Gülay Toksöz’s latest book titled “Emanet Emek: Göç Yollarında Kadınlar” [Transient labor: women on migration routes] was published by Dipnot Publishing House in 2021. Our interview with Toksöz revolved around the structural reasons for migration, the role of women’s labor in capitalist accumulation, migrant women’s experiences and class, race, and gender relations from a comparative perspective.

Dieb Oroubah, Déplacement

In your book, you focus on the transformation of migrant women’s labor in the past 60 years, with a focus on Europe. Could you tell us a bit about your book? And why did you choose to focus on Europe?

My interest in the problems faced in Europe by migrant workers from Turkey goes back to 1975. That year, Tüm İktisatçılar Birliği [translates as, All Economists Union] published a book titled Yurtdışındaki İşçiler ve Sorunları [Workers Abroad and Their Problems] – a product of a group study I was a part of. Following the 1980 military coup, I traveled to Germany to pursue my PhD with the intention to study the problems faced by migrant women workers and their positions in labor unions. In my thesis, I have examined the process and experiences of becoming a worker for migrant women, difficulties they have faced as workers, their roles in unions despite their domestic/family responsibilities, and means of struggle, based on how these aspects relate to each other and being a migrant. I have been an active member of migrant women’s organizations during my studies and after I have submitted my thesis.

When I returned to Turkey in 1992, I started to work at the Faculty of Political Sciences at Ankara University. Until my retirement in 2017, my academic interest focused on issues concerning women’s and migrant labor. I have numerous publications on these subjects. Recently, I have been interested in the labor markets of Western and Southern European countries’, which are influenced by neoliberal policies and where migrant women’s labor is mostly restricted/limited, and the change and transformation they have gone through in the past 60 years.

Migration to Europe intensified in the second half of the 20th century. Since I am familiar with this context, I approached the issue from a perspective reliant on Germany. I tried to shed light to the multi-dimensional configuration of migration by examining not only the structural macro causes but also aspects concerning decisions taken by individuals. Moreover, 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the migration from Turkey to the Federal Republic of Germany. I wanted to use this opportunity to introduce younger generations to the adventures of women migrants from Turkey. I spent 2019 in Berlin, where I got the chance to thoroughly read and write about the subject − a process through which this book came about.

You highlight that labor of migrant women plays a founding role in the global capitalist system. There are three historical phases to be considered. Could you unpack this periodization, and why did you need such a periodization? On the other hand, you use the term “transient labor”, which also features in the title of your book, to emphasize the temporary nature of migrant labor. Does this conceptualization correspond to a specific phase among those you have proposed?

The referred periodization is based on how capitalism, as a production and accumulation regime, expands and contracts  –in other words, how the labor force demanded by capitalism evolves in times of crises– and its impact on the demand for migrant labor. I focused on migrant women, as they are often neglected in research.

The first phase spans from the end of the Second World War until mid1970s, during which Western European countries needed a migrant workforce to help their economic revival. This period is marked by a need for migrant workforce in mines, manufacturing industry and service sector, especially in hotels and restaurants. It’s common knowledge that a great number of workers from Turkey went to various Western European countries – primarily to Germany. That’s why the title of this chapter is “Fabrikaların Akort Bantlarında Göçmen Kadın İşçiler” [Migrant Women Workers at Factory Production Lines].

The second phase is characterized by the halting of workforce recruitment and legal migration options due to the economic crisis in the 1970s, where migrants start to arrive in Europe irregularly and their labor becomes precarious. This period also coincided with a rise in need of care work within households, due to the socio-demographic transformation in Western countries, and migrant women to perform these domestic and care works. This chapter is titled “Evlerde: Temizlikten Bakıma Migrant Kadın İşçiler” [At Homes: Migrant Women Performing Everything from Cleaning to Care].

The third phase is best described by the brain drain post-2000. The distinguishing factor surrounding this period is how forcibly displaced people opt to become refugees in European countries as refugees. This chapter is titled “Yeni Gelenler: Üsttekiler… Beyin Göçmenleri, Alttakiler… Mülteciler” [New Arrivals: Upper Class… Brain Drain Migrants, Lower Class… Refugees].

Naturally, it is not possible to clearly delineate these periods from one another. Nevertheless, it helps to approach and define a period using its prominent characteristics so that we can understand where the continuities lie. I used the concept of “transient labor” to refer to the transient perception of migration during the first period, since most migrants then had the goal to return after saving some money. Regardless, conditions determine their choice independent from their intentions.  Although there are many workers who returned during the first phase, those who stayed brought their spouses and children through family reunification. When their children started to attend schools in their country of arrival, ethnic groups strengthened and the intention to stay started to weigh more heavily. During the second phase, there is strong intent to return to the country of origin among women who provide care work  – primarily from Southern European countries, and then from Eastern European countries after the fall of socialist regime. On the other hand, the primary intention of both brain drain migrants and refugees is to permanently stay in their country of immigration/arrival.

There is another chapter in the book called: “Yerleşikliğe Geçiş: Temizlik İşlerinden Uzman Mesleklere Göç Kökenli Kadınlar” [Transition to Settlement: From Cleaning Jobs to Specialist Professions  – Women with Migration Backgrounds], which sheds light to education and labor conditions of youth and women with migration backgrounds who were born and brought up in the country of immigration. The subject of this chapter is why the children of migrant families, who are among the most disadvantaged tiers of the working class, go through educational and vocational paths similar to their parents’, and what women educated in specialist vocations experience in their professional life.

You have developed a tripartite method to understand the labor of migrant women. In this respect, the primary notions of your research are class, ethnicity/race, and gender. What does this tripartite set of notions reveal about migrant women’s labor?

The widespread participation of migrant women in the working life was ignored for a long time by the public opinion of the migrating societies and social scientists, attention was focused on women who came within the scope of family unification and whose participation in working life was not easy as a result of legal restrictions. Therefore, analyses based on cultural characteristics of migrants, focused so much on cultural differences  –especially patriarchal quality of societies Muslim women come from– that they ended up ignoring the patriarchal structure of the labor market and mentality in the migrant’s country of arrival/receiving country. This resulted in an incomplete study of legal, financial, and social positioning of migrant women in the receiving country, that is the sum of conditions created by legal inequalities, class positions and being a woman. For example, findings that suggest women are prevented from joining the labor force or not being able to devote themselves fulltime, because primarily responsible for domestic and care work at home according to a traditional gender-based division of labor, fall short from explaining the conditions faced by full time migrant women workers who are brought in the country specifically to serve as part of the labor force. Migrant women, despite all patriarchal social relations back home, can take part in the labor market. The fact that the labor market is divided into industries and professions based on gender applies to all women, whereas ethnicity was a factor that was often overlooked despite that women from different ethnic groups and country of origin were facing different forms of racism and exclusion.

Hierarchies within the labor market are shaped by the mutual interaction of class, gender, and ethnicity. Professions that stem from the traditional domestic labor of, mostly, women  –such as textile-garment and food preparation industry, or hospitality industry, including domestic labor, accommodation, or food sectors– make great examples of how certain professions and vocations are constructed based on gender. To the extent that the local woman workforce can find new job opportunities and stay away from traditionally low-paying, low-status jobs, points at how ethnicity figures into creation of a hierarchy since the migrant women are there to fill the gap. Therefore, it is important to look at intersections of class/ethnicity/gender when examining the situation of migrant women workers in the labor market.

In your narrative, you detail how different countries in Europe approach migration and  –women migrants differently. We also see how welfare regimes determine the labor conditions of care work. When it comes to labor of migrant women, especially in care work, all these different approaches have a common denominator characterized by precarity, exploitation of emotional labor, “illegalization” and layering exploitation that stems from it. We see that a significant percentage of care work is undertaken by migrant domestic workers, especially from the 90s onwards. What are your specific observations regarding Turkey compared to Europe?

There is a growing need for child, elderly and sick care, with the rise of local women employment and the population getting older with the increasing life span in European countries since the 1980s. In countries with a developed social welfare system, and primarily in Scandinavian countries, care work is covered as a public service and women employment rates are high. In contrast, in Southern European countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, care work is provided by women in the family, and women employment rates are lower. The cheaper solution to the needs that arose with greater participation of women in the workforce in the past 30-40 years is to cover them with the labor of migrant women. This way, an increasing number of migrant women not only make significant contributions to the establishment of social welfare in many countries but also offer a low-cost solution to states and households. Waged domestic and care work does not fall within the scope of legal regulations or social protections, often due to their perception as an unskilled, low-value and low-status field of work. And that’s why migrant women are an important constituent of the precariat.

The current situation in Turkey resembles those of Southern European countries. Although women employment rates in Turkey are much lower, it is possible to predict that there will be a need for childcare among women who are studying at a university and tend to work post-graduation. Similarly, although the elderly population rate is relatively lower in Turkey, there is an aging trend, which corresponds to an increasing need for elderly care. Following the fall of the socialist system, a lot of women from the Turkic republics have arrived in Turkey, and they are facing similar problems in terms of precarity and exploitation. Most of them do not reside in the country with a work permit, and they have irregular migrant status. We could say that the similarities are striking, and differences can be easily overlooked.

Dieb Oroubah, Exile

In your book, you talk about ways in which women migrants mobilized in diverse industries from factories to domestic spheres in different countries since the 1970s. They rally around peculiar conditions that relate to being women, migrant women, and migrant women laborers. What do you think about the fact that migrant women continue to be regarded as passive subjects in 2021 just like they used to be in the 1970s?

Yes, I tried to cover as many stories about women laborers who defend their economic and social rights as possible and shed light to their struggle to have a say over their lives. Undoubtedly, their struggle has expanded with years. They began to lead a struggle for rights on various issues. Migrant women’s organizations promote asylum/foreign rights, anti-racism, anti-discrimination law, violence against women in the migration process, women’s trafficking, equivalence of diplomas obtained abroad, empowerment, support of women’s entrepreneurship, different sexual orientation, and dual national marriages, etc. These organizations transformed into platforms joined by migrant women across the borders in Europe. What’s interesting is that migrant women continue to be victimized in mainstream media through stereotypes that surround them. The fact that men make up the majority of refugee flows to Europe since the 2010s, render women invisible and silent. Syrian refugee women are perceived to be victims of traditions, violence and subject to gender-based division of labor. It’s interesting that these stereotypes could hold for this long.  However, I must highlight the contribution of second and third generation migrant women who grew up in various European countries and came forward to raise their voices, especially in politics, business, and cultural fields. The third part of the book provides examples of these stances.

Your analysis adds to the literature on the dominance of stereotypes regarding women, especially those coming from the East, within the context of “integration” and racism.  On the other hand, these stereotypes are not uniquely held by Western citizens against migrants from the East. As you have underlined in your example from Germany, with each migration wave, the attitudes of migrant groups towards one another also change. How does racism affect migrant women in that sense? Or, can we talk about a unique relationship between racism and patriarchy?

Especially what is observed in Germany, most recent skilled migrants end up as members of the middle class because of their legal status and working conditions. They also see members of the working class, who arrived in Germany as unskilled migrants and work manual labor jobs, at a lower social tier than themselves. They perceive them through the lens of stereotypes and think they are all conservative, traditional and in support of the government in power in Turkey. Even when they all share a common ethnic root, perception of a class-based looking down is the  decisive factor in the relationship between them.

On the other hand, there is naturally a strong link between racism and patriarchy. Local population assigns a certain ‘otherness’ to an ethnic population in society by assigning them undesired characteristics and lower social status. While racism excludes on the bases of race and ethnicity, sexism excludes women and people with different sexual orientations than theirs, using male dominance. Both racism and sexism are linked to social behaviors assigned to biological and cultural characteristics; therefore, where there is racism, there is sexism, too. A social system in which women are subjected also targets ethnic minorities, and especially migrant women among them, as they are perceived to be the least powerful subgroup within the racial/ethnic minority.

You state that, dissimilar to men, high-skilled women choose to migrate abroad from Turkey due to patriarchal pressures and gender-based inequalities within the labor market. Do you think this pattern developed more recently?

Undoubtedly, as the examples in the book reveal in the migration waves of the 1960s, women who went to Western European countries to be workers, especially for young women of urban origin and relatively higher education levels, had not only the motive of achieving better economic conditions, but also the desire to escape from patriarchal pressures in their countries of origin, to stand on their own feet, and to have a say over their own life. However, in this period, women do not express their wishes very clearly. In the period after the 2000s, studies show that there is a positive relationship between the increasing education levels of women in many countries on a global scale and their desire to live in countries where their human rights are respected. Because educated women express their wishes and desires more clearly in this respect, and they are educated in science, health and informatics etc. makes it easier for them to realize their migration intentions. High-skilled women who have left Turkey more recently and can be considered lost with brain drain, show that patriarchal pressures and gender inequality in the society play a decisive role in their decision to leave.

Lastly, it is possible that human mobility will not decrease but mass migrations are likely to increase in the upcoming years due to climate change, epidemics etc. What do you predict for the upcoming years? What does the future hold for migrant women?

Yes, I think it is inevitable that more and more people will be migrating in the decades to come. People will be driven to migrate due to not only the hardship of life conditions/impossibility of living in their countries but also the growing need for young workforce in rich countries. Migration routes will be open for “welcomed” migrants –as in the skilled labor force. Migrant women who take care of domestic and care work, or child, elderly, sick care will be left out of this migration regime. The inequalities between migrants will become more apparent. Basic human rights of most migrants will be violated. We should accept that migration movements are global phenomena, and they cannot be avoided; but their effects can be mitigated. All migrant sending and receiving countries, and international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, should attest to the real reasons behind migration and try to find solutions to address this problem in a way that is respectful to their fundamental human rights and wish to lead a life with dignity.

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için:

Translator: Deniz İnal

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan


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