in temporary
jobs found in Turkey, and returning back to the country of origin after some
time and re-entering Turkey when there is need for jobs, constitute the common
characteristics of these migrants, and the process is defined as circular or
shuttle migration.6 The point in choosing Turkey as a place to work and save
money is related to some factors. These include a flexible visa system, geographical
proximity, ease in access, existence of networks formed by family
members and acquaintances already working in Turkey and possibilities of
finding jobs in informal economy.7
For a labor supply to be functional there must be demand for it. An extensive
informal economy and employment, a shortfall of institutional care
services and a demand for informal labor in Turkey are determining factors for
the emergence of a migrant labor supply. In this respect, Turkey resembles the
countries of Southern Europe, which are the destination points for irregular
migration. In countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, gaps left by
rudimentary welfare states in the delivery of care services as well as the existence
of a wide informal economy based on small enterprises create demand
for cheap labor mainly in the sectors of services, agriculture and construction,
and the part of this demand not responded to by domestic labor is covered by
migrant workers. In Turkey, the dominant character of the labor market is surplus
labor, which manifests itself in high rates of unemployment and underemployment.
There is demand for migrant workers in spite of the existence of
such a labor surplus.8 This demand emerged following the partial improvement
in real wages in the period 1989–93 which came after falling wages in
the 1980s and historically coincided with the period during which people from
the countries of the former Eastern Bloc used their newly gained freedom to
travel and to start migrating for employment. While a transition to outsourcing
and sub-contracting facilitated informal employment, irregular mi-
5 Ibid. (p. 29).
6 İçduygu (2008, p. 4), Erder (2007, p. 43).
7 İçduygu (2004, pp. 48–49).
8 Toksöz (2007).
Is Migration Feminized? 89
grant workers were phased in as a reserve labor force in the face of rising
wages for domestic laborers.9 Migrant workers are employed in labor-intensive
and low-paid sectors, the manufacturing industry including garments and
food, construction, agriculture, tourism, entertainment and commercial sex
and domestic and care services. With the exception of construction sector, it
can be assumed that females outnumber males in all sectors. Female labor
dominates particularly such sectors as domestic and care services, entertainment
and commercial sex, and garment production while both male and female
migrants are employed in other sectors including food-restaurants, various
sub-sectors of tourism and, particularly in the Black Sea region, agriculture.
In the garments, tourism and construction sectors, the subsistence of small enterprises
depends upon the employment of cheap labor provided by migrants.
10 While legislation envisages heavy fines for the employment of illicit
migrants, they are not dissuading people from it due to insufficient inspection.
Or, in cases where inspection is conducted, bribes paid to officials are attractive
enough to let cases go “unnoticed”.11 A relatively higher level of education and
better work discipline on the part of migrant workers, their laboring without
posing any problems to their employers, an absence of social rights and benefits
and any tendency to get unionized make migrant workers preferable for
employers.12 Here the major factor that brings along the absence of any protection
is the fact that migrants reside illicitly in Turkey and that, even in cases
where their stay is legal, they work without working permits. The principal
fear common to all migrants is the fear of being spotted and deported. While
migrant workers may accept working longer hours than domestic laborers and
being paid less than others, what they consider to be a gross injustice and a
case of desperation is when they are not paid at all, a situation against which
they have no place to apply.13 In addition to these, female migrant workers also
mention such risks as sexual harassment and, for those in commercial sex, getting
9 Akpınar (2010).
10 Ibid. (pp. 45–48), İçduygu (2006, pp. 6–7).
11 İçduygu (2004, pp. 54–55), Dedeoğlu (2011), Akpınar (2010).
12 Erder (2007, pp. 65–66).
13 Dedeoğlu (2011), Toksöz/Akpınar (2009).
14 İçduygu (2006, p. 9).
90 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
Feminization of Migration in the Context of the Gap in Care Services in
In the countries of Southern Europe that have some common socio-economic
characteristics with Turkey, child, elderly and sick care services are mostly regarded
as matters of family responsibility, and the delivery of public services in
these areas have remained weaker relative to Northern European countries.
With the further weakening of welfare regimes in the process of neoliberal restructuring,
public care services have gradually disappeared. Moreover, the
weakening of family ties, which once maintained home care, and higher rates
of labor force participation on the part of women, who have traditionally assumed
the burden of care, led to the emergence of a rather striking problem of
a “care gap”. As female citizens who used to be employed in domestic and care
services find other opportunities of employment and refuse to undertake domestic
and care services as “low status”, there emerged a rising demand for migrant
females who could fill the gap. Consequently, the burden of domestic and
care services for women, which is the outcome of a gender-based division of
labor, shifted from upper-middle class women in a given country to lowerclass
migrant women.15 In European countries, those who covered the gap are
women mostly from the former Eastern Bloc countries. Since gender-based
power relations had remained intact in these countries where wage-work used
to be a norm for women during the period of state socialism, it was women
who, in the face of upheaval, brought along with them the transition to a market
economy. These women decided to migrate, bearing the responsibility to
protect their families and in particular to meet the needs of their children. It is
often in domestic and care services that these women found jobs and work.
Since their goal was to save money while working in other countries and to return
back home afterwards, their traffic between two countries is defined as
“settlement in mobility”.16
While the employment of migrant women in domestic and care services
in Turkey has some characteristics similar to the case in developed countries,
there are differences as well. In many countries of the world, the rise in demand
for migrant domestic labor is explained by women’s increasing participation
in the labor force.17 As women increasingly take part in the labor force,
15 Campani (1993), Kofman et al. (2000), Lazaridis (2007).
16 Morokvasic (2004).
17 Parrenas (2001).
Is Migration Feminized? 91
it is observed that women shift their traditionally given domestic roles to
waged migrant labor. However, contrary to the worldwide trend, Turkey faces
a situation where women’s participation in the labor force is falling. In the
2000s, the women’s labor force participation rate was around 26 % and this
rate falls short of explaining the rise in demand for migrant labor. However,
the share of women in professional occupations is around 37 %, which is close
to that in developed countries, and it can thus be asserted that it is the factor
that determines the demand for migrant laborers.18 As a matter of fact it is upper-
middle class women in professional occupations, regarded as employers,
that tend to hire migrant women laborers in Turkey.19
The “care gap” that invites migrant labor is not a recently emerging problem
in Turkey, where care-related welfare state policies have never developed
and become institutionalized, but a long-standing and deep-rooted one. As a
result of the absence of state intervention in this area and a consequent weakness
of institutional care facilities, care for the elderly, the disabled and children
turned out to be unpaid family service shared by female members of
families. Under the given circumstances, only women in professional jobs, enjoying
relatively higher incomes, can afford to use institutional care services
provided by the private sector or hire persons for home-based care. Among
those available for such services, the number of migrant women has been
rising steadily in recent years. “Migrant female labor in Turkey emerges not as
a remedy for the withdrawal of a well advanced system of welfare state but as
elements of labor that provides for the welfare of only a part of families within
a welfare regime where family plays a central role”.20
In Turkey, women in professional occupations can take part and make a
career in working life on equal footing with men only by purchasing domestic
and care services while, on the other hand, migrant women working for them
say they move out of their countries for ensuring the well-being of their children
in particular, covering their costs of education and providing for family
subsistence.21 The mobility of women to provide for their basic needs started in
the early 1990s with the enjoyment of the right to travel in the Eastern Bloc
countries. The heroines of the “luggage trade”, experienced in the early 1990s
18 Ecevit et al. (2008).
19 Kümbetoğlu (2005), Kaşka (2006), Keough (2006), Akalın (2007).
20 Gökbayrak (2009, p. 76).
21 İçduygu (2004, p. 44), Kaşka (2006, p. 46).
92 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
and considered as the harbinger of irregular migration movements, were
mainly women from this bloc, who were engaged in such activity for mere
subsistence. In a study shedding light upon this issue, Yükseker (2003) draws
attention to the fact that the Soviet women who developed skills in providing
for daily subsistence needs maintained these skills, upon the collapse of the
system, by engaging in small-scale trade activities. The luggage trade that
provided significant foreign currency inflow to the Turkish economy throughout
the 1990s and early 2000s later lost its importance as the former Eastern
Bloc countries, including Russia in the first place, integrated with the world
economy as the scale of the trade expanded and was institutionalized. Nevertheless,
small-scale trade activities still persist with actors from the poorer
countries.22 In this process, women kept moving to Turkey to work and make
money in various sectors. Of their engagements, the sector of entertainment
and commercial sex of course had wider media coverage and was of wide public
interest. Our priority topic here, however, is domestic and care services in
which we can assume many more women are employed.
Migrant Women in the Sector of Domestic and Care Services
Since the majority of migrants in Turkey working in domestic and care services
are women from the former Eastern Bloc countries, almost all literature
in this field is on women moving in from these countries, including Moldova
in the first place, with the exception of Weyland’s (1994) study on migrants
from the Philippines and Danış’s (2007) study on Christian migrants from Iraq.
However, changes in visa regimes together with bilateral agreements between
Turkey and other countries bring along a striking impact on the national composition
of migrants employed in domestic and care services. According to
Atatimur,23 for example, while the labor force profile of agencies in 2007 was
composed of women from Moldova, Romania and Turkmenistan, others from
Caucasian countries, including Georgia in the first place, gained weight starting
from 2008. This change can be explained by the duration of visa agreements
acted with the countries concerned as well as ease in getting visas issued.
22 Erder (2007, pp. 49–55).
23 Atatimur (2008, p. 121).
Is Migration Feminized? 93
While in European countries the demand for low-status and low-paid domestic
services not preferred by nationals is met by a migrant labor force, in
Turkey these services are shared by live-in migrants and daily paid local
people. Due to the given conservative environment and their role of reproduction
in their own families, Turkish citizens usually do not prefer to work in the
sector of live-in care. Hence, the gap in boarded and flexible labor mostly
needed by employers working long hours in professional jobs is covered by migrant
laborers. In other words, migrant laborers are left not only with low-paid
jobs but also those that are not preferred by nationals for various reasons. Migrant
women, on their part, prefer being live-in workers without paying any
rent or for daily accommodation.24
Another important factor, which boosts demand for migrant domestic
workers, is that it has the function of consolidating the identity and life-style
images of middle-class families in Turkey. Indeed, many employees explain
their preference for migrants over nationals by the “European” and “more civilized”
characteristics of the former while considering the latter as uneducated
and of a rural origin. There are also other reasons for this preference, including
the more disciplined nature of migrants in fulfilling their tasks and complying
with rules set by their employers and the possibility of constant checking since
they live and work in the same space.25
The Migration Journey and the Employment Processes of Migrants in
As stated earlier, women migrating to work in the sector of domestic and care
services in Turkey enter and leave the country with short-term tourist visas
and are thus engaged in a circular (shuttle) form of migration. After their stay
in Turkey, they return to their home countries to renew their visas, to help
their families in agricultural works and to check the situation of children they
have left behind. But there are others who keep staying in Turkey over their
visa periods.26 This second group of people, who are penalized for violating visa
rules and denied re-entry, find ways of convincing border-gate authorities, including
bribes or resorting to counter-strategies, such as divorcing or using a
24 Akalın (2007, pp. 214–215).
25 Demirdirek (2007, p. 17), Atatimur (2008, p. 140).
26 Demirdirek (2007), Kaşka (2006), Keough (2006), Akalın (2010).
94 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
maiden name for getting a new passport and tourist visa.27 The Gagauz region
in Moldova is the leading one with its migrant workers going to Turkey and
this preference for Turkey derives from region’s native tongue, which is Turkish.
The migration of women in Moldova has also become a life strategy transferred
from generation to generation. Some nurses who used to work in care
services in Turkey say they worked in Turkey to raise their children and now it
is their daughters’ turn to do the same to raise their own. This situation, coined
as “settlement in mobility” by Morokvasic, reflects the necessity of migrating
out in order to have a better life in their countries later.
It is observed that migrant women arriving in Turkey finance their travel
and visa costs in four ways: with their own savings, receiving pre-payment
from their prospective employers, borrowing from relatives or usurers and
through employment agencies that they apply to. Employment agencies may
provide for travel and they mostly bill employers as their clients for the cost of
travel and other necessary documents. Following the agreement, employers
pay a commission fee of 500 USD, which is a kind of guarantee for the agreement
acted.28 Women, whose first travel is through employment agencies, may
later arrange for their travel after finding good employment opportunities and
learning about the route, fees and the working of the system.29 When travel is
arranged by employment agencies, intermediaries visit villages to announce
the date of departure and migrants complete their exit procedures within a
month. Then, when the time of departure comes, migrant women are collected
from various stations and transported to Turkey by bus or plane. The migration
literature assumes that the poorest cannot migrate for not having enough finances
to do so; however, with the phasing in of employment agencies, even the
poorest can take part in the process of migration.30
Agreements with agencies involve no written contract and these organizations
seize the passports of migrant women as long as they are employed.
According to the manager of an employment agency, this practice of seizing
passports is not only a guarantee for them but also a protective one for migrant
women preventing their shift to other sectors. The manager draws attention
to the importance of trust between the firm and the client and stresses
27 Ozinian (2009).
28 Atatimur (2008, pp. 113–114).
29 Keough (2006, p. 441).
30 Atatimur (2008, pp. 115–118).
Is Migration Feminized? 95
that an agency alleged to be involved in commercial sex has lost all its clients.
It is also stated that there are hundreds of such agencies active in Turkey.31 As
put by Kaşka (2006), the sole basis of this relationship devoid of any formal
contract and taking place illicitly is trust. In a sense, agencies regulate this
chaotic area with their “unwritten” rules. The absence of any state regulation
on this irregular labor migration, which has been on the rise for about two decades,
invited too many informal structures to fill the gap. These informal structures
include, for example, “transporters” who convey goods and remittances
of migrant women back to their families, employment agencies that conduct
their activities as “consulting firms” and more experienced migrant women
who make money as intermediaries by arranging jobs for new migrants.32
Besides employment agencies, networks of relatives and friends also play
a role in the process through which migrant women find jobs. It is a common
practice that returnees leave their jobs in Turkey to their relatives/friends or
seek jobs for them through their employers. Indeed, according to a study conducted
by Erdem and Şahin,33 54.7 % of migrant women covered in their study
found their jobs through employment agencies while 37.7 % had jobs thanks to
their friends. While ethnic ties play an important role in providing jobs to Armenian
migrants in domestic services, both ethnic and religious ties come to
the fore in the case of Christians from Iraq who moved to Turkey after war for
reasons of unemployment and insecurity. The study conducted by Daniş (2007)
revealed that Christian women from Iraq who moved to Istanbul or planned to
move forward to European countries via Istanbul could find jobs as domestic
workers for families belonging to Syriac and Armenian communities in Istanbul.
Working Conditions of Women Employed in Domestic and
Care Services in Turkey
Domestic and care labor as a form socially dis-valued and traditionally undertaken
by women maintained its low status and gender-based character even
after its commoditization and transformation into wage labor. Consequently,
in the determination of the working conditions of migrant women in domestic
services, consideration of domestic labor as “valueless” and “invisible” on the
31 Ibid. (pp. 122–124).
32 Kümbetoğlu (2005, p. 19).
33 Erdem/Şahin (2009, p. 306).
96 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
one side and the status of being “migrant” and “woman” on the other are interacting
factors. The other two factors that shape the working conditions of migrant
domestic workers are the facts that work is done “at home” and employment
Coinciding living and working environments of migrant women and the
fact that these environments are those of the upper-middle classes in receiving
countries make the distinction between public and private spheres ambiguous.
The women-specific nature of the home space as well as production in this
space creates a relation of employment whose parties are women.34 As a matter
of fact, the term “employer” in the literature on migrant domestic laborers
is used for describing not the employing family but the woman concerned. The
study by Atatimur shows that married employers as well as single parent employers
pay migrant women out of their personal incomes and this situation
confirms that this employment relation in Turkey is in fact between women.35
Wages paid to migrant domestic workers vary from 300 to 800 USD. For
care services, employers make their preference between new migrants who do
not speak Turkish but are ready to work for lower wages and higher-paid migrant
women who have some experience in working for middle-class Turkish
households. Those who can use weekly days off are given stipends of 7–13 USD
on those days. Payment of wages on a monthly basis enables the employer to
extract more services from the employee in return for wages and also transfers
all responsibilities of reproduction to boarding migrant workers who can use
their working time in extremely flexible ways.36
Kümbetoğlu37 summarizes the negative impacts of “informality” prevailing
in working and living conditions of migrant women in domestic services
as follows: dying hair black to look Turkish, rare meetings with friends in order
not to be spotted by security, preference of private homes rather than public
places in such meetings, feeling of loneliness, missing children back home, abstinence
in order to save as much as possible, and undertaking even the most
disrespected work in spite of a good educational background. Preconceived
ideas fueled by the presence of women from the former Eastern Bloc countries
in commercial sex led to the stigmatization of migrants in domestic services as
34 Ünlütürk Ulutaş (2010, p. 288).
35 Atatimur (2008, p. 141).
36 Kaşka (2006), Özinan (2009), Akalın (2010).
37 Kümbetoğlu (2005, p. 21).
Is Migration Feminized? 97
“Natashas”, as well as to their harassment when out of their working places.38
Political considerations too may determine some negative attitudes towards
migrants. For example, when political strife between Turkey and Armenia intensifies
upon such issues as bills related to Armenian genocide or Karabağ,
migrants from Armenia feel themselves more threatened by possible deportation.
Unfavorable working and living conditions leave migrants to face the
problems of chronic stress. While not being able to go out freely for the fear of
getting spotted and deported aggravates the psychological problems of migrant
women, those who can more frequently return to their countries
through shuttle migration and get together with their friends on their days off
are in much better condition. When migrant women (who permanently remain
in home environments mostly alone with the child, the elderly or the
sick person under their care) have to spend their leave days too in the same environment,
their potential for renewal and comfort is also seriously compromised.
40 Since migrants in Turkey other than refugees or asylum seekers cannot
benefit from any health insurance scheme, migrant women in domestic
services either use medicine they brought along or wait for their next return to
the home country for medical treatment. It is only in very serious cases that
they can use private health facilities. Since a frequent emergence of health
problems may cause the loss of a job, they often tend to hide such problems
from their employers.41
In upper-middle class homes, migrant women abide by high norms of
work discipline in favorable conditions in some cases and with a rather heavy
work burden in others. Women conceive of work as an essential part of life and
express their attitude towards work by saying “it is better if there is work to do,
otherwise we start worrying about ourselves and our children”. These women
are saddened and disturbed in conscience not by their own circumstances but
by the situation of their children back home who may feel abandoned.42 Nevertheless,
it is also the case that they may face humiliating attitudes in their
working environments. A woman states that she once faced following type of
38 Keough (2006).
39 Özinian (2009, p. 26).
40 Lordoğlu and Etiler (2010, p. 109).
41 Ibid. (pp. 103–108).
42 Kümbetoğlu (2005, p. 17).
98 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
questions in her apply for a job: “Do your feet stink?”, “Do you wash out well
after defecating?”, “Do you have a boyfriend and do you think about bringing
him here if there is?” and “Do you eat much?”.43
In studies on migration, while excessive exploitation and unfavorable
working conditions exemplified above are focal points, it is necessary to carefully
analyze the relations between the migrant woman worker and her employer
and not to assume that it is a one-way relation emerging in a single
form.44 In other words, the relation in between must be analyzed by taking due
account of the dimension of mutual dependence.
Employer-Employee Relations: Intensive Exploitation or
The “fictive ties of kinship” with migrant workers and the fact that the living
environment of the employer is also that of the migrant worker create a relation
of employment where migrants do their jobs not only as a result of a necessity
but their willingness to do so. The rhetoric of kinship ensures the assimilation
of the worker in the family of the employer and consequently the
latter’s approach to professional work as a natural responsibility. Just like
mothers/ spouses who cannot be “off” household work, any boarded
servant/caregiver, too, cannot. The migrant worker is expected to leave aside
the fact that she is employed professionally and instead turn into a housewife
by accepting the home environment of the employer as her own.45 When care
services are concerned, the relationship between the worker and employer assumes
an even more complex character. This relationship between the caregiver
and her employer can be constructed both in a form that yields “mutual benefits”
and in another form that is based on the exploitation of the workers. The
form of relationship is determined by multiple economic and socio-cultural
variables. Care labor which is otherwise devalued by the patriarchal system
and structural dynamics of the market becomes “valuable” through the social
meaning attributed to care responsibility as well as the emotional dimension
of the service delivered. This system of clashing values determined on the one
43 Ibid. (p. 21).
44 Akalın (2007, p. 221).
45 Ibid. (p. 220).
Is Migration Feminized? 99
side by wage and status of work and on the basis of human relations on the
other shape the working conditions of migrants who deliver care services.46
The emotional dimension of care services enables migrant women to
have control over what they do while encouraging them to feel themselves as
a part of the families they work for; but at the same time this position forces
them to be “loyal caregivers”, always patient and understanding. For example,
migrant worker Maria with her four children back in Moldova could not stop
her teardrops when she saw her employer returning home cheerfully with her
children. Her employer, on the other hand, scolded her for her sullenness instead
of asking whether there was any problem.47
Care labor necessitates close surveillance as well as physical and emotional
care. Particularly in cases of childcare, the relationship between the caregiver
and children is one where various ideas and experiences of the caregiver
are transferred to children and basic life skills as well as cultural norms and
values are taught.48 In the case of elderly care, on the other hand, the caregiver
takes over the responsibility for ensuring the physical and emotional well-being
of the elderly person while, at the same time, accompanies as a friend the
elderly person who is isolated and whose physical mobility is restricted. This
situation makes the employer dependent on the caregiver who spends more
time with her child or household member in need of care. However, common
ideas about affection, family and child-rearing mask different power dynamics
and inequalities inherent in waged care labor. The contradiction between
motherhood and commoditized care labor makes lines of demarcation as to
which duties are to be transferred from the mother to the caregiver ambiguous.
49 Thus, the existence of co-habitation in the same home with the employer,
constructed with the rhetoric of kinship, may create both advantageous and
disadvantageous outcomes for women in domestic services. Women employed
in closed home environment and facing the threat of deportation are vulnerable
to almost all forms of exploitation and abuse. Nevertheless, such factors as
the employer’s sharing of her home and family with the migrant worker and
the establishment of an affection-based relationship with the child or elderly
person when care services are concerned may also create relatively favorable
46 Uttal (1999, p. 759).
47 Demirdirek (2007, p. 18).
48 Uttal (1999, p. 762).
49 Ibid. (p. 759).
100 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
working environments in which migrant workers may put their employers in
the place of their own families back at home. Since the cessation of the care relationship
(which is tightly connected with the caregiver due to its emotional dimension)
may create adverse outcomes from the point of view of the employer,
the relation between the employer and worker may in some cases be founded
upon mutual interdependence. Such a relation of dependence cannot be observed
in other sectors where migrants are employed.
Migrant Women in Entertainment and Commercial Sex Sectors
When the concepts of pleasure and desire gained a transnational character
with globalization, the demand for sex services increased and more and more
women started to work in the sectors of entertainment and commercial sex.
Along with the rise in demand, services offered diversified and sector workers
from various countries and ethnic origins became accessible. The development
of communication technologies and the feminization of migration led to the
global expansion of the sector, which is rather based on the commoditization
of woman’s body. Upon the collapse of the Soviet System, which was followed
by the inflow of women from the former Eastern Bloc and their participation
in commercial sex in Turkey, there emerged a diversification in the sector and
a rising demand for expatriate women.50 After domestic and care services,
commercial sex is the sector where demand for migrant women is the highest.
Contrary to such sectors as the manufacturing industry, tourism, agriculture
and construction, in which there is competition with a domestic labor force, in
domestic services, entertainment and commercial sex, domestic labor and migrant
workers constitute two distinct groups responding to different demands
Migrant women in the sector of entertainment and commercial sex can
be addressed in three different groups in respect to their entry into the sector
and their working conditions. The first group comprises those employed as
persons granted permission to work in the entertainment sector. The second
group consists of those entering Turkey with a tourist visa and working in
commercial sex either as free-lance or by paying to intermediaries. Persons in
this second group have either migrated directly for the purpose of working in
this specific sector or shifted to it after having worked for some time in the
50 Ünlütürk Ulutaş/Kalfa (2009, p. 16).
Is Migration Feminized? 101
luggage trade, tourism and domestic services. The third group is composed of
the victims of human trafficking who have been deceived by promises of employment
in other sectors and then forced to take part in commercial sex. This
third group differs from the first two since a process of exploitation is forcefully
imposed and will not be addressed here as a distinct topic of study. Unlike
the sector of domestic services, studies and statistical data relating to migrant
women in the sectors of entertainment and commercial sex are scarce, naturally
leading to very limited information on their living and working conditions.
In the entertainment sector where mostly women from Ukraine and Russia
are employed, formal employment is more common than others sectors
where migrant workers are also employed. According to data provided by the
MoLSS, work permits granted to those from these two countries are mostly for
the entertainment sector and enterprises in this are considered a part of the
tourism sector. The procedure is firstly to reach show groups to be employed in
entertainment facilities over agencies in origin countries and then to apply to
the MoLSS for work permit.52 The protection of migrants working in this sector
is ensured through the employment contracts of migrants in their native languages
as well and informing them about their rights emanating from the
Labor Code.53 Legal and formal employment facilitate the access of women in
this sector to health and security services and make it possible for them to
work in more favorable conditions than other irregular female migrants.
While some migrant women in commercial sex move to Turkey specifically
to work in this sector, there are also others who shift to the same sector as
a result of such reasons as not being able to find other jobs, low wages offered
and others. A study by Kalfa (2008) reveals both sexual violence encountered
by women in domestic services and a transition from domestic services to
commercial sex. In whichever sector they are employed, the perceived status of
women from the former Soviet countries as sex workers and their stigmatization
as “Natashas” may lead to their harassment in other sectors as well an
eventual drift to commercial sex.54 The wide presence of migrants in commer-
51 As the most accessible of all, data from the General Directorate of Security reveal the criminal dimensions of the issue;
however, even these statistics fall short of enabling us to gather information regarding the motives and processes of mi –
gration and conditions that women encounter.
52 Erder/Kaşka (2003, p. 66).
53 Dedeoğlu/Ekiz-Gökmen (2010, p. 54).
54 Gülçür/İlkakaracan (2002, p. 414).
102 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
cial sex is so pronounced that even when they go back to their own countries
there emerges a preconception that all migrant women to Turkey are motivated
by commercial sex. This is the reason why migrant women in all sectors
may be disrespected and made objects of harassment in both Turkey and in
their home countries.55
The motives of women migrating to work in the sector of commercial sex
largely overlap with the motives of others migrating for employment in other
sectors. However, considering the working conditions of women in this sector,
it is possible to infer that commercial sex which is extremely vulnerable to
sexual, physical and psychological violence, accompanied by illegality and being
foreigner, will generate much more adverse conditions. Sexuality, which is
directly about a person’s self and body, is an area that is extremely conducive
to direct violence against woman’s body.56 Meanwhile, their illicit residence
and working status deprive these women of all means of access to and claiming
of their rights. Forcible employment by intermediaries, long working
hours, non-payment of their earnings and the withholding of passports are
problems frequently observed in commercial sex. Women lack the means of resorting
to legal procedures when they suffer harassment or violence in their
daily lives, too. The fear of being deported prevents their application official authorities
in case of any violation of their rights while the shame they feel because
of their engagement keeps them from applying to their own consulates
as well.57 Other than clients, intermediaries and police may also be the actors of
violence that women suffer.58 In their study Gülçür and İlkakaracan reveal that
migrant women who are working in commercial sex sector are detained by
the police frequently and upon threats of deportation must bribe officers for
55 Kalfa (2008), Keough (2006).
56 Ünlütürk Ulutaş/Kalfa (2009, p. 23).
57 Gülçür/İlkkaracan (2002), Kaşka/Erder (2003), İçduygu (2004), Kalfa (2008), Üstübici (2010).
58 Ibid. (p. 16).
59 Gülçür/İlkakaracan (2002, p. 416).
Is Migration Feminized? 103
Ethnicity-Based Participation in the Labor Market: Those Who Are
Close and Distant from “Us”
In such feminized sectors as domestic and care services and entertainment
and commercial sex, ethnicity is an important factor in determining who will
be involved in which. In other sectors too, ethnicity in addition to gender is an
important factor in shaping the preferences of employers. Even though it may
change depending on the region and nature of work, employers mostly prefer
Muslim migrants who can speak Turkish. It is also stated that the police too are
more lenient to those akin to “us” in its approach to irregular migrants. This
state of affairs is particularly relevant when it comes to Turks from Bulgaria,
Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.60 However, whatever the ethnic origin of migrants
may be, what makes them preferable for employers is their lack of protection
due to illicit status and openness to all kinds of exploitation.
Migrant Women in Garment Workshops
Going out of households, garment workshops are common production units
employing migrant women. A study conducted in Istanbul points out that poor
families especially from the Nahcevan region of Azerbaijan come to Turkey for
employment, male members work in construction or remain jobless while females
are employed in garment workshops as a cheap source of labor. While
informal employment is common to all laborers in these workshops, women
from Azerbaijan are paid lower than nationals doing the same work, work
longer hours and sometimes they are not paid at all. They have no means of
standing up against injustice they suffer. What is striking here is that children
accompany their mothers to workshops and work there with them. Since they
cannot have their children enrolled in school because of their illicit status, it
seems to mothers better to have children with them while working. Children
who are deprived of their chances for education are destined to spend their
adult lives as unskilled workers. Because of the similar culture, common language
and religion, people from Azerbaijan are not “aliens”, but “the other”. The
submission of “untainted” Azeri women, acceding solemnly and silently to all
kinds of work that may be assigned, shows how functional patriarchal cultural
norms can be in creating a docile worker profile for employers. In her work,
60 Danış et al. (2009), Akpınar (2009), Erder (2007).
104 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
Dedeoğlu (2011) draws attention to the fact that the process of migration
makes women the major actors in household subsistence, bearing the potential
of strengthening the status of women in their families though it may not
bring along any serious change in a gender-based division of labor.
Migrants in Trade and Tourism
Besides their objective characteristics, some subjective characteristics attributed
to migrants are influential in determining where they are employed. At
the centers in Istanbul where luggage trade is intensive, such service personnel
as salesmen, interpreters and receptionists who can speak Russian and Serbian
are commonly employed in communicating with foreign traders. Likewise, for
complying with product standards and demand from the former Eastern Bloc
countries, there is need for and thus employment of qualified workers such as
models and stylists.61 However while Muslim- and Turkish-origin migrants
from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are employed in textile and garment workshops
even when they can speak Russian, men or women from Moldova,
Ukraine and Russia are preferred as sales personnel in shops.62 Influential in
this preference is the subjective cultural characteristics such as “better educated”,
“cleaner” and “more disciplined” attributed to the second group. In fact,
these cultural attributions are used as instruments of making use of bodily
performance of migrant women. The “sexy” and “fantasy” nature of women’s
dresses sold by some stores and acceptance by migrant women employed in
these stores to serve as models exhibiting these dresses means “bringing down
two birds by throwing a single stone” by employers. It is observed that some
migrants performing well in sales are able to negotiate wages with their employers.
As to migrants who work as unqualified laborers in cargo shops and
workshops, they can react to unfavorable working conditions only by changing
their jobs or they just remain silent.
There are some migrant women who legally stay in Turkey upon their
marriage with Turkish citizens and obtainment of Turkish citizenship, having
a work permit. In spite of this favorable status, they are still employed informally.
According to a survey conducted in a touristic settlement, these women,
almost all of whom are university graduates with experience in their profes-
61 Erder (2007, p. 67).
62 Dağdelen (2008).
Is Migration Feminized? 105
sions, face problems in confirming the equivalence of their diplomas and are
consequently employed in the tourism sector as tourist agents, massagers,
guides, tour operators, animators or saleswomen despite their qualification.63
There are also cases where these women are employed in jobs that are not preferred
by nationals for low wages offered or paid lower than others. Since seasonal
employment is the distinguishing character of the tourism sector, these
women work only half of the year and they explain this lack of any social protection
by their origin. The problem of non-payment, which is frequently experienced
by illicit migrants, emerges to a limited extent when it comes to migrants
with legal status. Among problems they face as women they cite verbal
or physical sexual harassment at their workplaces.
Migrants in Construction Sector
A very interesting study revealing how employers can functionalize ethnicity
for raising the level of exploitation is the one by Akpınar (2009) on the employment
of migrant workers in the sector of construction. Extremely informal as a
result of widely practiced sub-contracting, the construction sector is a point of
entry to Turkish labor market for male migrants. Migrants are employed as the
lowest status of unqualified workers in building construction/ restoration,
road and bridge construction/restoration and in the restoration and preservation
of historical properties which change many hands in the chain of sub-contracting.
They are employed for long hours at very low wages and in some
cases they are dismissed without the payment of wages due. A field study conducted
in Istanbul shows that mostly migrants from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan,
Afghanistan and Georgia are employed in construction; migrants from
countries other than Georgia identify themselves as Muslim-Turks, a ground
upon which they are recruited by employers who then seek from them a kind
of loyalty and gratitude. While not of Turkish stock, Georgians are recruited
with an emphasis on their friendship and kinship ties with the people of Eastern
Black Sea region. Migrants are preferred over Kurdish people as national
source of labor in construction works. Behind what seems as nationalistic sentiment
against Kurds, there is the fact that, unlike Kurds, migrants have no
means to claim their rights and they can be more readily exploited than others.
The same state of affairs is observed in industrial enterprises in the region
63 Gökmen (2011).
106 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
of Thrace. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was the primary preference of employers
to recruit industrial laborers from among Turks from Bulgaria. When it
was observed that unqualified Kurdish workers from South-Eastern Anatolia
had a tendency to get unionized and as the number of migrants incoming
from Romania and Bulgaria decreased, employers preferred to bring in workers
from Istanbul. It is further observed that in Bursa, which is the most preferred
place of settlement for Turks coming from Bulgaria, they are considered
as “cognates” and not “aliens”, and their status in the labor market is not disadvantaged
relative to the long-settled inhabitants of Bursa and they are received
much more warmly than Kurds recently migrating to Bursa.64
Refugees and migrants from Africa who have a small share in irregular
migrants are completely different in terms of their culture, language and religion.
Even when they are Muslims, their different skin color prevents them to
be close to “us”. Their participation in the labor market is much more limited
than other migrant groups. According to a study conducted in Istanbul focusing
on the enmeshing of migrant and refugee groups, in case their appeal for
refugee status is rejected, refugees switch to the status of irregular migrants
and start seeking jobs in the informal sector to subsist and save some money
while waiting to be transported to EU countries by human smugglers. These
migrants, who are subsisting in worn-out buildings in the depressed areas of
the city-state, point to difficulties in finding a job and working as the biggest
problem. Some of these people work in small garment or illumination workshops,
some sell goods in marketplaces and some women visit houses for
cleaning works. Among them, there are also those engaged in the luggage
trade, depending on their countries of origin. Their wages are even lower than
legal minimum wage, if it is paid at all. The Roma people and Kurds from
South-Eastern Anatolia inhabiting the same depressed areas live and work under
similar conditions.65 In the labor market hierarchy, black migrants have the
lowest status while sharing the same fate with those excluded categories of
the domestic labor force, mostly subsist on scavenging.66
64 Ibid. (p. 65–72).
65 Yükseker/Brewer (2010).
66 Saltan/Yardımcı (2007).
Is Migration Feminized? 107
A large number of studies on irregular migrants living and working in Turkey
cover migrant women employed in domestic and care services and provide detailed
information as to their state and working conditions. This can be explained
by a mostly upper-middle-class origin of researchers that facilitates
their access to the employers of migrant women or by the fact that their relatives
or close acquaintances are employers. As to other areas of employment,
the negative attitude of employers towards researchers as well as the fear of
migrants from being spotted and deported makes related studies much more
difficult to conduct. In spite of the difficulties of conducting surveys and collecting
data, research focusing on migrant women shows us that the question
posed as “Is migration feminized?” can be answered positively.
The point common to all studies examined is that they expose the unprotected
status and vulnerability of migrants. No matter in which sector or
job they are employed, irregular migrants are employed in much more unfavorable
conditions, for longer hours and also paid lower than nationals and
they have no channels to claim their rights in cases of non-payment. From the
point of view of migrant women, additional risks include sexual harassment
and, in the case of working in commercial sex, sexual violence and sexually
The transformation of the demographic structure and the growing share
of the elderly in the total population increase the need for care services in Turkey.
Parallel to this development, more women graduating from universities
start to work in professional jobs. And yet, the state withdraws from the provision
of institutional care services, adopts social policies that reinforce the familial
supply of care services along traditional lines and few private companies
offering care services demand high prices for their work. Under these circumstances,
it is quite predictable that the demand for female migrant workers in
middle and upper class families will increase. In the entertainment and commercial
sex sectors, the prevailing interest in the young and blonde “other” will
perpetuate the demand for migrant women from former Eastern Bloc countries.
In the tourism sector, the increasing number of tourists coming from
Russia and their expanding share in tourism revenues will raise the demand
for Russian-speaking employees who are mainly migrants from former Eastern
Bloc countries. In all of these service sector sub-branches, where the competition
with native workers is weak, it is important to take measures for the
108 Gülay Toksöz and Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş
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and Turkey accepts the pressures for the alignment of her migration
policy with that of EU, it would not be an exaggeration to say that migrants’
efforts to reach Turkey will take place under more dangerous and risky conditions.
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