Migration and networks of care in Europe

A theoretical synthesis of gender, migration and care, and welfare regimes

The overall project is about the provision of domestic services in private households in Europe.

As female labour force participation has increased, demand for domestic workers has risen. Inadequate state provision and a move towards providing cash benefits to buy in care services for children, older, frail and disabled people, is intensifying this demand.

Migrant women are meeting much of the new demand for care and domestic service in private households, with non-EU nationals officially accounting for over 10 per cent of those employed in this sector.

However, since much of this work is undocumented and informal, its contribution to the European economy is much greater. Fiona Williams' contribution to this collaborative study of the phenomenon is to examine the role that migrant domestic and migrant care workers play in the changing welfare regimes of Europe, and develop a theoretical understanding of this in terms of the political economy of care in Europe within an international, post-colonial and gendered context.

The study was a theoretical synthesis which drew on social policy, sociology, migration studies and gender and development and developed as follows:

  1. Linking together analysis at three interrelated levels:a) The micro level of the everyday experiences and practices in the relationship between migrant workers and their employers.b) The meso level of the institutional context focused especially on the national/ supranational policies and practices which help shape this everyday relationship (this was identified as the level least analysed in existing studies of ‘global care chains’). Female migration into care and domestic work can be understood as part of the way care regimes dovetail with both migration and employment regimes in different ways in different countries (Williams and Gavanas, 2008).c) The study was also a cross-national comparison and the identification of sets of indicators within these regimes provided the framework for examining similarities and differences across countries (Williams, 2010c).d) Following from linking the micro to the meso levels, the focus on the macro level was concerned with the context in which (European) nation-welfare-states exist in a situation of unequal geo-political interdependence. I proposed that migrant home-based care be understood as part of a bigger picture of a transnational political economy of care.  This part of the analysis also used the ethics of care as an analytical method and normative guide to explore the implications for global justice of this transnational political economy of care (Williams, 2010a,b).
  2. In these ways the analysis was deductive  starting out with a perspective of the dynamics of social policies which framed an understanding of the link between migration and care. The empirical data then provided an opportunity for inductive analysis in thinking through the salient indicators for the care, migration and employment regimes.

Key Findings

Bringing the welfare state into the analysis:  in Northern, Southern and Western Europe, the migration of women into care/domestic work has been partly shaped by the restructuring of policies for the care of older, disabled people and children (particularly cash benefits/tax credits and marketization), and by changes in migration and labour market policies and practices. The study shows how the intersection of these three areas of policy provides an important context for understanding the opportunities and constraints of migrant care workers and their employers.

Cross-national comparison of the micro-meso relationship: analysis of qualitative data from London, Stockholm and Madrid showed differences (in extent of employment of migrant care workers for care and domestic work) as well as similarities. In relation to child care, cash/tax for care policies position mothers as individual consumers choosing the right child care. This is marked in those countries such as Spain and UK where the private market dominates choice and where care cultures favour mother substitute care. Searching for value for money in a marketized care economy has negative consequences for care workers with racialised hierarchies of pay and poor conditions. In Sweden, policy and culture favour public nurseries, yet a growing acceptance of (often migrant) domestic work as supporting work/life balance contrasts with its moral disapproval of previous decades. (Williams, 2007; Lister et al, 2007, ch 5; Williams et al, 2009).

The Intersection of Care, Migration and Employment Regimes: key indicators were developed for the three regimes in receiving countries. The concept of regime denotes the clusters of relevant policies, practices, discourses, social relations, and forms of contestation inherent in each particular domain. For example, a migration regimes is constructed both through its rules and regulations and cultures of racialisation, (anti-)discriminatory practices (Williams and Gavanas, 2008; Williams, 2010a, c). Whilst at the analytical level the intersection of these regimes reveals cross-national similarities and differences in migrant care work, at the policy level it is lack of co-ordination which is the problem (‘Intersection without co-ordination’: work in progress).

Transnational political economy of care: this situates migrant care work in the context of geo-political inequalities in which welfare societies seek to reduce their social expenditure costs through migrant care labour. This extends the framework of analysis to bring in other international reproductive labour such as nurses and doctors and to see far greater contemporary and historical convergence. The transnational dynamics of the political economy of care involve the movement of care labour, of international care capital, and the increase in transnational care commitments whose needs fall outside national welfare eligibility (Williams, 2010b). Care is thus a global issue; it is both the subject of transnational policy discourses and of claims-making by transnational movements (Williams, 2009). It demands a rethinking of strategies to resolve work/life balance and gender equality and a normative approach to global justice which is informed by an understanding of the centrality of care in everyday life.

Project Publications


  • ‘How do we theorise migration and care in European Welfare States?’ Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the International Sociological Association Research Committee 19 on Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy, University of Florence, 6-8 September 2007.
  • ‘Recognition, and the Redistribution of Care in Europe: Political Tensions and Spaces’. Paper presented to the International Conference, The Changing Social Organisation of Care and its implications for Social Politics, Peace Institute for Social and Political Studies, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 13-14 May 2010.
  • ‘Towards an explanation of convergence and divergence in the employment of migrant care workers in European welfare regimes’. Paper presented at the Congress of the International Sociological Association, Goteborg, Sweden, 14 July 2010.
  • ‘Towards an explanation of convergence and divergence in the employment of migrant care workers in European welfare regimes’. Paper presented at the Conference of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, USA, 15 August 2010.


Chapters in books

  • Williams, F. (2004) ‘Trends in Women’s Employment, Domestic Service, and Female Migration:changing and competing patterns of solidarity’ in T.Knijn and A. Komter (eds.) Solidarity between the sexes and generations: transformations in Europe, Edward Elgar.
  • Williams, F. and A. Gavanas (2008) ‘The Intersection of Child CareRegimes and Migration Regimes: a three-country study’, In: H. Lutz (ed) Migration and Domestic Work: a European perspective on a Global Theme, Routledge.