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Transmigration of Eastern European Women as Transformation Strategy (vom 26.04.2003),
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[26. Apr 2003]

Transmigration of Eastern European Women as Transformation Strategy

Following text of Sabine Hess (Institut für Kulturanthropologie und EuropäischeEthnologie) is an input for debates about migration and work. On one hand its focus is east-west relationships and secondly the text refers very much to the fact, that women break the genderconstructions which should be seen (beside others) as one aspect of the autonomy of migration. It is very important, not to reduce migrants as exploited victims all the time but to emphasize to their subjectivity.

"I am not willing to return at this time..." - Transmigration of Eastern European Women as Transformation Strategy



"I have a dream: I want to go to Germany and stay there for a while. There you can earn some money and learn German along the way. But no, the other girls stay here at Slavocovce and get their unemployment-benefits. And then a boy shows up and says `marry me`, and then the kids are coming. And that is what live is all about? No, the 20 year old Nadja, who I met during my field work at Slovakia 1999, wants to have more from life than what seems to be possible at her small industrial home town. The paper production plant, the only work place around, did not close down but is working on a rationalized level. Whereas the older people still find work there, which - by the way - doesn`t mean to earn a living, the job-perspectives for the younger generation especially the graduates are gloomy. Nadja is looking out of her window over the muddy tracks linking the once fashionable blocks of flats and says: "I didn`t want to end up in that dump." She is almost furious towards her friends that they don`t take any initiative: "They stay here?! But this life is not enough for me."

Nadja herself finished college one year ago. Since then she has been preparing her migration to Germany as Au Pair - which means baby-sitting and domestic-work in turn for living-in accommodation and a small pocket-money of 400DM. She is one of the thousands of eastern European women who try to struggle with the upheavals of the transformational processes by extending their action onto the transnational space. It is definitely not a new practice by eastern Europeans taking into account studies on traveling people far before the fall of the iron curtain. These traces seem to be taken up today on a surprisingly wide scale (Morokvasic 1994; Wessely 1999).

There are women who work as nurses for elderly people, as live-in caregivers or domestic workers for western families and as waitresses in bars, hotels, in animation and prostitution. They try to earn money as shopping tourists or suitcase. They tactically use the means of mobility and migration which are offered by the restrictive immigration policies of the receiving countries and which are informally negotiated or officially advertised in the countries of origin. Their informal migration-networks reach from the neighboring western European countries far to Turkey and South Asia (öncÌ 1999; Irek 1998; Morokvasic 1994).

But not only their practices of mobility are quite often undocumented also their gendered work places in the lower service sector are usually hidden in the private sphere of families or the backrooms of bars. This concealment makes the personal service sector such an important source of employment for migrant women. On the other hand it keeps its actors invisible. But as Bridget Anderson (1999) or Saskia Sassen (1998) have shown also the main social science discourses on globalization and transformation of the western and eastern European societies are writing this female migration out of the master-narratives. In fact these female migrants are global players from below, who are filling important social gaps torn up by the globalization and transformation processes but they are rarely recognized as such and as actors of transformation.

In the following section I will show how these women are managing to reach their goals by constant cross border movements. Their strategies of mobility question the classical antirassist concepts of Fortress Europe which stresses the defence mechanism of the European Union and national migration policies. Their practices call for taking into consideration the aspects of autonomy of migration strategies and the actors subjectivities.

New migration patterns: Au Pair as transmigration

Nadja is now for the second time in Germany working without documents in a private household. With her first family she got in trouble quite soon as many of the young Au Pair-women do: too much domestic work (Hess 2000). So she left very disappointed but with the promise to return: "What should I do back home?", she was asking me and gave the answer herself: "nothing, there I will stay jobless. Studying? Yes, I would like to, but it`s very hard to get a place." After some months at home Nadja was informally referred to the new family by her old Au Pair friend in Germany. As Nadja phoned me that she was back in South Germany I was quite astonished about her courage to use such illegal means. "Yes and no", she explained. She legally entered on the tourist visa for three months but without a work permit - floating between legal existence and illegalization. Many of the eastern European migrants manage to stay in Germany for a couple of years by moving back and forth using the legal tourist permission for three months and then returning home soon coming back again.

Au Pair as one of the few legal means of migration to western Europe has become a main springboard for women to the West leading to such mobile irregular forms of extended stays. The German embassy in Bratislava counted 2500 official applications in 1999 which is nearly one third of the total registered work migration to Germany (Migrationsbericht 1999). But as the EU-countries try to regulate the migration streams on a temporary mode they produce a large array of disguised migrational practices. Recent studies on east-west migration have confirmed that permanent emigration from eastern countries has not really increased since 1989 but an irregular transnational mobility. Shuttle or circular migration has become the dominant feature of the new European migrational space (Cyrus 1997, Morokvasic 1994, Rogers 2000).

Nadja is now quite content with her new family. She doesn`t know when she will finally return, but she doesn`t want to stay in Germany permanently either: "For a while I can do such maid-jobs but eventually I want to study to get a good job. And that I cannot do in Germany." Some of the young women especially from countries further East who are excluded from the EU-tourist visa try to marry as the only means of permanent residency. Certainly there are also the women who return home in time. They hope to get now a place at university or a good job which is quite often soon heavily disappointed. But over half of the women which I met during my two years of research tried to extend their migration taking up any possibility which opened up for them. They took the restricted means of mobility as a resource of which they tried to get the most out of.

Transnational practices as transformation strategies

What at first sight seems to be a precarious and spontaneous practice reveals itself to be a strategy of young women well adapted to the challenges of the "transformation period".

I hope that the picture I already gave indicates that it is always a complex mixture of motivations and reasons why the young women opt for transnational mobility. But everyone I met linked their migration to the demands and difficulties of the transformation processes. Thereby their narratives showed specific common argumentational patterns which I want to outline now.

All addressed the social and economic situation of the country, their families and themselves as "difficult". Nearly all of the young women were jobless after high-school. The social security system still has little employment benefits to offer but it`s not enough to live for its own. Additionally they complained about the steadily rising prices which they connected to Slovakia`s recent political efforts to reach the EU admission requirements. So they were even more dependent on the family economy - most
are, by the way, two earner-families. Also their attempts to study did not only fail because they did not pass the examinations but most parents could not afford to pay the education. In this sense the stipend of the Au Pair-job which is almost as big as a teacher"s income in Slovakia is an incentive for the young women to take on the domestic work abroad.

They all longed for their own money to become self-reliant and to pay for their university-education themselves. However their step to transnationalize the social risk of unemployment and use the transnational space for generating income in order to go on with their education at home is soon heavily disappointed in Germany. There they have to realize that the stipend is really only pocket change for German conditions and that they can`t save a lot. So they try to find a second or third job and to extend their stay. But they were also very fast in adapting to the new situation, and enlarged their perspectives onto other things as enriching their western experiences. This relates to another common argumentational pattern why they took up the Au Pair-work: that of learning a foreign language.

First I took it as a tactical move to meet the Au Pair requirements, because Au Pair is officially still seen as a cultural exchange. But all were going on saying: "Yes, if you can speak German very well, you will find a good job in Slovakia, then you get a good salary." This believe in the cultural capital of knowing a foreign language also motivated parents to support the migration of their daughters. All the intellectuals with whom I spoke told me as well: "Western experiences are now important!"

Then I had to understand that it was not the general economic risk of impoverishment but what really troubled the young women was the social experience of dequalification, career-breaks and hence declassification. All blamed their joblessness after high school on the devaluation of higher education. Also they had already to experience that the parents were suddenly confronted with unemployment or were dequalified at their work-place.

In the context of marketization, privatization and a rapidly westernizing economy traditional skills, qualifications and status-hierarchies become uncertain, devalued and the social strata are being newly mixed. New skills, strategies and capital-forms in a Bourdieuan sense seem to be needed. And practices, knowledge and lifestyles which are ascribed to the West are not only of high symbolic value. They apparently can be directly converted in the few expanding sectors like the service and private foreign capital sector. A joke which I often heard in Slovakia confirmed this trend: Even advertisements for cleaning jobs would nowadays include: knowledge in German language is highly appreciated! The young women had understood this lesson and mobilized the resources they had left: education, creativity, mobility and a vision of their future.

In the light of less economic or social capital of their parents they rationally try to enhance their intercultural and knowledge capital not to loose out in the transformation. But in view of the deteriorating educational and social infrastructure they are forced to develop informal, transnational strategies which they creatively do. The Au Pair migration is therefore to be seen as an individual and family based qualification strategy to enhance one"s own chances after the return. In regard of the other possibilities at hand it is a highly functional practice of young women to cope with the social risks of the transformations. Temporary migration is in this sense a transformation strategy.

Transnationalizing social risks: one foot at each country

But, as we already heard, in a lot of cases the one-year migration extended to more years of shuttling. Apart from other reasons one of the main criteria for staying or leaving were the developments at home and their comparison with Germany. For this the women had enough occasions when they communicated with friends or traveled home due to the visa requirements: "Back home I only would hang on the dole as many of my friends are and I can not just sit around", said Vera after her last visit. Also some parents tried to persuade their daughters to extend their stay bridging longer the bad situation even when the women wanted to return.

In view of this also the migrational strategy to shuttle over years between Slovakia and Germany appears in a different light. [But traditional theories of migration, conceptualizing it as a one-directional move of uprooting and reintegration, either could not recognize these forms of mobility as migration. Or they perceived those multi-local living practices as deficient, "the marginal man" torn in between two environments (see Bash/Schiller 1994).] Certainly these mobile patterns are owed to the strict immigration regulations of Schengen-Europe (Rogers 2001, Wallace 1999). On the other side the short distance between the neighboring eastern and western countries makes the shuttling easier.

But the apparently indecisive multi-local practices of the young women are to be understood in their own right as a mobile strategy well adapted to the transformations at home. It is a flexible and risk minimizing strategy of using the whole transnational space and to evaluate the chances and difficulties which each environment has to offer. With one foot in each country the women explore if their cultural and knowledge capital gained in the migration is enough to resettle with both feet at home. Or if they have to take the hard work as a domestic servant further upon themselves in order to improve their financial and cultural capital. So many keep both options open for themselves: while having a work-place at a German family they attempt to get to university or to find a job in Slovakia. Some migrant women live for several years a life which is functionally divided between both countries realizing their aims there where it is possible.

This risk minimizing strategy of moving back and forth evading the difficulties and combining the opportunities of each context is itself filled with uncertainties of even sexual exploitation. The impression which the growing anthropological studies on transmigration (Bash/Schiller) tend to give of free floating people successfully constructing hybrid identities is in this respect rather another form of exotization. As the migrants are localizing themselves under specific conditions there are also the women who do not come to terms with smoothly integrating the two socially, culturally and emotionally different situations. They will eventually decide for one option. [Either they can`t stand any longer their humiliating position as domestic workers and go back. Or they couldn`t keep up any longer with the social cultural pressures for purity and gave up.]

But also the women who return home don`t go back with the same visions and subject positions as they left. They transformed themselves during their migration. Most of these women voiced very strongly at the end of their stay a highly gendered discourse of newly found independence and developed self-determination. They unexpectedly described their family-bound living as narrow, controlled and critiqued the silent force of gendered normalization. And they proclaimed newly constructed orientations and non-material life-qualities which reminded me rather of post-modern perspectives. So they rejected to work as hard for material gains as their parents do and rather wished to find a job for self-realization. They did not overtly question the hegemonic patterns of female biography but claimed to explore the world first postponing marriage and motherhood.

In the described environment of risk the young women were creating new subject-positions and fabricated biographical projects which transgress the cultural ascribed status-quo. Despite or rather against the risks of transformation and the uncertainties of transmigration there is still agency. As people have to make sense and act in daily live there are appropriations, tactics and thus new constitutions.

Sabine Hess, Institut für Kulturanthropologie und EuropäischeEthnologie


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