E.g., 07/01/2023
E.g., 07/01/2023
Between Integration and Exclusion: Migrant Women in European Labor Markets

Between Integration and Exclusion: Migrant Women in European Labor Markets

Women who immigrate to Europe in the 21st century come in search of economic opportunity, to join family members, or as asylum seekers and refugees. They arrive through legal channels or can be unauthorized; they migrate voluntarily or can be forced to migrate; and some are victims of human trafficking or other forms of exploitation.

This population is as large as it is diverse. There were 14.9 million female immigrants in the 27 countries of the European Union (EU) in 2009, constituting 47.3 percent of the foreign-born population.

The majority (63.2 percent; or 9.4 million) of female migrants in the European Union are not from Europe themselves, and a large part of these third-country nationals are from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Among immigrants in Europe, most of those who have arrived in the last 20 or so years are economic migrants, having come voluntarily (or in some cases, been trafficked) to enter the labor market. As many as 3.8 to 6 million are thought to be unauthorized immigrants, half of them female, and there are 700,000 female refugees making new livelihoods for themselves and their families throughout Europe.

In contrast to migrant women who entered European countries in previous immigration flows and were able to integrate into the regulated labor market with relative ease, new female migrants face significant challenges to economic and social integration.

These women migrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the expansion of the European Union, and many have encountered closed labor markets with job openings primarily in marginal, irregular sectors of the economy.

The diverse ways in which these women enter their destination countries affects the opportunities they have and, by extension, how they integrate into the labor markets where they live. Although many of the new female migrants are well educated, they find work for the most part in the gendered labor markets of domestic and care work, the services industry, and commercial sex work.

Integration policy remains a national-level responsibility for individual EU countries, but has become increasingly important at the supranational level, where efforts to develop a common approach to immigrant integration are underway. The EU Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has focused some attention on migrant women as an important target group.

In an effort to inform integration policy, the European Union funded the research project Integration of Female Immigrants in Labor Market and Society: Policy Assessment and Policy Recommendations (FeMiPol), which assessed how social and labor market policies — including integration and migration policies — affect new female migrants.

This piece is based on research carried out for this project, and focuses on the characteristics of migrant women, their current activity in labor markets, and the policies that help and hinder their economic integration. This research centered especially on domestic workers, prostitutes, and victims of trafficking — a focus that is also apparent in this article.

Definitions and Methodology

The FeMiPol project focuses on female immigrants' social integration, defined as their access to resources, participation, and belonging. Social and integration policies, as well as an individual's own efforts to become part of a society, affect an immigrant's capacity to cope with problems and barriers, achieve participation and access, and realize belonging.

The present research was carried out in 11 EU countries: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Sweden (old immigration countries in the west and north of Europe), Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Cyprus (new immigration countries in the southern region of Europe), and Poland and Slovenia (new EU Member States and immigration countries in Eastern Europe).

A number of research methods were used for the project:

  • Document analysis for mapping policies and analyzing their objectives. General policies were examined — for example, reintegration for the unemployed, antidiscrimination, regulation of specific labor markets — as well as those that explicitly address migrants and their integration, such as the provision of language and cultural knowledge courses and tests.
  • Data analysis for understanding the contexts of immigration and related policies. Data were obtained on migration flows, employment, sectoral distribution, and unemployment of female migrants. The data were supplemented with estimates of female illegal migration.
  • Expert interviews for gaining insights into the implementation of policies. Three to eight such interviews were conducted in each national case, for a total of 66. Interviewees were policymakers, administrators, and members of law enforcement agencies at national and local levels, as well as staff of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that support female migrants.
  • Focused narrative interviews with social service officers for their experiences interacting with migrant women in eight of the countries examined (26 such interviews in total).
  • Biographical narrative interviews with migrant women who entered the EU countries under consideration in the last 15 years (196 such interviews in total). These were focused especially on the understudied integration processes of domestic and care workers, prostitutes, and victims of trafficking. The sample of those interviewed included naturalized migrant women, legal residents, and the unauthorized.
  • Cross-national analysis of the collected data for insight on social policies, labor-market participation, civic participation, residence rights, and language acquisition.

Integration of Migrant Women in European Labor Markets

Migrant women are less well integrated into the labor market and less economically active than migrant men and native-born women, with female migrants from third countries faring worse than women from other EU countries.


Table 1. Employment and Unemployment Rates in the EU27 by Age and Nationality Group, Third Quarter 2009
  Employment Rates Unemployment Rates
  Age 15-24 Age 25-54 Age 15-24 Age 25-54
Native born 33.7 73.0 19.0 7.5
Migrants from other EU27 countries 40.4 68.4 23.1 10.9
Third-country migrants 25.7 52.8 30.8 16.3
Native born 38.2 85.4 20.6 7.0
Migrants from other EU27 countries 48.5 83.1 20.1 11.2
Third-country migrants 35.8 73.2 31.1 18.3
Source: Eurostat's 2010 Statistics in Focus: Population and Social Conditions 12/2010. Available online.

Migrant women also represent less of the full-time and permanent workforce than both migrant men and native-born women, with third-country women again faring worst of all the various groups in relation to the permanence of work relationships (and not to part-time employment).


Table 2. Percentage of Permanent and Temporary and Full-time and Part-time Workforce in the EU27 by Nationality Group (Ages 15 to 59), 2009
  Permanent Temporary Full-time Part-time
Native born 89.5 10.5 70.5 29.5
Migrants from other EU27 countries 85.2 14.8 61.3 38.7
Third-country migrants 78.8 21.2 61.9 38.1
Native born 91.4 8.6 94.9 5.1
Migrants from other EU27 countries 87.5 12.5 93.6 6.4
Third-country migrants 79.2 20.8 89.0 11.0
Source: Eurostat's (2010) Labor Force Survey. Available online.

Concerning occupational distribution, the research confirmed a high degree of gender and group segregation in EU labor markets. Migrant women were heavily concentrated in “elementary occupations” that include cleaners and domestic workers, as well as in services and sales. The gap between third-country migrant women and native-born women is larger than that between EU-born migrant women and the native-born women. Migrant women — and especially third-country women — are underrepresented in skilled occupations.


Table 3. Occupational Concentration of Women by Nationality Group, 2009
  Native Born EU-born Migrants Third-country Migrants
Elementary occupations 9.6 26.4 38.0
Services and sales workers 19.0 20.6 26.5
Office clerks 16.9 12.4 7.9
Other associate professionals 20.6 13.3 8.3
Legislators, senior officials and managers 6.7 6.9 3.9
Professionals 17.2 13.4 7.5
Source: Eurostat's (2010) Labor Force Survey. Available online.

Of particular note is the finding that migrant women with a high level of educational attainment are more concentrated in low-skill or elementary occupations than are native-born women with a high level of education. Female migrants are thus disproportionately represented in low-pay, low-status jobs, and tend to more often experience the insecurity and instability of short-term and informal employment.

Migrant Domestic and Care Workers

The domestic and care work sector, which employs hundreds of thousands of migrant women throughout Europe, is far from being homogeneous. In fact, domestic and care work varies significantly in terms of work content (cleaning, housekeeping, elderly care, child care), work arrangements (live-in, live-out, single or multiple employers, service agencies, informal, formal), work premises (work at one's own home, at other people's homes and in nursing homes), and underlying legislation (au pair programs, cultural exchanges, or labor legislation).

In any case, domestic work can be merely a stepping stone to entering the country and later shifting to other employment or study, i.e. either a transitional experience (often parallel to other work or training), or a long-term work arrangement.

Migrants' experiences in the domestic and care sector vary depending on all of the above factors, as well as on the country in which they live and work. The research shows, for example, that a high level of dependency on the employer is common in Cyprus, the United Kingdom, and Slovenia where residence and work permits are tied to a specific employer, while such dependency is not as pronounced in Greece.

Migrant domestic and care workers, irrespective of their legal status and work arrangement, are often confronted with violations of rights as workers and human beings. In all of the countries studied, there are cases of nonpayment of overtime and employment, breaches of contract, and a general lack of contracts that would protect workers from wrongful termination. Interviewees also experienced devaluation of their work, humiliation, sexual harassment, downward occupational mobility, and suspicions of thievery.

Interestingly, there seems to be a north-south gap with respect to exposure to disrespect and abuse. Experiences of humiliation were reported less often by interviewees in the French, German, Swedish, and UK samples. Indeed, some of the women in these samples considered their work essential for their employers and regarded their economic activities in the labor market as evidence of self-reliance.

The above factors, together with language and cultural considerations and the inherent hierarchy between employer and migrant worker, limit migrant women's ability to negotiate over their interests and rights. Yet, the narrations show that migrants make concerted efforts to integrate socially and economically, to cope with their difficult work situations, and to achieve the goals set out for their migrations.

Those who can manage it, in terms of geographical vicinity to the country of origin and the strength of border controls, practice circular migration in three-month cycles in order to maintain their own family lives and care responsibilities in home countries.

Many of the migrant domestic workers interviewed also adopt exit strategies from undesirable jobs: changing employers, moving from a live-in to a live-out work arrangement, shifting to other informal sectors of the economy, or becoming self-employed. Some engage in collective action with coethnics or with other migrant women, particularly in religious groups.

On the policy level, welfare, labor market, and immigration policies affect the domestic and care sector, and the convergence of national policies leads to the broadening of the informal market for domestic and care work in European societies.

In northern and western European countries, policies attempt to control and regularize the demand for domestic and care work through incentives for formal employment, but generally have experienced little success. In southern European states, there is more emphasis on setting up quotas for the immigration of domestic workers, without meeting the real labor market needs.

Schemes for temporary immigration into the domestic and care work labor markets have been devised by Cyprus, Germany, and Poland. But this immigration model directly and explicitly opposes integration prospects. Moreover, it is incompatible with the unpredictability of integration processes and the changeability of life plans.

Migrant Women in Commercial Sex Work

In the sample for this FeMiPol research, most migrant women working as prostitutes entered Europe autonomously — either legally on various types of visas or illegally — or relied on a human smuggler or trafficker, while nightclub dancers and strippers entered through short-term entertainment visas and work contracts.

Migrant women enter into commercial sex work in Europe due to a lack of alternative employment, or because they consider it to be a fast-earning, temporary, and transitional economic choice. They may also move into prostitution from other low-paid and undesirable jobs, such as domestic work or agriculture.

In the adult entertainment industry, different work roles can be distinguished: prostitutes, exotic dancers, call or internet girls, performers in the pornographic film industry, and others. Each of these roles is characterized by a particular organizational structure and corresponding working conditions which, in turn, create specific hierarchies according to a variety of criteria. Among these, nationality and residence status seem to be the most significant.

Prostitution is a particularly class-stratified occupation, and is segmented between indoor and street prostitution. Street prostitution is further stratified by race, age, income, and locale. This stratification of prostitution has implications for working conditions, self-esteem, and psychological adjustment.

A significant manifestation of such social stratification within street prostitution in France, for example, is the relegation of recently arrived or unauthorized migrant prostitutes to distant geographic locations. In Poland, local prostitutes are found in indoor establishments while female migrants from elsewhere in Eastern Europe (mainly Russia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria) line the border routes.

In Slovenia, respondents distinguished night club or 'bar prostitution' from prostitution organized in private apartments ('flat prostitution'). Bar prostitution would mainly involve migrant women, while flat prostitution would typically involve local women.

Social integration processes occur in the subcultural context of coethnic sex workers. Other sex workers facilitate the initiation, socialization, and learning process of new migrants either in the country of origin or during migration. Networking and solidarity are often in evidence amongst prostitutes working in brothels, while street prostitutes are more isolated and distrustful of others, especially in countries with restrictive legislation and where they are under risk of prosecution.

Most European countries in this study take a prohibitive attitude towards prostitution, with some exceptions: Germany decriminalized prostitution in 2002, Greece is pursuing a regularization regime, and Sweden criminalizes patrons of sex workers but not the work itself.

Repressive and restrictive policies concerning the entry and residence of foreigners and the criminalization of prostitution contribute to illegalization and, together with limited alternative job opportunities, lead to a drastic deterioration of the conditions under which commercial sex activities are practiced. What's more, the marginalization of migrant women working in difficult, low-paid activities like domestic and care work reduces the appeal of the option of exit for most migrant women in prostitution.

Access to legal status and residency thus represents the first step towards exit and social integration.

Victims of Trafficking

The phenomenon of trafficking emerged in this sample not only in relation to sex work but also to other kinds of employment, such as in restaurants and the food processing industry. Human trafficking can also take the form of enslavement within a country, and does not always necessitate the crossing of borders.

The project findings demonstrate that there are a variety of trajectories among trafficked women, according to their countries of origin and their migratory routes.

The interview data indicate that the women who were trafficked initially chose to emigrate for a variety of reasons, made contact or were contacted by individuals who promised them passage to Europe, and were subsequently coerced into prostitution and exposed to violence and exploitation. There were also cases of migrant women who were enslaved after they had arrived in the country of destination. In all cases, the women lacked regular residence status, access to information, and support, making them dependent on the assistance of others who exploited this dependency

Once the women have managed to escape the influence of their traffickers, the legal context of the receiving country plays an important role for their further life. A residence permit is the main factor giving women a certain sense of security and stability; good social services and trained personnel, shelters, and other supports also play a crucial role in helping the women to overcome the past and get a new start.

The interviewees in most cases were eager to integrate into society and to enter the labor market. Most women were able to recover best while under the protection of a women's shelter or other NGO, especially during the criminal trial procedures against their traffickers. During these times, women were able to take various language and vocational courses.

Having only a limited residence permit, however, trafficking victims are continuously threatened with deportation and are not generally able to integrate to the fullest extent possible.

Current legislation addressing trafficking mainly provides for the criminalization of traffickers, rather than safeguarding and protecting the victims. In most countries, those who are identified as victims are granted a temporary residence permit only for the period for which their presence is required to testify in court against their traffickers.

The Italian approach to the protection of victims appears to be the exception. Here, resident permits may be granted regardless of whether the victims are willing to testify in court. However, the law is not always implemented.

The Role of the Welfare State in Labor Market Integration

The welfare system in Western and Northern Europe has been a major mechanism for the integration of migrants into the labor market and society. However, policies for the unemployed do not create adequate conditions for long-term integration.

Moreover, the downsizing of welfare systems in some countries — including the reduction of benefits and offers of support for qualifying and adapting to labor market demands — has a negative impact on the integration of new female migrants who are most dependent upon assistance.

The imperative for economic efficiency often results in the provision of help for those unemployed who are considered to be confronted with fewer barriers to employment; this tends to disadvantage migrant women. Thus, migrant women with secure legal status become firmly integrated into a system of (decreasing) social benefits, rather than into the labor market.

Less government support for language and vocational instruction is another result of the shrinking welfare state. Except in Sweden, migrant women often do not receive the language instruction they need to find work. In southern European countries and Poland, which do not require new immigrants to learn the local language, there is an even more limited infrastructure for language and training courses.

With less vocational training available and more pressure to find paid work, unemployed migrant women in Western and Northern Europe are often forced to take up work in informal and unregulated sectors and in jobs below their educational and vocational qualifications.

In all countries of the study, migrant women found it difficult to locate official information and advice about vocational and language training, jobs, and social rights. Instead they relied on information circulating within ethnic networks; information that is usually of patchy quality.

The Role of NGOs

Almost all European countries lack substantial integration policy in relation to asylum seekers and victims of trafficking. In addition, official policy ignores unauthorized migrants. As a result, NGOs are largely responsible for protecting these groups.

Beyond combating exclusion, discrimination, and xenophobia, NGOs counsel migrant women with and without legal status. They also may offer female migrants paid or voluntary work as cultural mediators or integration helpers for other migrants. Thus, NGOs contribute to migrant women's upward mobility and integration.

However, NGOs, which depend on money from governments and private foundations, have had to limit their activities in some countries due to tight funding.


While investigating the ways in which new female migrants cope with irregularity, this FeMiPol study was able to detect the paradoxical coexistence of integration, irregularity, and exclusion.

On the one hand, exclusion is witnessed in the lack of legal status, workers' rights, and access to information experienced by female migrants in Europe. On the other hand, integration is taking place via participation in oftentimes unregulated labor markets, informal networks, and ethnic communities. All interviewees indicated their desire and efforts to integrate into the labor market and society, and stressed the variety of obstacles they face.

Undocumented migrant women make efforts to improve their own position through mobility between the informal sectors of the economy: the search for better earnings, better working conditions, and more autonomy. Integration through familiarization with the social context and the development of new notions of belonging also take place among these women. The original intention to shuttle between the country of origin and the country of destination may eventually weaken.

Interviewees employed a range of strategies to access labor markets — frequently through informal work — and to legalize their status, in some cases by marrying an EU citizen or a migrant with residence rights. When they could legalize their status, they searched to find access to formal sectors of the economy. Thus, irregular residence functions as an initial step toward legal residence and social integration.

Legal status and integration appears to be a state achieved by struggling against barriers, utilizing the means on offer, and taking advantage of the positive channels opened up by official policy. However, in some cases in southern European countries, the legal status achieved by some women migrants had been subsequently lost due to administrative burdens or unemployment.

The efforts new female migrants make towards integration are accompanied by a desire for their work to be recognized as valuable and themselves to be seen as equal members of society. Those with legal status are struggling for the recognition of their skills and qualifications. There is rarely a demand for the recognition of cultural difference, but rather a demand for equality irrespective of membership in ethnic and religious groups.

Acquiring legal status is a precondition for improving migrant women's situation in the labor market and, in turn, can enable them to utilize opportunities for training and other support that will lead to them entering a field of work on the basis of their own qualifications.

In sum, this analysis highlighted the main elements of the integration dilemma in European societies: the demand for migrant women's labor, the policies of controlling migration without impacting integration, and the high integration potential of migrant women.

Going forward, these considerations may be reconciled by the formation of integration-friendly legislation, the provision of infrastructures for information and counseling services, the regularization of domestic and care work, and perhaps the decriminalization of prostitution.

This article is based on the report "Integration of Female Immigrants in Labour Market and Society," edited by Maria Kontos, and the research carried out for the FeMiPol project. The full text of the report, as well as other working papers and supporting documents, can be found here.