Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Anthropologist Describes Flow of Moldovan Domestics to Turkey

February 18, 2010

The migration of Moldovan women to Turkey has helped the migrants forge new identities as workers, consumers, and mothers, according to Leyla Keough, an anthropologist at Bridgewater State College. At the same time it has caused social tension due to the shifting gender roles back in the Moldovan villages, she said this month in a lecture on “‘Driven Women': Gendered Moral Economies of New Migrations to Turkey.”

Demand for domestic workers in Turkey has increased dramatically as urbanization has soared, bringing more Turkish women into the workforce – while Turkish men have not yet taken up any of the domestic chores traditionally associated with women. 

The Moldovan immigrants earn, on average, US$400-500 a month while some earn as little as US$300. Remittances represent one third of Moldova’s gross domestic product. Such a wage can be more than 10 times what the women would earn back in Moldova. Historically speaking, such jobs were taken by Turkish women who would migrate from local villages to large cities like Istanbul. This wage, however, is no longer sufficient for Turkish villagers, Keough added.   

Interestingly enough, Turkish employers do not invoke money as a reason for choosing Eastern Europe workers rather than Turkish villagers. Moldovan migrants are also seen to embody modernity and the household practices, identity, and lifestyle to which the Turks aspire. They are also considered trustworthy, highly educated, hard working, and honest, said Keough. 

There seems to be a new desire to be protected from the “backward” rural village, said Keough. But this situation has its complexities. 

Migrant work “is fraught with contradictions” and can result in competition between employer and employee, since the Moldovan women are “too similar” and “too civilized.”

So, the narrative is not merely one of supply but also of demand for the symbolic place that the Moldovans hold in the employers’ eyes. This is evident in an article, titled “You Still Don’t Have a Moldovan Maid,” that was published in 2002 in the popular press on the advantages and disadvantages of hiring such domestic labor, said Keough.   

Migrant workers in Turkey are “a great deal economically.” The perception is that they are “cheap and desperate.” They generally work six-month shifts so that either the mother or the father stays with the children back in the village. Though some couples split up, others manage and the women are practicing what has become known as “transnational mothering,” Keough added.

Migrant women are driven, either passively by poverty or actively by ambition. Though the women are migrating primarily to support the family, they are looked upon back in the village as bad mothers, immoral wives, and selfish consumers who have caused local social disorder. They also face poor conditions in Turkey as a result of their status as undocumented migrants. Still, women call for legalizing such work and demand respect, said Keough. 

On the other hand, the women are gaining a sense of worldliness from their travel. They are forging not just new types of economic models but also new kinds of household where the “natural” role of women as caregivers and men as providers is becoming all the more blurred, she said.

Moldovan migration is merely a piece within the larger global migration picture. Migration patterns worldwide are shifting as more people are now migrating from the periphery to the periphery – unlike past migration from the periphery to major cities in Europe, added Keough. 

International organizations in Turkey are exploring only some of these patterns. For example, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) usually focuses on sex trafficking without investigating all the other forms of work, such as domestic work. 

Keough thinks the IOM should have a more comprehensive outlook, placing more emphasis on the common structural underpinnings of migration such as poverty and unemployment, rather than merely condemning such a condition. Recently though, a new discourse is emerging on migration and development and the ways in which some households are thriving as a result. Furthermore, Keough thinks the IOM should enhance its institutional support for migrant women rather than focusing primarily on migrant men.

The talk was part of the Middle East Seminar Series.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Samura Atallah '11