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Representing everyone – Migrant Women's Representation by Labour Organizations in Germany

Tess Herrmann
Exploring Economics, 2017
Grado: debutante
Perspective: Economía feminista
Topic: Trabajo y cuidado, Race & Gender
Format: Ensayo

Representing everyone

An Analysis of the Representation of Migrant Women by official Labour Organizations in Germany

Author: Tess Herrmann

Review: Deborah Sielert

This is an essay of the writing workshop Gender and the Economy - Perspektives of Feminist Economics, published on 17 May 2017, updated on 16 August 2017.


Why we need to talk about unions

Trade unions have historically played an important role in political struggles around inequality as well as in fights for better working conditions and wages. Crucially self declared leftists claim to represent all workers, and particularly less privileged groups. By looking more closely at work in sectors that most attract migrant women, namely care and domestic work, sexwork, and the beauty industry, I argue that this claim is unrealistic here. At Vivantes or Charité, two German hospitals that became known for their social activism, there have been a number of strikes and protests of nursing staff in hospitals over the last few years that were supported or led by unions and have actually been successful in some cases. But even in these strikes, private or self-employed care workers were mainly excluded. Yet, these protests showed the power of organized trade unions, since their involvement caused significant improvements in working conditions.

Subsequently I wish to place emphasis on the fact that this power could and should be used more frequently to protect migrant women's working rights, that are abused mainly in the most unrepresented sectors, while industry sectors that are dominated by German men receive the attention of their labour organizations that all jobs deserve.


1. What are we talking about?

Women migrating to Europe tend to work in very gendered sectors: Over 80% of domestic workers in Italy are migrant women (ILO, 2015), 70% of all sexworkers in Central Europe are migrant (Brussa, 2009), in the German care sector approximately 15% are migrant workers, with a growing trend; 95% of all 24h-caregivers are migrant women (Haidinger 2013). 75% of the waxing salons in Berlin are run by Brazilian women (Lodola, 2013), while nail studios are dominated by Vietnamese women. The German economy builds on migrant women taking over these jobs: without them the care system would have collapsed years ago. Still, these sectors are not only the least visible in the labour market, but they often have the most precarious working conditions. As there are few or no regulations in these market segments, workers often struggle with low wages or no social security, especially if the employer is a private household. In general, self-employed labourers musttake care of insurance themselves and are also confronted with high fees and an extreme amount of bureaucratic paper work. In addition, a lot of domestic work is managed on the grey market which takes away any possibility for social insurance or job security. Since there is little technological development, feminized labour cannot be made more efficient like labour in other productive industries that are more male dominated, a fact that leads to an even further decrease in wages.

Trade unions are the official representatives of all wage earners and their economic, social and cultural interests. Historic events have shown that official organizations have huge debating power and the possibility to raise wages and reform working conditions. In this way, trade unions have the potential to greatly improve the professional life of migrant women in particular. Even so, sectors such as sexwork are not represented by accredited unions at all, which not only leads to a weaker position in wage negotiations or law enforcement but also makes the industry more invisible. The term “labour organizations” includes non-governmental organizations that act for sexworkers or other workers not represented by trade unions, but yet to receive official union status. Of course, the influence of NGOs that represent stigmatized jobs is not comparable to the power of accredited trade unions. Yet, the support that workers receive ranges from counselling to legal representation and replaces certain parts of the union's work for unrepresented workers. For example, the peer-organization Hydra Berlin represents documented as well as undocumented sexworkers, offers counselling in several languages and therefore carries over a lot of a union's work. Even so, their existence does not justify the absence of official unions in these sectors.

This article focuses on legal and documented jobs, since the possibilities of trade unions as well as NGOs lie only in the legal working field. Given that feminized sectors, that are particularly welcoming for migrant women, are the ones under the greatest threat of being outlawed and are most stigmatized, the decriminalization of these jobs should be claimed by labour organizations as well.


2. Who do leftist unions focus on?

In Germany, the DGB (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund) is the umbrella organization of a series of trade unions for different sectors and jobs. It is traditionally left and stands for social-democratic values and dominates every other union. The DGB claims to represent all sectors and demands equal pay and opportunities for all workers irrespective of their origin, race or gender, as one of their main policies. The DGB consists of eight unions, including ver.di (Vereinte Dienstleistungs-gewerkschaft), which is the only one that represents care workers amongst twelve other sectors. This shows how the most capacity is put into male dominated industries, which all have their own union in the DGB. There have been some achievements for IT or industrial workers when it comes to minimum wage and working hours, also in sectors traditionally carried out by migrant men, but care and domestic work were usually not part of these struggles.

Even though the DGB stands for equal rights for all genders today, they did not always support women in their struggle for equal pay. When women started to enter the labour market in high numbers, they were portrayed as further competition for men, who were represented by the unions, and pushed back into the household. The Marxist image of a proletarian marriage was deeply implanted in the thoughts and actions of the unionists. That there were hardly any women in leading positions for decades didn't help (Ressel, 2012). Today, the DGB has a department concerning Women, Equalization and Family Politics and two of the four leading unionists are female, but there is still no emphasis on feminized working sectors.

When it comes to migration politics, leftist unions have voiced their support for migrants and refugees and demanded further legislation on the labour market. There have been some consulting offers for refugees concerning integration in the German labour market, but in general there is little activity to support migrant workers. Even though the DGB used to fight for family reunification for Turkish workers in the second half of the 20th century, undocumented migrants in particular today must seek support within NGOs and not within the official trade unions. Other German unions that do not declare themselves leftist demand an upper limit for refugees, in order to “protect” German workers. Until today, the DbfK (Deutscher Berufsverband für Pflegeberufe), a German union that supposedly represents care workers in Germany independent of the DGB, argues against migration and demands more unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork for migrants on their website.

All in all, it becomes clear that feminized sectors have already been underrepresented within German trade unions; but now with an increase in migrant women workers, they have been left out even more.


3. Outlook 

As stated above, the power that trade unions have established in Germany could be used to improve the working conditions for everyone. There has been quite some research on what would need to be done in order to affect the sectors that attract migrant women most and NGOs as well as individuals that have spoken out about it. Of course, the representation of high-skilled women that migrated to Germany for work is a different one. I will focus on the sectors named above. It seems more difficult for care workers to strike or protest for their rights because of their commitment towards their clients. Because of low wages and lacking staff, a lot of workers in the care and domestic work sector don't have extra time for activism. Also, there is a need for a fight against dependency, especially of self-employed or even outlawed workers. There is a huge inducement for migrants to work illegally though, even if they don't have to, because of the retirement and social security system. Next to officially including all groups of workers, this could be the perfect claim for trade unions in order to begin the process of fully including migrant women. As another incentive for migrant women to get involved in union work, the labour organizations should offer counselling in the mother tongues of the main groups of migrant women; not only in German, as it is mainly done today. (Haidinger 2013)

In academia and politics, there is an extreme lack of research on migrant women's representation in unions. Even though some researchers have written about the situation and the needs of migrants in the German labour market, there is little material on illegalized and stigmatized workers, which includes mostly migrant women. The illegal market is a taboo in economic theory, while the German government continues to pass laws that make it impossible for some women to work legally. In Germany for example, the government just passed a new “Prostitution Protection Law”, that makes it a lot harder for sexworkers to work legally, without any public debate, let alone a union-supported struggle against it.



It can be stated, that the majority of migrant women are not fully represented by official labour organizations, even though there have been attempts to improve this situation. By including migrant women in the work of unions and letting them speak for themselves, proper representation and long-term improvement of their working conditions can be guaranteed. Furthermore, the unequal distribution of capacities of unions for different sectors should be reflected upon, since it negatively affects mostly people that face oppression in German society as it is. The place that unions have fought for in the German economy should be further used for all workers in order to achieve greater equality in the labour market. This can only be accomplished by reorganizing male dominated unions and promoting marginalized women's rights.



Brussa, Licia (2009): Sex Work in Europe, A mapping of the prostitution scene in 25 European Countries, TAMPEP International Foundation, Amsterdam.

Haidinger, Bettina (2013): Vergesellschaftung und Vermarktlichung von Care-Arbeit, Veranstaltungsreihe “Feminismus in Theorie und Praxis”, Rennerinstitut.

Lidola, Maria (2014): Negotiating Integration in Berlin’s Waxing Studios: Brazilian Migrants’ Gendered Appropriation of Urban Consumer Spaces and ‘Ethnic’ Entrepreneurship. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 49. Issue 1, pp. 228-251.

Ressel, Saida (2012): MIGRATION, KLASSE, GESCHLECHT: INTERESSENKONFLIKT ODER SOLIDARITÄT? Die Rolle von Gewerkschaften und Frauenbewegungen für Kämpfe von Migrantinnen im Care-Bereich in Spanien, Diplomarbeit, Phillips- Universität Marburg.

Roig, Emilia (2014): Care Crisis: Welche Auswirkungen haben Migrationspolitiken auf Geschlechtergerechtigkeit? in: Heimatkunde, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Düsseldorf.


as well as the official websites of DGB, ver.di, hydra-berlin and DBfK:,,,


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