14 жовтня 2011

Ukrainian domestic workers in Poland

Ukrainians are currently the largest migrant group in Poland. Ukrainian women working as domestic workers abroad circulate on a regular basis between their country of origin and the host country, entering the latter legally, but in general engaging in unregistered employment. The aim of this chapter is to present an overview of the risks taken by Ukrainian domestic workers in Poland – and their responses to those risks – since the introduction of a visa requirement for Ukrainian citizens in October 2003. This chapter addresses not only the economic risks of migration, such as possible financial gain or loss, but also socio-cultural risk factors.

Risk and Risk Strategies in Migration: Ukrainian Domestic Workers in Poland

Marta Kindler

The 1990s saw the increasing presence of Ukrainian migrants in Europe (Chaloff 2003; Kępińska 2004; Malheiros 2001; Okolski 1997; Wallace et al. 1997; Wallace and Stola 2001). Between 1994 and 2001, one in 10 Ukrainian families experienced the temporary labour migration of one of its members (Prybytkowa 2004). The feminization of this migrant population occurred, with domestic work being an important migrant employment niche for women. Ukrainian women compete with other migrants for domestic work in countries such as Austria or Italy (see Haidinger in this book).

Ukrainians are currently the largest migrant group in Poland (Kępińska 2004). Ukrainian women follow a pattern similar to Polish women working as domestic workers abroad, circulating on a regular basis between their country of origin and the host country, entering the latter legally, but in general engaging in unregistered employment (Morokvasic and Tinguy 1993; Cyrus 2003; see also Lutz in this book).

The aim of this chapter is to present an overview of the risks taken by Ukrainian domestic workers in Poland – and their responses to those risks – since the introduction of a visa requirement for Ukrainian citizens in October 2003. This chapter addresses not only the economic risks of migration, such as possible financial gain or loss, but also socio-cultural risk factors [1].

1. Risk and Ukrainian Domestic Workers – A Missing Perspective?

Risk can be understood as a situation in which something of human value has been put at stake and the outcome is uncertain (Jaeger 2001:17). The perception of and the responses to risks are crucial in shaping the migration process. The risk perspective underlines the role of migration as a household strategy to cope with the highly unstable position of workers, especially female workers, in the labour market in the Ukraine. In the 1990s, economic reforms failed in the
Ukraine. Hidden unemployment was rising and women were the first to lose their jobs, making up 80 per cent of those made redundant (Pavlychko 1997; Human Rights Watch Report 2003). Living standards of Ukrainian households deteriorated sharply. Unable to pay for housing, electricity and gas, Ukrainians also could not satisfy their basic needs, such as access to adequate social services and schooling of children. Social and economic insecurities became an everyday experience for Ukrainian families and individuals (Standing and Zsoldos 2001).

Many turned to ‘self-help’ measures, such as irregular economic activities relying on barter, petty trade and private subsidiary agriculture, as well as other trusted informal practices well known from the communist system (Bridger 1987; Raiser 1997; Adler-Lomnitz 2002). With the lifting of border restrictions at the end of the 1980s the possibility of temporary economic migration provided Ukrainian households with a new space in which to diversify the risks present at home. A household could engage in a strategy of diversifying the sources of income by sending one or more members abroad to work and thereby diversify the risks to income (Katz and Stark 1986). However, this new space of opportunity – economic migration, is not devoid of risks.

The use of risk when looking at women who migrate to work as cleaners and carers is in my opinion particularly appropriate. This type of migration is an inherently risky proposition since it constitutes a gamble on a whole range of unknowns, including not only the employment opportunities and employment conditions in the destination country, but also the migrant’s ability to cope with a prolonged absence from home.

The risk perspective is also relevant when considering the specific risks inherent in the character of migrant domestic work. Domestic work is a remunerated informal activity which is performed individually, limiting the possibility to develop and use migrant networks which act as ‘uncertainty reducers’ (Massey et al. 1993). It is also an activity performed in the private sphere where the informal employer can become a source of risk and/or be a useful resource to balance the risks related to migration. One can assume that migrant domestic work involves putting at stake various values and the outcome is uncertain. Migrant domestic work is a form of risk taking.

This chapter focuses on two main risk factors for Ukrainian domestic workers. The first concerns the everyday consequences of the visa regime and responses to the related risks of migrants when entering the country and gaining permission to stay and work. The second concerns the specific types of risk created by the domestic labour niche in Poland. Here the responses to risks concern access to work and work conditions. According to the socio-cultural approach to risk, responding to risk requires reflexivity from an individual (Giddens 1995). A person as a member of a group constructs his/her risk understanding on the basis of a common knowledge, which was developed in specific political, economic and social circumstances (Douglas 1992). A migrant gathers ‘risk knowledge’ through everyday practices and through exchanging information, including rumours. Risk response is also influenced by access to – and ability to mobilise – resources, and the resulting power relations, as well as by the migrant’s location within her/his life cycle (age, work-experience, having a household). Also gender influences culturally defined responses to risk by men and women [2].

2. Ukrainian Migrants in Poland – An Overview

Poland, traditionally a country of emigration, also became a destination for migrants in the 1990s. There are two turning points influencing migration to Poland. The first is the opening of borders in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 [3]. Citizens of countries such as the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were able to travel freely to Central Europe. They were allowed to remain in Poland legally as tourists for 90 days. Migrating to Poland at that point meant an easy entrance, a short trip, a culturally similar environment and wages two to four times higher than at home.

No wonder that Poland became an important destination for its Eastern neighbours. From 1988 to 1991 the number of arrivals from the Soviet Union to Poland increased by 5.8 million (to reach 7.5 million) (Okόlski 1997). Quickly it became clear that Ukrainians predominated among the new arrivals. According to the 2002 Population Census, Ukrainians were the most numerous registered foreign residents in Poland [4]. In addition, in contrast to migrants from other countries of origin, women dominated the stock of Ukrainian migrants (Kępińska 2004) [5].

The second turning point began with Poland’s EU accession process and the adoption of Schengen regulations [6]. The focus was on strengthening the external border of the EU, with funding given for the improvement of the Polish Border Guards equipment [7]. This process culminated in October 2003 with the introduction of a visa requirement for citizens of the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus [8]. Ukrainians are officially exempted from paying for a visa. Currently, a migrant can obtain two short-term visas per year. Between October 2003 and September 2004 more than 600,000 visas were issued to citizens of the Ukraine, with a large share of visas being issued in the Ukrainian Western borderlands (approx. 210,000) (Kępińska 2004).

Ukrainians also constitute an important flow of migrants not present in official statistics. By entering Poland as tourists and working without proper documents they escape official data. In the late 1980s Ukrainians started to come to Poland to trade, and work in agriculture and small businesses. With the introduction of the visa requirement Ukrainian migrants now usually enter on a short-term visa, which allows them to remain in Poland for up to 90 days in a period of six months. They rarely enter with a long-term visa (up to one year in a period lasting a maximum of five years). During their stay they develop their social networks and migrant infrastructure [9]. Due to the presence of Ukrainians in Poland, temporary labour migration has become an issue of growing importance. Women also seem to dominate the informal flow of migrants. The majority of migrants are concentrated in the Mazowiecki Voivodship (mainly in Warsaw and its suburbs). According to the Ukrainian embassy’s report from 2001 there were approximately 300,000 temporary labour migrants in Poland (Malynovska 2004). Meanwhile, the Polish state is not making any legislative changes to facilitate the process of legalization of the informal work of temporary labour migrants from the Ukraine, among them domestic workers [10].

3. Ukrainian Domestic Workers in Poland: Risks and Risk Strategies

In the 1990s, an important labour niche opened in Poland for migrant women. The reduction of welfare state provisions, such as the closing down of kindergartens, combined with shorter maternity leave, increased working hours, and the growing income of certain sectors of society, caused an increase in demand for domestic workers (Eisenstein 1993; Ingham and Ingham 2001; Balcerzak-Paradowska 2004; Golinowska 2004; Zielińska 2005). By domestic work I mean remunerated general household maintenance, cleaning, cooking and care for the elderly, children and persons with disabilities. Although discredited during communism as the epitome of the ‘bourgeois family’, domestic workers were already present in more affluent Polish households.

These were usually internal migrants moving from rural to urban areas in search of employment, as well as war widows needing a source of subsistence. Although there is a rising awareness of discrimination against women in the labour market and a growing acceptance of a family model where both spouses share housework and childcare, women continue to fulfil domestic and care duties in Polish households (Marody and Giza-Poleszczuk 2000). Currently these duties are also being undertaken by Ukrainian women, as not every Polish household has family support networks to draw on, such as grandmothers and aunts. In addition, for relatively affluent households in large urban centres, employing a domestic worker is a sign of social status [11].

This chapter is based on research material collected for my doctoral thesis entitled ‘Risk and Risk Responses During Irregular Labour Migration: The case of Ukrainian Domestic Workers’, due for completion in June 2007.12 Drawing on material from 14 interviews, I will focus on two narratives: that of Swetlana, who is working as a cleaner, and Ludmila, who is working as a care worker in Poland [13]. I decided to use these two cases because they are representative of the whole sample in terms of education (secondary level) and place of origin (town/village). The two women are both single heads of their households and the only providers of earnings for the family. This is characteristic of a number of my interviewees and is a factor which increases their ‘risk position’, in contrast to those who share the income risks with their spouses. Although the women are of a similar age, they are engaged in different types of domestic work – cleaning and care work. They also represent two different migration scenarios: one has experienced various types of migrant work, before engaging in domestic work; for the other, the domestic work niche is her only migration activity. In addition, the two women illustrate important common and more unusual aspects of the experiences of the interviewed domestic workers.

Ludmila is a 39-year-old woman from a town near the Polish-Ukrainian border. She has secondary education and is a qualified cook. Ludmila is separated from her husband (who is currently in the United States) and has three children from the ages of 15 to 22 in the Ukraine, who are taken care of by her mother-in-law. She began to work in Poland in cross-border trade in 1993, later on she worked in agriculture and moved to work in a textile factory. At the time of the interview, she had worked for two years as a care giver. Her duties were to care for three children and a dog, as well as being responsible for cleaning a three storey house. She lived in the house where she worked. Ludmila supports her children and her mother-in-law through
her earnings.

Swetlana is a 40-year-old woman from a town in Western Ukraine. She finished technical school and worked as a director in a ‘house of culture’ where she was not paid for several months.14 Before migrating to Poland, she also traded at the local bazaar. Swetlana is divorced and has a teenage daughter in the Ukraine, who stays with her grandmother. Swetlana financially supports her daughter, grandmother, unemployed brother and from time to time her parents. Swetlana rents a bed in a garage in a Warsaw district together with four other women. She has worked in Poland as a cleaner for five years.

4. Risk and Being ‘Outside the System’: Irregularities of Entrance and Residence

Ludmila, like the majority of the Ukrainian domestic workers interviewed, did not perceive migration to Poland as a high risk activity. Geographic proximity guarantees that only minimal financial investment is needed for entry to and an easy exit from the country. As Ludmila mentioned, when a person cannot cope with the migrant reality, she can just take her torby w ruki [bags in hands] and leave. However, the introduction of visa regulations has shaken the already established ‘routine’ of circulating between the Ukraine and Poland. The uncertain prospect of receiving a visa has become one of the main risks for Ukrainian migrants.

For Ukrainian domestic workers, as for other Ukrainian migrants, the introduction of visas meant an increasing input of resources into an activity, for which the outcome is more and more uncertain. Apart from financial contributions (such as bribes to guarantee receiving a three month visa), these preparations involve trips to consulates, waiting in long queues to submit an application and waiting for the visa. Swetlana received all of her visas through bribes and connections: the first one through an intermediary for $70 and the second through a bribe given in the queue at the consulate. But when applying for her third visa, her connections failed her and she was given a stamp in her passport forbidding her to enter Poland for a year. Swetlana had to get her passport ‘stolen’, pay for a new one and find new connections that would guarantee her a visa [15].

Access to high quality information is a basic condition for engaging in tactics for balancing the risks of migration, among them risks related to entering and staying in Poland. Information spreads mainly via ties to distant acquaintances, migrants met in public spaces, at the bus-stop, bazaar, in a shopping-mall or while commuting between Poland and the Ukraine. Apart from hearing the familiar language there are non-verbal signs, bodily reference schemes, which allow Ukrainian migrants to recognise each other. As Swetlana pointed out: gold teeth, certain types of clothes and ‘reddish’ gold earrings. With multiple ties to Ukrainian acquaintances, migrants are well equipped to balance the risks of irregular migration. Migrants can find out through such networks about useful tactics, which allow them to prolong their stay in Poland. Swetlana, for example, enrolled on a language course in Poland as a result of such information. This guaranteed her a three month visa. Other migrants became volunteers in non-governmental organisations, which entitled them to a year long visa [16].

Ludmila received a visa for a year thanks to the personal connections of her employer. With growing migration experience the migrant can balance the migration risk via their ties to employers. The employer also plays an important role in legalizing the migrant’s stay through so-called ‘falsely declared’ employment. It is ‘falsely declared’ because the migrant does not work only for the particular employer who has applied for her work permit and does not receive the officially declared salary. This employment functions as a ‘facade’ allowing a migrant domestic worker to receive a one year visa [17]. Gaining an invitation from an employer is also an important strategy facilitating entry into the country. The person issuing the invitation officially takes financial and legal responsibility for the invited person. In reality, this acts as a way to ensure the receipt of a visa and to avoid being refused entrance at the border. The migrant changes the actual meaning (in contrast to the legal meaning) of an invitation. This ‘facade’ again requires trust between the migrant and the person (usually the employer) sending the invitation.

A well-established network of employers allows the migrant to have housing registration, which is checked at the border upon exit. Ensuring registered stay is, however, less of risk than overstaying the allowed period. At the time of our interview Swetlana’s permitted stay was due to expire in two weeks and she was seriously considering overstaying. She was afraid that she would not receive another visa and in the meantime would ‘lose’ her employers. Overstaying can result in deportation, which in the case of Ukrainians does not usually mean being caught within Poland and deported, but receiving a stamp in one’s passport upon exit, disallowing entrance
to Poland for at least one year. Here again one of the tactics is to get one’s passport ‘stolen’, receive a new, ‘clean’ document for approximately $150 and re-enter the visa application process.

5. Risk and the Organization of Work

According to the women interviewed, not having a job on arrival is a serious risk. Lack of work means not only being unable to send remittances home, but also not being able to cover basic living expenses in Poland. The women try to balance this risk in various ways. One of the basic tactics is to arrange employment while still in the Ukraine through other migrants. This occurs often via the so-called self-organized rotation system. The self-organized rotation system, which consists of replacing a migrant domestic worker at her job while she is in the Ukraine, is a stable form of employment for many migrants, but can also become a means to develop ties to find new work and accommodation. Conflicts appear around the self-organized rotation system when an employer is more satisfied with the replacement worker than with their usual employee. Ludmila accessed the domestic work niche through the selforganized rotation system. She later used this system with her sister, to ensure that her job would not be ‘stolen’ from her.

The self-organized rotation system is not only a method to search for employment by migrants, but it also allows the migrant to balance the risk of overstaying with the risk of losing one’s job. Domestic workers, who clean every day of the week for a different employer or who take care of someone’s child or parent every day, cannot be absent from Poland for too long. When not participating in the self-organized rotation system, the domestic workers try to receive a year long visa, or they attempt to enter Poland without proper documents so as not to lose their employment. All of these options require specific access to resources.

Recommendations and trust between the potential employer, the migrant and the intermediary arranging the employment are needed when work is arranged from the Ukraine, but also when searching for a job after arrival to Poland. Recommendations balance the risks for the migrant employee and the informal employer. Of course the risks of the migrant and the employer differ substantially – the employer being in their own country, with a financial, social and legal status very different from that of the migrant. A strong tie to Polish employers gives the migrant access to the employer’s friends and family – potential employers in return are able to secure a tried and tested standard of employment [18]. The employers are in general private individuals. Only sporadically are migrants employed through professional cleaning or care agencies in Poland. The agencies are in general not willing to be intermediaries for undocumented employment, while the migrants are often not able to pay for the services of the agency.

Clearly, arranging work before leaving for Poland is not always possible, because not every potential migrant has access to proper ties and information. Meanwhile, having to remain at home can be a higher risk than migrating without a promised job. Swetlana’s situation illustrates this well: her friend, who had been working already in Poland found her accommodation, but no work. Due to Swetlana’s financial situation this was enough of an incentive for her to risk migration. Swetlana’s arrival in Poland is a story of a lack of economic capital (she had to borrow money for the trip), limited cultural capital (not knowing the language) and social capital in the form of a friend from the Ukraine, who provided her with accommodation, but who
had no access to the domestic labour niche.

Inexperienced migrants try to access the domestic labour niche via the help of other Ukrainians, either already known from home or met in Poland, or through Poles. Swetlana for example, tried to find employment at the restaurant where her Ukrainian friend worked as a waitress, but without success, because she had not yet learned Polish. Later her Polish landlord became her ‘gate opener’ to the domestic labour niche – her friend employed Swetlana as a cleaner and found her another two cleaning jobs in private households. Migrants also try to access the domestic labour niche by advertising their services in newspapers. In the advertisements it is explicitly stated, sometimes in capital letters, that it is a Ukrainian who is offering her cleaning or care services. However, this form of searching for a job is less efficient than using personal ties, because of the general necessity of recommendations in accessing the domestic labour niche.

6. Risk and Living Conditions

Living conditions structure the migrant’s exposure to risk and ability to balance risk. Living in, that is living with the employer or cared for person, is characterised by having work and housing secured. It can be understood as a ‘low-risk’ access to migration opportunities. In general those living in are care workers. Their earnings are lower (on average $300 per month) than those of migrants working in cleaning, who have many employers, live-out and earn on average $400 per month. However, they do not have to bear the costs of renting a room or apartment or paying for their food. Only a few cleaners live in, renting rooms in exchange for cleaning the apartment once a week.

However, living in has many drawbacks. Living in, in combination with the nature of care work, means spending most of the time inside the home. This does not give the migrant a chance to meet other migrants, exchange information or create her own network. Among my interviewees, those who took care of elderly people were only able to gather news during their occasional shopping excursions and by meeting migrants who lived in their proximity. Ludmila, who took care of children sporadically managed to meet other nannies during walks with children. A care worker may gain access to employment information by becoming an intermediary between potential employers – friends or acquaintances of the migrant’s employer – and Ukrainians searching for work from home. With time the migrant living in is exposed to higher risks than at the beginning of the migration process, being dependent upon the employer for employment and for accommodation and lacking access to information about other work and living possibilities.

Those living out have to respond initially to higher risks during migration – they have to find out about housing and employment possibilities. Upon arrival migrant women often have temporary accommodation and/or employment arranged, for example by replacing another migrant at her work. However, finding accommodation, which has low rent and is available to Ukrainians, is a difficult and time-consuming task. Warsaw’s rents are the highest in Poland. This forces migrant domestic workers to search for housing on the outskirts of the capital, in areas such as Piaseczno, Zielonka and Lomianki, meaning additional expenditure on commuting and encounters with ticket controllers, who may use extortion against Ukrainians.

It also means cutting expenses by accepting poor living conditions, such as sharing a room with several other people, living without heating or running water, having no bathroom, or living in someone’s basement. Swetlana pays for a bed in a garage, in which three, sometimes four, other women live. The garage is not well heated, which forces her not to accept any work she is offered and to remain at work for longer hours in the winter. Minimised expenses in Poland are often accompanied by rising living standards in the Ukraine. My interviewees found their accommodation in general through ties to acquaintances and through employers, such as renting an apartment only for a small sum, changing places of accommodation throughout the week or even being able to live in the employer’s office.

7. Risk and Invisible Domestic Work

Migrant domestic work has various risk layers. The seemingly most obvious aspect which puts the migrant at risk, is the fact that domestic work in Poland is carried out in general without proper documents. Undocumented employment is the most common way for Ukrainian migrants to transgress Polish regulations. However, my interviewees often did not even reflect upon the undocumented character of their job and the related risks [19]. Domestic work taking place in the private sphere of the home is the least exposed to police intervention among the migrant occupational niches. It is in that sense ‘invisible’ to the authorities. There is little probability of being apprehended and the fact that a migrant domestic worker can advertise her services in a newspaper proves that there is little fear of persecution. Also little negative value judgement is attached to surpassing the law in that area. Most interviewees perceived as a ‘trap’ the shift in meaning of a familiar practice – domestic work. Ukrainian women know the rules that shape domestic work, that is they know how to behave in this specific context, however, these rules are applied to a new space and are transformed through mobility abroad, payment and work conditions.

Remuneration for domestic work is new for women. The reliance on informal norms of payment for domestic work and on the power relations between the Ukrainian migrant and the Polish employer, with the latter having the decisive power over how much to pay and when to dismiss workers, were accepted as ‘normal’ risks related to work in general. This may be due to the informal nature of work relations in the Ukraine. However, many of the interviewed migrant women refused to depict this work solely as a ‘financial contract.’ By refusing to speak about their work in purely financial terms the migrants put themselves into a morally superior position to the employer and this way balanced the risk of not being paid by the employer or not being paid adequately. Employers who paid the exact sum owed to the migrant domestic worker, who did not pay for additional hours of work, or who excused themselves for not having change and paid less than the amount owed, were ridiculed in Swetlana’s stories. At the same time, the interviewed migrants saw the fact of being employed in a foreign country, as a sign of ‘knowing how to go on’, knowing how to cope, not being passive, of being responsible for one’s family.
Remunerated domestic work also signifies a different workload. As Swetlana, who works as a cleaner, stated:
Once I didn’t understand this, you see? I didn’t understand this work, I didn’t understand how it is done abroad. I didn’t understand how this is, you know. I would even say, now when I go back to Ukraine, they all think that they give money for nothing abroad, and they don’t understand this work. When I say that I work in someone’s home, no one can imagine what work it is at home, how heavy it is. They all imagine that at home, well, here you dust a bit and clean a shelf, and they think it’s nothing. But no one knows what this work really looks like.

Cleaners and care workers work in the employer’s private sphere. Someone’s household is a specific locale, i.e. a setting for interaction that has a normative base – there are rules of what to do and what not to do, based on social conventions (Giddens 1995). The domestic worker changes the meaning of the household – the private space becomes her workplace. The employers often do not want to acknowledge this fact, attempting to make the migrant domestic worker ‘invisible’ by partly integrating her into their families.

Many of the care workers interviewed who live in, among them Ludmila, reported being treated ‘like a family member’. However, a migrant can turn out to have all the duties and very few of the rights of a family member. Live-in care workers usually lack control over their work. The employer or cared for person may use emotional coercion to push the migrant to do additional work –‘How can you not do this for me?’, or to be available even when it is the migrant’s ‘free’ time – ‘It is as if you were leaving your own mother!’.

Employers also manage to make cleaners ‘invisible’. Swetlana got several house keys from her employers to clean while they were at work. This is a matter of trust, but also a way of making the migrant do the work while the employer cannot see her. This may be due to practical or cultural reasons, especially in the case of the woman employer feeling that someone is taking over her sphere of influence, or due to feeling uncomfortable having a ‘stranger’ within their intimate space.

Ukrainian migrants try to ‘accommodate’ their employers with their looks, wearing less make-up or ‘neutral’ clothes. Swetlana admitted that she worked for a whole year in Poland to change her gold teeth for a new set of white teeth. According to her this made her appearance less visible in public spaces and more acceptable for employers. The migrant is not only made ‘invisible’ by the employer, but also tries to ‘disappear’ in the public space due to her irregular status (Romaniszyn 2004). In their stories the migrant women also tried to make the employer ‘invisible’ to some extent, presenting them as friends who think it is more important to ‘have tea and talk’ than do the cleaning.

This misunderstanding of domestic work puts increasing pressure on the migrant to perform well and the migrant risks exclusion when failing to reach the expectations of their households in the Ukraine. Migrants contribute partly to the creation of this ‘migration myth.’ They want to be seen as successful migrants, and do not want to worry their families about their work conditions, sharing only their good experiences of migration.

7. Conclusion

The Ukrainian women’s response to risks at home through migration to domestic work as part of a household strategy conforms to group norms and expectations in relation to risk. In that sense it is similar to the migration of other Ukrainians. However, when already involved in domestic work these migrants fall into more individualistic patterns of behaviour, relying on the self-regulation of risk. They are relatively free from the control of other group members and place their trust in individuals. Certain aspects of migrant domestic work are perceived by them as risk taking, but are seen not only as a dangerous activity, but also as beneficial.

Risks are not identified by migrant workers in the abstract sphere of legality, that is risks related to being ‘illegal’ in regard to entry, residence and work, but in the form of real ‘barriers’ in the form of a visa requirement or restrictive controls at the border and the shrinking space for informal negotiations. The latter is in my opinion characteristic of most irregular labour migrants from the Ukraine. However, Ukrainian domestic workers have access to resources, such as close ties to Polish employers, which other migrants do not have. The risks related to the undocumented character of work are largely ignored, while the actual risk is identified in the changed meaning of domestic work – it is a paid job and the requirements of the employer are high. However, because work is carried out in the private sphere, the employer fails to recognise this as an employment relationship, attempting to change the migrant into an ‘invisible’ helper. This again is a specific risk related to cleaning and care giving as a work niche.

Migrant domestic workers have their own ‘risk portfolio’ (Douglas 1992). They have to respond to risks specific to their work niche and have access to particular types of resources, unique for their group.


[1] In migration theory, risk is primarily understood in economic terms, as risk to income
(Katz and Stark 1986).
[2] Stereotypically women are socialised to avoid risk-taking, while men, especially young
men, can be encouraged to take risks to prove their courage.
[3] Between 1989 and 1997 there were no legal regulations restricting immigration apart from the ratification of international agreements and the outdated Aliens Act from 1963, which was liberally interpreted.

[4] They constitute 20 per cent of the total of 49,221. The population of foreign residents includes foreigners living on a permanent basis in Poland, the de facto resident population and usual residents (including those staying temporarily for at least 12 months).

[5] Only women from other former-Soviet Union countries, such as Russia and Belarus dominate among foreign residents.

[6] In 1997 the new Aliens Act was adopted. Some restrictions of entry to Poland for Ukrainian citizens had already been introduced by 1998. One of these was a requirement to have sufficient financial resources for the duration of one’s stay which, when not fulfilled, could lead to being turned away from the border. Similarly, a person who was suspected of entering Poland with a different purpose than that declared was not allowed entry. Ukrainians also had to have proof of housing registration in Poland when leaving the country.

[7] Since 2000, Poland has continued to receive funds from the PHARE program for the improvement of border control and received support from the German Bundesgrentzschutz to supervise the Eastern ‘green border’.

[8] The Aliens Act of 13 June 2003 with amendments (Official Journal of Laws, No. 128, item 1175 of 2003).

[9] For more general information about labour migration from the Ukraine to Poland see Okόlski (1997) and Bieniecki et al. (2005).

[10] For example in Italy migrant domestic work is legalized through regularization programmes (see Scrinzi in this book). Although Poland signed a bilateral agreement on seasonal workers with the Ukraine in 1994, this agreement has not been implemented. At the beginning of 2006, information appeared about the possibility of a new bilateral agreement being signed with the Ukraine concerning temporary workers in agriculture, construction and care for the elderly (‘Rząd chce otworzyć granice. Polska zaprasza do pracy sąsiadόw ze Wschodu’ [The government wants to open the borders. Poland invites its neighbours from the East to work], Gazeta Wyborcza, 1 February 2006).

[11] Polish women rarely compete with Ukrainian migrants for access to domestic work in private households within Poland. However, Polish women and men do work for cleaning agencies, to which the migrants have little access. Polish students can be a minor source of competition for migrant domestic workers in regard to childcare.

[12] My research uses qualitative methods and extensive field research. I conducted indepth interviews between January and March 2005 among Ukrainian care workers and cleaners employed in undocumented work in Warsaw and its suburbs. The interview consisted of open-ended questions on everyday practices of migrants, on their fears and hopes concerning migration to Poland, as well as tactics for balancing the possible risks of migration. The age of my interviewees ranged from 18 to 56, however the majority was between 40 and
50 years old. Seven of the women were divorced or separated from their husbands. Six of my interviewees were married, four of the husbands were also migrants. One migrant had a Polish husband. One of the interviewees was single. Twelve of the interviewees had children, of which only one had her child in Poland. Most had secondary level education, two women had primary education and one was a university graduate. Their migration experiences ranged from several months to 10 years. For 12 out of the 14 interviewees, migration to Poland was their first trip abroad. I also conducted a participant observation study in January 2005 in a Ukrainian village near Lviv, where one of the migrant domestic workers working in Warsaw lived. This involved getting to know the people migrating from this village, attending meetings of friends of the migrant, exchange of information on the street on the possibilities of employment in Warsaw, being able to judge the overall material situation of the households and further needs that would stimulate migration. I followed this with participant observation in Warsaw, becoming a member of an association that legalised the residence and work of migrants, mainly from the
Ukraine and mainly domestic workers, by making them volunteers and using the Polish Act on volunteering and non-profit organisations.

[13] The names of my respondents have been changed.

[14] A house of culture is in general the largest public body within a district/ town/ village responsible for the organisation of leisure time through such activities as painting, dancing or singing courses, theatre and excursions.

[15] The passport system has only recently been computerised, which meant that previously it was open to manipulation.

[16] A foreigner can become a volunteer under the Polish Act on Non-profit Organisations and Volunteering. A volunteer has the right to be reimbursed any expenses that he/she incurred due to volunteering. This bypasses the necessity of formal employment for the migrant to legally work. A volunteer signs a contract with the person to whom she is providing the services and has to pay health insurance. Being a volunteer not only guarantees a three month visa, but also provides the possibility of applying for a one year visa as well as a temporary residence permit. In one non-governmental organisation, I found that out of 101 volunteers 94 were from the Ukraine. There were twice as many women as men and over 50 per cent of the volunteer services provided were in social care.

[17] The potential employer has to submit an application to the Voivodship’s Labour Office, together with a document from the local labour office stating that there is no other person available for the job, proof of ownership of an apartment or house, an official statement from the criminal register proving that the potential employee is not an offender, proof of registration for the foreigner and a payment of 849 PLN (approximately $300) for offering employment to a foreigner. The conditions of work are described as very ‘unattractive’ on purpose, making it impossible for the employment office to find a possible Polish candidate in their database.
(The potential employer also has to place an advertisement in a newspaper. Those answering the job advertisement will be informed that the job has already been taken.)

[18] Employers’ contacts are in many ways better than relying on connections to other migrants, because a migrant will share the ‘leftovers’ – information or contacts that are of poorer quality (less well-paid, temporary or ad hoc jobs). Using the employers’ network guarantees a certain routine and stability of employment, which in a climate of insecure, informal work is essential for the migrant domestic worker’s sense of security. In addition, the employer can provide the migrant with a form of informal insurance, a ‘security net’, in case of health, financial or even legal problems.

[19] Only respondents under 35 years old saw their work in Poland as representing not only quick financial gain, but also possible losses due to the job’s undocumented character, not being insured, not having a pension and most of all being unable to find different types of work.


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This text was published in: Migration and domestic work : a European perspective on a global theme / [edited] by Helma Lutz. – Aldershot: Ashgate. – 2008. – p.145-160.
Photograph was taken by Patricia Bobillo Rodriguez.

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