Written by Maren Wilmes, edited by Kim Giang Do


This paper argues that work in the EU is still shaped by previous capitalist dynamics along gender lines and that care work has a special role in this as it is attributed to the female sphere and thus to the more non-monetary, reproductive sphere of work that is taken for granted and largely performed by women and/or migrants. However, while care work is necessary for the functioning of our society, funding and policies within the EU should be reformed to upgrade the sphere monetarily and within the social hierarchy to finally contribute to more equality. Overall, the article is divided into six parts: a brief introduction; the reproduction of inequalities in the labour market: the division of skilled and unskilled workers from a gender perspective; the role of care work in the context of the (un)skilled labour divide; the intersection of care, migration, and gender; the role of care work in the EU in the context of the (un)skilled labour divide and finally a summary including policy recommendations.


Nowadays, more people are moving and migrating to and within the EU. One of the main reasons for migration is work and the associated search for new opportunities and a better life. In this context, the care sector has a crucial role in addressing the growing need for caregivers in several European countries. This increase is primarily due to demographic ageing and the decline of family models where a single person could take care of elderly or sick individuals. In this context, gender is critical because an increased number of women are migrating and because women continue to do most of the care work. While gender-specific data are available in this supposedly female-dominated field, professions such as technical or managerial occupations tend to be gender-neutral, which conflicts not only with the increasing labour migration of skilled women but also with the deskilling of well-educated female migrants in the care sector. In this context, the article discusses the challenges faced by (un)skilled migrant women in the EU labour market and questions the continued reproduction of gender inequalities in the current world of work: What role does the historical gap between unskilled and skilled workers play? How does this relate to the care sector? What role does migration play in this area and why should the EU use migration policy to address social and economic changes to ultimately achieve more gender equality? 

The reproduction of inequalities in the labour market: The division of skilled and unskilled workers from a gender perspective 

As part of globalisation, people increasingly move across borders, for example, to work. The processes involved are very complex and include relationships between different dimensions such as gender, race, class, and ethnicity. However, the dominant discourse on globalisation and economic dependencies does not encompass all these dimensions, with gender often remaining invisible (Acker, 2004). Amongst others, a large part of informal economic activity, such as care work, which is mostly done by women, is not being questioned further, but assumed that this type of work exists as a matter of course. At the same time, existing studies on migration and gender treat women largely as dependent or unskilled workers, although many skilled women migrate, outnumbering the number of skilled men (Dumont et al., 2007). Especially considering current societal changes, this is no longer appropriate, as skilled female migration is becoming more important and households are more and more dependent on two incomes, leading to women increasingly entering the labour market and attaining higher levels of education (Kofman, 2000). Against this background, it is therefore important to think of gender as an analytical category in the field of work and migration, as well as question socially accepted distinctions between men and women to reduce persisting inequalities (Acker, 2004). In the context of today’s global economic dynamics, a gendering of these processes can therefore help to uncover differences between women and men and provide new insights into challenges related to migration and employment opportunities. In the following, it will first be discussed how the development of Euro-American capitalism has contributed to the gendered organisation of skilled and unskilled labour, to then show how this distinction is still reproduced today, using the current example of the Covid pandemic and the example of skilled women. 

Throughout history, a division between skilled and unskilled labour has been present, typically based on gender, with production and reproduction being the main contributors to this gap. This structural division was shaped by the development of Euro-American capitalism, which contributed to male dominance and was exported with Western colonialism in the early stages of globalisation. At that time, institutions, bureaucracies, companies, capital and labour markets were dominated by male actors and thus formed gendered institutions in which the male perspective asserted itself as the dominant social norm. This gender segregation of public life in the Western world was largely transferred to other countries and regions of the world during colonialism, whereby institutions still reproduce masculinity in their functioning across the world (Acker, 2004). As European capital grew in importance through colonisation and eventually achieved its current dominance, the identification of production and the money economy with the male sphere and the identification of reproduction and the domestic with femininity developed simultaneously. This gendered division between production and reproduction is most evident in the separation of unpaid domestic work and paid work, whereby in the Euro-American gender order, men earned the family income while women were unpaid and naturally responsible for the upkeep of the household. In this context, non-monetary work associated with social relations has been considered subordinate to paid work, even though it is necessary for its functioning:  “The ability of money to mobilize labour power for ‘productive work’ depends on the operation of some non-monetary set of social relations to mobilize labour power for ‘reproductive work'” (ibid.: 25). While reproductive labour cannot function and sustain itself without the use of money, these types of labour make the money economy possible in the first place. Relating this back to the historically developed gender segregation, productive work dominated by men cannot be sustained without unpaid work but is still considered more important in the social hierarchy. 

In general, there are two main forms of gender segregation. First, vertical gender segregation, which describes the under-representation of women in high-level jobs and their over-representation in low-level jobs. Second, horizontal gender segregation, which relates to the under-representation of women in manufacturing and craft occupations and their over-representation in service occupations such as the care sector (Estévez-Abe, 2005). At the same time, qualifications are embedded in national or regional institutions, such as the EU, and their gender norms. As a result, actors take measures within these structural and institutional frameworks, which influence the expectations of employers and employees. In the context of gender segregation, this is mainly done through the interpretation of qualifications, where ‘generic qualifications’ are often seen as gender-neutral. However, these are not neutral, but build on previously male-dominated models and are, therefore, often not advantageous for women (ibid.). Welfare states, i.e. states that provide legally guaranteed social security and support to all their citizens in the form of social benefits, financial support and infrastructure (BPB), can therefore use their powers to change the behaviour of employers and employees by targeting investments in specific skills or areas. For example, by strengthening women’s labour rights to offset the risk of dismissal due to pregnancy and other family-related events or the like, or better pay for social occupations (Estévez-Abe, 2005).

The social division of production and reproductive labour described here became again visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this context, nursing and health professions suddenly became key occupations, and more money was promised for the sector. For example, the European Commission notes that nurses (10.3%) and cleaners and assistants (9.9%) were two of the top five categories of migrant key workers in the EU’s response to the Covid pandemic (EC, 1). At the same time, data provided by the European Institute for Gender Equality shows that during the pandemic, women took on more of the informal care demands. For example, in Belgium, around 7 %  more of the child care and in Germany or Portugal, around 30 %. In addition, almost one-third of working-age adults, both men and women, were providing care for relatives or friends in need while working at the same time, which significantly increased the overall workload (EIGE, 2). This shows that social occupations that are predominantly associated with reproductive activities are also relevant to current political and social challenges. Nonetheless, macroeconomic policy seems to continue to focus primarily on the monetary economy. For example, home care or child care again must be arranged in such a way that managers and other members of the productive sphere can easily pursue their work, instead of better funding important areas such as the care sector independently (Acker, 2004; Hagen‐Zanker, 2008).

All in all, the economic basis for the model of the man as earner and the woman as the provider is disappearing, and women are increasingly working. Despite all this, work is still organised according to an implicit male model and provides few answers to the more complex care and employment demands that characterise the lives of most women in today’s society (Acker, 2004). At the same time, there are also more and more skilled women in the labour market, although statistics and data on skilled work are less gender-specific, usually only mentioning the smaller share of women compared to men (Kofman, 2000). The following section focuses on care work more in detail and what role it plays in the persisting skilled unskilled divide.

The role of care work in the context of the (un)skilled labour divide

As explained above, the gap between unskilled and skilled labour continues to shape the social organisation of work today. In this area of conflict, care has a special role to play.  On the one hand, it is a largely feminised field that affects women relatively more and is better researched in gender terms. On the other hand, it is important to recognise its place in the social hierarchy compared to traditionally male professions. Furthermore, the question of why work in the care sector is associated with unskilled labour, despite the existence of various dimensions of the gap between skilled and unskilled labour within the field, must be addressed. In the following, care work is defined in more detail, and the importance of paid care work is outlined again using the Covid pandemic as an example.

Generally, care work includes activities that contribute to physical, mental, social and emotional well-being, as well as work processes that involve a personal relationship with the person being cared for and may be paid or unpaid. The paid sector of care work involves maintaining the human infrastructure that cannot be adequately created through unpaid work and is provided by employees such as doctors, nurses, home attendants or nannies. As such, it also impacts members of vulnerable groups who are unable to pay for all their care due to age, illness or disability and is thus largely dependent on public investment (Duffy & Armenia, 2021). Unpaid care work is mostly provided in private, by relatives or friends and subsidises the cost of care, thereby providing significant support to the economy by making up for the lack of social services. Depending on the country, unpaid care and housework are estimated at between 10 and 39 per cent of the gross domestic product and can therefore make a larger contribution to the economy than, for example, the manufacturing industry or the transport sector (International Labour Organization, UN Women). In this context, according to a study by UN Women, women do at least two and a half times more unpaid work than men (UN Women). 

Care is further included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to health care, social services and social protection during childhood and disability (UDHR, Article 25). As such, caring for children, elderly, sick or disabled is now seen as a fundamental responsibility of society. Upon closer examination of the definition of care work and the fundamental human right to receive care, it becomes clear that care cannot be provided purely free of charge but that a paid care work sector is important. Paid carers bring with them expertise and skills that differ from the knowledge and skills of family caregivers. In addition, paid care offers families and especially women, who provide the most unpaid care, an opportunity to pursue other occupations and enter the paid labour market. Developing a strong paid care sector is, therefore, crucial to meet care needs and boosting gender equality and the economy. However, this also means that targeted investments must be made in the sector so that it can offer high-quality jobs and career opportunities. Linked to this is the implication that investment and expansion of the care sector are closely tied to the upgrading of traditionally female jobs and qualifications. In other words, investing in building and expanding a paid care sector contributes to more equality. Conversely, the lack of measures says a lot about the ongoing devaluation of traditionally female-dominated occupational sectors and the distinction between the public-private sphere, which has been perpetuated since the early stages of capitalism (Duffy & Armenia, 2021).

Against this backdrop, the Covid 19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable the European long-term care system is and how heavily Western European Member States depend on traditional female labour and unpaid care work (Kantona & Zacharenko, 2021). For example, a study conducted in Germany shows that women do care work more often and with greater effort than men. According to the analysis, in the winter of 2020/21, women spent a total of 11.5 hours per week compared to 7.5 hours for care by men (BMFSFJ, 2022). In addition, the general care needs of older people are increasing, while there are no new guidelines or reforms. Instead, policymaking continues to follow a cost-effective logic and encourages commercialization of the care sector rather than investing sufficiently in elderly care. While care has become increasingly important during the Covid pandemic and many states, such as Germany, have promised financial rewards, long-term, sustainable investments in the sector have not been made. Rather, a competitive care market has developed, which is largely based on cheap migrant workers, especially in the wealthier Western EU member states (Kantona & Zacharenko, 2021). For this reason, the intersection of gender, care and migration will be examined more closely in the following.

The intersection of care, migration, and gender

Against the backdrop of the special role of care work in the field of (un-)skilled professionals, as well as the supposedly neutral discourse, it is particularly important to take a closer look at the intersections of care, migration and gender. To this end, feminisation processes and the phenomenon of global supply chains are explained and then considered in the context of the EU. When looking at this intersection, a “feminization of labor” (Acker, 2004: 34, after Standing 1989) can be observed in nursing and poorly paid professions. Parallel to this process is a “feminisation of migration” (EIGE, 1), which describes the trend towards an increasing proportion of women among international migrant workers. Taken together, a ‘feminisation of labour migration’ has taken place over the past few decades for three main reasons: (1) increasing demand for labour, particularly in more developed countries, (2) more gender-selective demand especially for occupations typically occupied by women, such as in the service sector and healthcare, (3) and thirdly, changed gender relations in some countries of origin, which means that women can generally work more independently and migrate in larger numbers than before. Visible effects of these feminization processes could be observed in the increase in women migrating to do housework, organised migration to get married and women being trafficked into the sex industry. At the same time, however, there was an increasing participation of women in the labour market as well as an erosion of old, full-time forms of employment, which were replaced by new, low-paid, and temporary jobs (Acker, 2004). 

Against this background, women and immigrants tend to dominate the lower strata of the labour force, with women of the working class and poorer women from the Global South often being hired as cheap labour, assumed to be able to work in rather repetitive jobs without career possibilities. At the same time, the role of migrants in paid care work has received significant academic attention in recent years. This is due to the development of the concept of “global care chains” (Vaittinen, 2014: 192), which describes the links between people involved in paid and unpaid care worldwide. Since global care chains are constantly subject to change, these should be read as migration processes to understand the changing structures of the global political economy. In this sense, the migration of care workers from poorer to richer countries leads to social changes, whereby the central dynamic is always the gender specificity of care and embodied needs. While migration flows change the global political economy and the countries of arrival, global economic influences also change migration flows. If one includes gender in the analysis of global care chains, it becomes clear that migrants often compensate for deficits in the country of arrival, such as the need for childcare or care for the elderly. In doing so, they compensate for the deficits that have arisen because of eroding traditional family images and female employment. This means that in some cases, “paid domestic work allows middle-class women to obtain greater equality while keeping working-class and migrant women in traditionally feminized, nonstandard jobs” (ibid.:194, after Sarti & Scrinzi, 2010). 

Nevertheless, the global outsourcing of care work reproduces not only gendered social orders but also other forms of inequality. While gender remains a central organising principle in terms of who does the care work, migration appears as crucial in many national contexts. Consequently, other intersections, such as racism or ethnicity, must also be considered on a larger scale. Moreover, as could be seen before, not all women are equally affected in the context of global care chains, but women from wealthier countries can equally contribute to the reproduction of gender inequalities through the demand for care work. In this context, while the emancipation of women in wealthy states such as EU member states challenges the traditional understanding of family, at the same time the welfare state, which has the power to change and reissue laws and policies, must also be challenged. In particular, new laws and policies that currently ensure that care work is increasingly taken on by migrant women. For example, migrants often fill informal and unregulated niches of care work because they cannot take formal jobs. This further construction of care not only as a female but also as a migrant occupation shows the links between gender, migration and social change and their interactions with the economy, states, and their institutions (ibid.). It is thus evident how global care chains connect actors at all levels of the political economy. This extends across a complex network of different actors, from government agencies, educational institutions and recruitment agencies to financial institutions, government immigration agencies, nurse licensing authorities or trade unions. All actors are involved at different points in the global chain and have an influence on the renegotiation of certain national and international legislative regimes within the framework of historicized conditions. These negotiations, in turn, shape the organisation of care work and, finally, the global political economy. It is therefore important to pay attention to such treatments also in individual migrant trajectories. By understanding gendered challenges, the global care economy can be changed, which in turn implies that global chains of care include a potential for change within existing and emerging material configurations of the global political economy (ibid.).

Considering the increased demand for care workers, as one of the key drivers of the feminisation of labour migration, it must be pointed out that higher affluence countries have larger paid care sectors and consequently demand more labour. This can be observed both in migration movements between the Global South and North but also within regions due to regional differences, such as in the EU from East to West (Duffy & Armenia, 2021). While it may be a result of economic developments contributing both to the expansion of the paid care sector and independently to immigration pull factors, it is also possible that the availability of care work itself is an economic pull factor for immigrants and/or that the availability of migrant workers contributes to the growth of the care sector. On the other hand, while countries with larger overall care sectors tend to have a larger share of immigrant workers, the correlation between wealth and the size of the care sector also highlights the lack of access to care as a major cost factor of global economic inequality. At the same time, it also underlines the importance of the sector for women’s employment by looking at the demographics of paid care. This is particularly the case in countries where many other sectors remain closed to them, for example due to language barriers (ibid.).

However, this also means that the immigration of women only allows limited conclusions to be drawn about their qualifications (ibid., Kofman, 2000). While women are already seen today as social actors in European migration, the idea persists that migrant women are unskilled, primarily because of their employment. Contrary to the general representation, the areas in which unskilled or nursing professions are required in the host country usually serve as a first step into the respective labour market to later climb the career ladder or change the industry. In this context, a study on female migrants in the OECD shows that female migrants are more often overqualified than men for their work which results in de-qualification (Dumont & Liebig, 2005). In other words, taking on jobs that are underqualified for their own abilities and skills, thus working at a level below one’s qualifications in actual jobs, e.g., as nurses instead of doctors. While deskilling generally affects migrants and thus also men, some factors affect women even more, for example, the limitation of other educational opportunities due to childcare responsibilities (Kofman, 2012). As such,  considering the intersection of gender, care and migration can shed new light on migration flows within and into the EU which will be looked at more closely in the following section. 

The role of care work in the EU in the context of the (un)skilled labour divide

Taking a closer look at the EU regarding the (un)skilled labour divide and the intersection of gender, care and migration, it becomes evident that there is an increasing demand for labour in the care sector. In the context of an ageing population structure, EU Member States are currently facing a growing crisis in terms of the availability of care services and caregivers. Another factor that has an impact on this is neoliberal policymaking, meaning although European societies are ageing rapidly and the proportion of people over sixty-five has increased, there have been only modest increases in government funding across countries of the care sector. Rather, spending on long-term care is still insufficient, and private households are forced to take care of the increased need for care themselves (ibid., ESPN, 2018).

While the European Commission laments growing fiscal pressures on its health and long-term care systems caused by already high government spending and debt, it is not supporting this key sector with higher spending (ibid.). Rather, the Commission has a greater interest in the migration of qualified professionals who are not traditionally associated with the care sector, but, above all, in line with the vision of a scientifically and technologically driven knowledge economy and, thus, traditionally male-dominated sectors. In this context, the EU has introduced, among other things, a Blue Card (EU Council Directive 2009/50/EC), which is intended to provide an incentive for highly qualified migrants. The minimum salary for this work permit is currently set at 1.5 times the average annual salary for the EU. In this context, it is likely that salary-based criteria reproduce gender inequalities due to the skilled-unskilled divide. Traditionally female-dominated and less valued sectors, on the other hand, such as nursing professions, tend to be the lowest-paid in the EU, with the average hourly wage for social services being 21 per cent below the general average in 2018 (Eurofound, 2021). 

Regarding the care sector, there further is a lack of EU-wide or cross-border assessments and regulations in the field of care, which means that intermediaries such as recruitment agencies are often used to meet the care needs of private households or the like. As a result, it is possible for  agencies to exploit the vulnerability of migrant caregivers by forcing them into substandard working conditions or charging arbitrary fees that further reduce workers’ often already low wages. While the provision of care services in wealthier countries can initially offer a competitive income compared to labour market standards in poorer EU countries or poorer countries of the Global South, employment in care often results only in finding fewer desirable jobs after migration. At the same time, due to a lack of professionalisation opportunities beyond nursing work, migration in this field is proving to be a dead end in the long term. This in turn contributes to the fact that the care sector is often not recognized as ‘qualified work’ despite the existing urgency (Katona & Zacharenko, 2021). 

When looking at data, it can be witnessed that women mainly do unpaid and paid care work. For example, data published by the European Commission shows that more women than men are employed in personal care, cleaning, and teaching in the EU. In the top twenty occupations, covering 76% of the EU workforce, the highest proportion of women in 2016 was in personal hygiene (89%), cleaning (84%) and office workers (80%). This confirms that work is still organised along gender lines (EC, 2). Furthermore, it becomes evident that most health workers are women (78%) (EC, 3) and that, on average, 13% of key workers in the EU are immigrants, referring to low-skilled key occupations, such as healthcare workers. Interestingly, the gender pattern in these key occupations is similar for both native and migrant workers (EC, 1). Thus, while the desirable is still associated with the traditionally masculine sphere and gender remains invisible through the prevailing neutrality in terms of policy approaches and data on work. Rather, migrant women who are not employed in skilled sectors are assumed to have little or no skills, which means that migrant women are disconnected from the productive world and skills. This associates them with social concerns, prosperity and integration, resulting in the disappearance of migrant women as important economic actors in the European context and further reproducing the historically established gender order (ibid.). 

Existing challenges become even more important when taking into account regional inequalities and intra-European migration in the care sector. While the precarious situation of non-EU care workers is often addressed in studies and policy papers on labour migration, the situation of EU care workers is often presented as unproblematic. Rather, they are described as mobile workers under the assumption that, as EU citizens, they have equal access to labour rights in all EU countries. However, they are often subject to exploitation and rights violations, especially in-home care. In addition, while more migrant workers are employed in long-term care from outside the EU (4.5%), intra-European migrants are also employed at 3.4%, with many coming from Central and Eastern Europe (Katona & Zacharenko, 2021). In this context, Sweden, for example, recorded the highest share of health workers, with 12% of the workforce, followed by Finland and Denmark. In contrast, the lowest shares were recorded in eight EU Member States, which are: Cyprus, Poland, Latvia, Romania, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovenia, where the share of health workers in the labour force was around 4 % (EC, 3). Therefore, it is important to emphasise that there are inequalities between EU countries that structurally allow employers in Western EU Member States to exploit the more precarious labour market situation of female care workers from Central and Eastern European Member States. Migrants and mobile workers thus form an important part of the long-term care workforce, especially in Western EU countries which increasingly rely on foreign workers, for example, in elder care and nursing (Katona & Zacharenko, 2021). 

Against this background, it can be observed that cross-border work within the EU is particularly prevalent when there are differences in working conditions and wages between neighbouring territories. Not only does this lead to the outsourcing of labour in the care sector to third countries, but more generally to a care system based on the purchase of market-oriented migrant services at relatively low wages. The same is also practised in the context of inequalities within the EU, which in turn increases internal tensions and regional inequalities. Thus, care migration lies at the intersection of EU employment, social, economic and gender equality policies not only outside but also within the EU, which makes the introduction of the feminisation of migration and labour as a category of analysis essential (ibid.).

Summary and recommendations

In summary, it has become clear that the organisation of work within the EU and worldwide is still shaped by previous capitalist dynamics along gender lines. Care work has a special role in that it belongs to the more feminine sphere and thus to the non-monetary, reproductive sphere of work. In this context, it is still taken for granted, although it is indispensable for our society. As such, it is subordinated and has a supportive effect on other, traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as technical professions. This could be observed, for example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when there was a high dependence on nursing professions, but no long-term investment followed this need. The lack of investment also applies to other areas of care, such as care for the elderly, which are not adequately funded. Instead, the EU wants to attract skilled migrants from other sectors and has implemented a policy framework accordingly, such as the European Blue Card. These measures, on the one hand, favour men due to their traditional association with professions desired by the EU. On the other hand, it neglects the increasing importance of care for sustainable development, especially against the background of qualified female migrants in that sector. Gender plays a key role in this context, as most employees in the care sector are women and sometimes work in professions that do not correspond to their actual level of education or training. As such, they view care as a first access to the labour market, which, however, is much more often achieved by men. In this context, women mostly migrate to wealthy Western EU countries from the East or the poorer Global South.

In view of these analyses, there are, therefore, three important recommendations towards EU policymaking regarding care migration. First, the EU should finance the care sector much better. On the one hand, this promotes equality between women and men through upgrading and monetary recognition and dismantles traditional hierarchies in the organisation of work. On the other hand, this corresponds to the current demand for labour in the field of care, which increases inequalities globally, regionally and between the sexes due to migration movements. In addition, more research should be provided around skilled-unskilled work and gender. It is important to consider the current shift away from a traditional household structure towards a two-earner household and its impact on migration movements within and across the EU. In this context, the so-called “brain waste” (Kofman, 2000: 45f.) of care migration should also be analysed in more detail. And finally, considering these analyses, migration policies should not only create an advantage for skilled migration, but also facilitate migrant women who can and want to work in high-demand sectors to reduce financial challenges and imbalances overall, including internal EU inequalities. In this way, fewer migrant women would end up in under-skilled jobs, women would not be left behind by double challenges, and the potential for conflict within the EU could be diminished.


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