“If we were to continuously work until 5 o’clock as hard as the employer wants, we would not be able to get to work the next day. No human being can work as much as that.”
— Domestic Worker

In Turkey, as in other developing countries, there has been a growing demand for domestic wage employees among urban upper- and middle-class households. Domestic wage labor is one of the few paid occupations open to rural or lower-class women lacking access to formal education or other resources. Its supply is thus shaped by gender, class and migrant status. Studies around the world have found that migrant women workers are generally an invisible, powerless and cheap labor supply in the labor markets of industrial countries and urban areas within developing countries. Their workday is long and involves hard physical labor. Forced to work in substandard conditions, they can be deprived of sleep and nutritious food, and can encounter racial or ethnic discrimination, abuse and sometimes sexual harassment. The work requires heavy lifting and accidents are common. Day workers often have to commute long distances to reach the employer’s home. Live-in workers may be housed in cramped and unsanitary conditions that lack basic amenities.

Migrant and working class women typically find work for pay in the informal sector of the economy. Informal sector activities are undertaken by individuals to produce goods and services as a way of generating their own employment and incomes. They are informal in the sense that they are for the most part unregistered and operate on a very small scale and with low levels of organization, capital and formal skills. Official statistics in Turkey and in other countries, however, do not reveal the extent of women’s contributions to the economy in the informal sector, whether they work as domestics, street vendors or contract laborers in their homes. The activities of workers in the informal sector generally go unrecognized, unregulated and unprotected by the government.

There are two major forms of domestic wage labor in Turkey. First, there is daily work, which is paid a day rate and can be full- or part-time. A worker may have a fixed, sequential routine in multiple households (such as once a week or once every-other-week per household), or employment with different households on an irregular basis. Second, there is monthly employment, for which the worker is paid a monthly salary. It can take the form of either full-time, full-day employment in a single household or as live-in help.

The authors conducted a survey of 260 female domestic workers employed in private households in two metropolitan centers in Turkey, Istanbul and Izmir, between spring 1995 and spring 1996. A focus group was formed in each city to discuss the survey findings in more depth. The findings provide insights into the characteristics of the workers and the working conditions they face.
• The respondents were mainly mature women with family responsibilities who were making a “career” of paid domestic labor. Three quarters of the respondents were over 30 years old, 91 percent had an elementary school education or less, and 85 percent were married with children.
• At least 88 percent of respondents were migrants, transiting mostly from rural to urban areas within the country, while five percent were from the Balkan countries or the Middle East. Internal migrants came mainly from the poorer parts of the country: central, eastern and southern Anatolia. The reasons for migration were mainly economic, the classic “pull” of the metropolitan areas and the “push” of the economically underdeveloped regions. More than a quarter of the respondents, however, said that they simply followed a migrant family member. Half of the women surveyed chose not to answer this question.
• Prior to their migration, more than half of the respondents were employed in another capacity. Almost half worked in farming, followed by lesser numbers in factory or domestic work. A few were involved in small entrepreneurial activities, such as carpet weaving, knitting or processing foods for sale. This limited range of work experience and their generally low formal education help explain why these women turned to domestic employment after migration.
• Eighty-six percent of respondents were employed in private homes only. Most of these were full-time day workers with multiple employers, while the remainder were monthly salaried workers (only 2 percent live-in). As is typical of the informal sector, they found jobs mainly through relatives, friends or current employers, not through the government-sponsored employment agency.
• Respondents cited accidents as the largest source of work-related problems. Such accidents included falling off a ladder or down a flight of stairs, or suffering electric shock due to poor household equipment. The respondents attributed excessive wear and tear on their bodies to occupational stress due to overly long workdays coupled with physically demanding labor and the lack of rest breaks. Additional problems included inadequate provision of materials or equipment needed to perform the demanded tasks and insufficient nutritious food, especially at the midday meal.
• The focus groups confirmed the survey data regarding problems experienced at work, especially the strenuous nature of the work and common exhaustion due to overwork. Only women who worked in one household on a monthly, full-time, daily basis and those who did not work everyday said they are able to cope with the physical demands of their work. Women in the focus groups reported that they are given poor quality food that the employing household members would otherwise throw away.
• More than one fifth of respondents said that they encountered “general” harassment and abuse in households where they work. Close to 4 percent said that they have been harassed sexually by the male members of their employing households. They often worked with the fear of assault, harassment or abuse, but were afraid to speak out because they did not want to jeopardize current or future jobs by being tagged as troublemakers in their own or in the employers’ communities.

There is now a growing trend in developing countries for women in professional and managerial jobs, or for others in upper- or middle-class households, to employ migrant, low-wage, domestic workers. Often these are the only honest, decent jobs that are available to migrants, given their minimal formal education and migrant status. As females and uprooted newcomers, they are the most vulnerable members of the workforce, insecure in a world of rising income inequality. They confront social institutions that assume that low-status work is women’s work and, therefore, of low value. Their work is unprotected, unrecognized and underpaid.

While our research highlights what appears to be an inherent conflict of interest between professional and migrant women, the authors and other professional researchers and policymakers, ourselves employers of domestic wage labor, are studying this phenomenon and advocating policy changes that will improve the lot of these workers. The domestic workers wish to have their working conditions acknowledged and their problems, such as occupational health and safety hazards, addressed by means of legal and regulatory protection. Like workers everywhere, they want to be treated with respect in humane working conditions. The basis of the problem is that regardless of their economic class, women continue to bear the burden of the care economy. There will be no equitable treatment for women, migrant or otherwise, unless this inherent discrepancy between genders is rectified.

How to cite this article:

Hayat Kabasakal, Alev Ergenç Katrınlı, Ömür Tımurcanday Özmen, Işik Urla Zeytinoğlu "Migrant Women in Waged Domestic Work in Turkey," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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