Labour exploitation of migrant women in Italy

Gender perspective, intersectionality and the future

Severe labour exploitation is defined as a work situation that deviates significantly from legal working conditions, ranging from minimal forms of coercion to more severe forms of slavery, forced labour and trafficking. The correlation between gender-based violence, migration and labour exploitation of women is widely reported by agencies working with trafficked persons.

Although less visible than men, women have always played an active and central role in migration processes, particularly in the Italian context. At international level, women represent 48% of global migration flows. In 2019, in Italy women represented 51.7% of the resident foreign population and came mainly from Romania (693,649), Morocco (197,675) and China (149,034), but also from the Philippines (95,346), Poland (69,560) and India (65,561).

Once in Italy, migrant women face several obstacles related to their gender. They are subject to triple discrimination: on the basis of their origin (some nationalities are preferred to others), their gender and their social class. They have to deal with the problems of being women, workers and migrants at the same time, and for these reasons they are highly exposed to the possibility of being abused and subjected to violence both during the migration process and once they arrive in the destination country.

In Italy, migrants tend to have professions that are generally considered 'feminine'. Receiving societies require migrant women to work in professions that reflect 'traditional' female identity. Gender thus acts as an organising principle of international migration, often leading women in poorer countries to be employed in the kind of work (domestic, care and sex work) that many women in richer countries do not want or can no longer do. The emancipation of women in Western countries often has as its counterpart the labour and social subordination of migrant women who take their place.

43.2% of foreign women in Italy are employed in domestic or care work, often with irregular contracts or partial application of contractual rules. Sometimes, a form of patronage may be established whereby the employer takes care of all the needs of the worker, which exposes the woman to many risks of abuse. Another area of work in which immigrant women find a source of income is the prostitution market, sometimes freely offering their sexual services, sometimes under severe conditions of exploitation. Finally, the agricultural sector is also a source of employment for a considerable number of women (26.9%), although the male percentage remains higher. Migrant women working in this sector are highly exposed to psychological and sexual violence, as well as labour exploitation. Most of these jobs are low-skilled and offer few opportunities for professional development. Moreover, such jobs often involve an extremely heavy workload of more than ten hours a day, with very low wages and no contractual protection. In addition to these exploitative practices, women are often exposed to other forms of violence. Moreover, the harm itself inflicted on victims is gender-specific. Gender-based violence is considered one of the root causes of the vulnerability of migrant women.

Vulnerability is defined as a situation where the person has no real and acceptable alternative to submitting to the abuse. Both European and non-EU women can be exposed to abuse from their vulnerable situation. Gender-based violence, trafficking and labour exploitation are three interrelated and intertwined phenomena. Between 2015 and 2016, women accounted for 95% of victims of sex trafficking and 20% of victims of labour exploitation in general. The situation of isolation and dependence on employers in which many female migrant workers find themselves, is another element that aggravates their vulnerability.

The situation of women migrant workers is very delicate because they often have dependent children and feel they cannot leave their jobs because they are responsible not only for their own lives but also for that of their children. These are the precarious situations that make migrant women more vulnerable and more willing to accept any working conditions, including abuse and exploitation. All these structural and situational factors, together with the strict link between possession of a residence permit and a work contract, create a condition of "hyper-precariousness" in the labour context, which exposes them to exploitation, trafficking and forced labour.

It becomes more difficult, in the absence of valid work alternatives, to decide to denounce this kind of violence. Therefore, exploitative situations remain invisible. On the contrary, violence and exploitation can be considered both a cause and a consequence of the invisibility of these people. It is a kind of self-perpetuating vicious circle that is very difficult to detect, intercept and break. The high demand for labour from large numbers of migrant women who accept poor working conditions makes it very easy for employers to find someone willing to be exploited. Women who are victims of severe labour exploitation remain in a context marked by isolation, segregation and high dependence on their employer. It is precisely this fragile and vulnerable situation in which they live and work that makes it difficult for them to report.

The exploitation of migrant women is not a marginal phenomenon. Faced with such a complex phenomenon, it is difficult to think of a simple solution to combat it. Firstly, there is an urgent need to comprehensively enforce the international, European and national regulations already in place that protect workers' rights. In addition, there is a need for specific laws protecting migrant women workers and their needs. Thirdly, in order to prevent and combat severe labour exploitation, it is necessary to implement combined measures based on an integrated and comprehensive gender and human rights approach, with long-term and short-term objectives. If the law does not adopt a gender perspective, it may not be able to identify the peculiarities of exploitation of women migrant workers, but will instead further consolidate their invisibility.

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Chiara Landolfo


Ambrosini, M. (2011) Sociologia delle Migrazioni, Bologna: il Mulino.

Crippa, E. (2020) ‘On the severe labour exploitation of migrant women in Italy: a human rights and multi-level policy perspective’, Peace Human Rights Governance, 4(3), 311-347.


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  • L'Autore

    Chiara Landolfo

    Dottoressa magistrale in Relazioni Internazionali, con curriculum in Cooperazione Internazionali e Processi Sociali Trans-Nazionali presso l'Università degli Studi di Milano.

    I suoi interessi principali sono i diritti umani e il project management.


From the World Europe Sections Human Rights 2030 Agenda Gender equality


Lavoro Donne migranti lavoro domestico sfruttamento

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