While the pandemic has emphasised the crucial role of care work in industrialised societies, research tells us that it has become a global business, exploiting migrant women by depriving them of their rights and forcing them into unsustainable working conditions. An analysis from an important international debate at the University of Linz, Austria

The business of 
care work

11 min read
Business of care
Credits Unsplash/Ravi Patel

Going almost unnoticed by the general public in the past, society’s increasing demand for care work due to present care gaps, which leading experts interpret as sign of a major care crisis, is currently receiving increasing attention. This alarming shortage of care work and care givers in the aging societies of the Global North has led to a global boom in the business of private care provision. 

Transnational agencies, whose business models involve the placement of migrant care workers, are among the clear winners of these developments. 

Contrary to common narratives of economic empowerment, processes of commodification are turning the work of predominantly female care migrants into a fictitious commodity – in a Polanyian sense – rendering professional carers’ labor precarious and sometimes even unfree.[1]

This fact forms the thematic starting point of the two-day international symposium Care migration - care marketization: Reflections on a complex interplay, which took place on 23 and March 2023 at Johannes Kepler University in Linz (Austria). Organised by the sociologists Brigitte Aulenbacher and Wasana Handapangoda with the support of Tobias Eder and Rebecca Gruber, the symposium was the culmination of the joint research project "Ideal" Migrant Subjects: Domestic Service in Globalization

Renowned scholars presented insights into their current research in the field of care migration in a total of six thematic blocks, moderated by social welfare, care, and migration experts such as Roland Atzmüller, Fabienne Décieux, Raphael Deindl, and Katharina Kreissl.

The first block of presentations was centered around patterns and the significance of migration and commodification of care work that the sociologists Attila Melegh (Corvinus University, Budapest) and Helma Lutz (Goethe University, Frankfurt) elaborated on empirically as well as theoretically. 

First, quantitative data on the aging population of neoliberal capitalist societies were presented in order to explain the current situation and to make quantifiable predictions of future demographic developments. Processes of privatization of care responsibilities formerly fulfilled by government institutions as reactions to the financial and economic crisis of 2008 and resulting austerity policies were identified as features of the contemporary capitalist structures in Central Europe. 

In a next step, Attila Melegh presented data that alluded to the manifold dimensions of inequality that constitute this interplay between care and the market.

Next, Helma Lutz elaborated on theoretical implications of the current processes of commodification of care provision. In contemporary cannibal capitalism, there is an inherent connection between exploitation and the narrative of empowerment through migrant care work.[2] 

Racialisation, among other things, within the concept of peripheral whiteness,[3] and patterns of colonial dependencies not only form the basis of lived care migration but also constitute common narratives about care migrants as "bad" mothers who leave Euro-orphans behind.[4]

The second thematic block focused on intermediaries as central actors in the process of commodification of care work. While in 2007, there were 30 agencies in Germany, there were already 337 in 2017. 

Ewa Palenga-Möllenbeck, researcher in sociology of migration at Goethe University (Frankfurt), considers agencies game changers of care migration; according to the theories of the political scientist Nicola Yeates (Open University, UK), these can be seen as an example of a global value chain. Palenga-Möllenbeck’s research findings demonstrated the considerable influence agencies have on various societal areas.

Brigitte Aulenbacher and Wasana Handapangoda, sociologists at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, showcased a comparison of the conditions under which agencies in Austria and Sri Lanka operate. In doing so, they did not only reveal the heterogeneity of the field but also highlighted the importance of agency placement for the shaping of the commodification of care in the respective migration regimes. 

The countries were analysed as most-different cases with Austria serving as an example of a care migrant receiving country, while Sri Lanka was considered a sending country, specifically of live-in domestic workers to the Middle East. Nonetheless, through a theoretical perspective, similarities between the two countries could be found: for example, in both countries, state, market, corporate, family, and professional logics are inherently linked to inequality, power, dominance, racist and sexist stereotypes that form the basis for the practice of care migration. 

Valentin Fröhlich and Florian Pimminger, reseachers at the Department of Sociology at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, dove into a comparative analysis of live-in care arrangements in market-based care systems in Austria, the Netherlands, and Hungary, using a Polanyian, neo-institutional, and Foucauldian perspective to illustrate differences and similarities between these care regimes. 

The care regimes of the three states show different degrees of marketization of the care sector: while care for the elderly in Hungary relies mainly in the family, in the Netherlands, this task is largely based in the public sector. Care for the elderly in Austria also has a familiarized character, which led to the early expansion of market-based 24-hour care in the Austrian care regime.

Afterwards, sociologists Ester Gouvea Martins (University of São Paulo) and Zuzana Uhde (Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague) provided insights into cross-border migration in different regions of the world. Martins spoke about female domestic workers in the emerging care migration market in São Paulo. 

On the basis of case studies of a Filipino and a Bolivian care worker she showed the situations the respective care workers find themselves in, which differ due to their countries of origin and the specific interweaving of historical and global inequalities. Labor union organization has already led to successes such as an 8-hour working day and social security benefits for female domestic workers.

Uhde addressed the role of the intra-European borders in terms of marketization of care and circular migration from eastern to western Europe: nation-state borders create a geo-economic division that relates to gender hierarchies and inequalities and leads to low incomes for care workers. Furthermore, phenomena linked to a so-called distorted emancipation, in which more privileged women benefit from the exploitation of disadvantaged women, whereby global female vulnerabilities are reproduced can be observed due to the marketization of care and care migration.

Presentations by Sabrina Marchetti, Professor of Sociology at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, on different European care models and by social anthpropologist Petra Ezzeddine (Charles University Prague) on the social significance of domestic work in Czech households in the context of the Russian attack on the Ukraine and the subsequent war took place in the second day of the symposium. 

Sabrina Marchetti outlined a typology, which distinguishes between commodification, marketization, and corporatization that differ, among other things, in the dimensions of employment, financing, management, and the public "image of care". 

She connects this concept with the care workers’ migration background to analyze how people’s understanding of what care is (or should be) changes depending on the corresponding type within her typology. 

Building on this, Marchetti examines different types of caregivers across varying institutional, economic, and educational backgrounds. According to her perspective, the transition from one type of caregiver to another does not result in an expansion of the supply but rather should be understood as a transformation of working conditions and quality within the care sector.

Petra Ezzeddine examined domestic work performed by Ukrainian refugees in Czech households in the context of gratitude or solidarity. Under the motto "integration into society", many Ukrainian refugees were accommodated in private households during early stages of the war where they found themselves confronted with domestic tasks. With her research, Ezzeddine emphasised the systematically marginalised, ethnicised, and gendered situation of Ukrainian women in the Czech Republic. 

These conditions even preceded the ongoing war due to structural and regional inequalities between the two states and now shape the heterogeneous field of this emerging "solidarity economy" in which accommodation is exchanged for care and domestic work in order to express gratitude.

In the following block, Veronika Prieler and Kristine Krause, researcher and Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, respectively, and Dóra Gábriel, researcher at the Institute for Regional Studies in Budapest, focused on processes of transnational marketization in elderly care. 

Prieler and Krause reported on structurally weak border regions that can be found for example in Poland or the Czech Republic, where care homes keep labor costs low and can offer their services to wealthier elderly people from Germany. Furthermore, the role of agencies was emphasised, with former migrants also appearing as entrepreneurs in the field of care relocation.

Dóra Gábriel initially spoke about legislative changes in the healthcare system in Hungary, leading to an increased commercialization and marketization of care provision, to increased funding for Christian care facilities, to the intensification of the immigration of healthcare workers, and to an uneven distribution of healthcare resources.) Moreover, her research in the context of retirement migration of foreign elderly people to rural areas in Hungary shows that ideological and economic reasons are major pull factors, as the retirement immigrants perceive Hungary as a white, Christian society.

The last block of the symposium dealt with unfree labor and labor rights in household and care work. In her presentation, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, took a Marxist as well as a liberal perspective on the global unfree care market. Her research illustrated that the legal status of care migrants renders them vulnerable to different forms of exploitation. Salazar Parreñas further described how state mechanisms or mandatory training for employers can lead to an increase in autonomy of migrant caregivers. 

Through her intersectional analysis of care in Uruguay and Paraguay, Raquel Rojas Scheffer, researcher on Sociology at Freie Universität in Berlin, looked at different dimensions of inequality, their legitimation, and ways to overcome them. Her fieldwork revealed that care workers in Paraguay often experience discrimination due to their indigenous background. However, these predominantly female care workers are integrated into a strong workers' movement. In Uruguay on the other hand, as a result of successful labor unionization, the work of housekeepers is legally equated with other sectors and is thus socially secured.

The numerous good presentations and productive discussions left participants with mixed impressions: the empirical evidence regarding the precarious nature of a dominance-oriented care sector, which dictates both the working and living conditions of migrant care workers and limits their agency, was shocking. However, the discussions among the participants were strongly influenced by the high degree of commercialization within the care sector. 

The German version of this report was published in the journal "Feministische Studien" (volume 41, issue 2).


[1] Drawing on the critique of the market society expressed by  Karl Polany, Hungarian-born historian, anthropologist and economist, in his major work, The Great Transformation.

[2] This is how the American feminist philosopher and theorist Nancy Fraser defines the system that led to the current economic, social, environmental and geo-political crisis.

[3] The concept has been introduced by Anna Safuta, researcher at the University of Tübingen, to explain the simultaneous condition of privilege and subordination experienced by white migrant people from non-Western countries.

[4] Lutz & Palenga-Möllenbeck, 2014. 


N. Fraser, Cannibal capitalism. How our system is devouring democracy, care, and the planet and what we can do about it, 2022

H. Lutz, E. Palenga-Möllenbeck, Care-Migrantinnen im geteilten Europa –Verbindungen und Widersprüche in einem transnationalen Raum, in Aulenbacher, Brigitte / Riegraf, Birgit / Theobald, Hildegard (Hrsg.) "Soziale Welt", Sorge: Arbeit, Verhältnisse, Regime. Sonderband 20, 2014

A. Safuta, Fifty shades of white. Eastern Europeans’ "peripheral whiteness" in the context of domestic services provided by migrant women, "Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies", vol. 21, issue 3, September 2018, p. 217–231

N. Yeates, Globalizing care economies and migrant workers - Explorations in global care chains, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009