A Feminist Analysis of Europe’s Labor Market: To What Extent is Europe’s Agriculture Built on the Exploitation of Female Migrant Workers?

feminist analysis of europe's labor market exploitation of female migrant workers centre for feminist foreign policy miriam muller

25 cents. This is the price the consumer in Germany pays for one single orange, but what is the ultimate price a fruit picker pays in Sicilia? Female migrants in Europe’s agrarian sector pay the ultimate price, which neoclassical models do not take into account while measuring input, profit, and productivity. For example, in Sicilian orange plantations female workers sleep in barracks, are exposed to aggressive chemicals, and are raped by their employers (Amnesty International, 2012). Analytically, neoclassical models fail to measure the real social impact of such conditions, although they are significant for a just transition in the economy.

Feminist Analysis in Political Economy

My article analyses the dynamics of exploitation of migrants on orange farms in Sicily. It reveals how gender-based exploitation is linked to the EU's reforms in Migration and Political Economy (Maier, 2010). I focus on illegal female migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa, because they are undocumented, belonging to a discriminated ethnic group, and not male, meaning they are among one of the most vulnerable groups of Europe's labor market.  

The first step towards a gender-responsive analysis is redefining economic parameters such as productivity, output, and competitiveness (Braunstein, 2007). Not all ethnic groups and genders enter the labor market under the same conditions, especially people of color. Disadvantages tend to involve having limited access to education, being undervalued at work, and being overrepresented in the informal sector. These structural barriers clearly outline that gender and ethnicity do matter for power relations within Europe's labor market. Looking at the working conditions for undocumented migrants on Italy’s orange plantations helps to understand those notable female workers from the Global South are at the bottom of the global value chain. Without a feminist analysis of the working conditions in Italy’s agrarian sector, it is hard to see that the labor market is not gender neutral, but a gendered institution (Fontana, 2009). That is why analyzing the feminization of labor is key to achieve an inclusive and just labor market (Standing, 1999).

The Dynamics of Exploitation

Exploitation of the most vulnerable is rooted in multiple forms of oppression (Mies, 1998). From dawn to dusk, migrants harvest oranges. Besides the physical work on the plantations, female migrants are put under extreme psychological pressure related to gender-based violence (Amnesty International, 2012). The human rights violations on Sicilian orange farms are a paradigm for maximal labor exploitation in Europe as a whole. Due to Europe's unique common market, gender-based exploitation in the informal sector cannot only be analyzed on a national level. The dynamics of exploitation on Italy’s farm exists in other EU member states as well; the socio-economic bases are the same. Due to the high competition from orange farmers in and outside of the EU, Italian producers face several challenges. As a rational agent, the producer’s goal is to maximize his or her profit by keeping production costs low. Paying lower salaries is one option. For this reason, Italian farmers hire female migrants and offer them “informal work arrangements, which are characterized by a lack of employment contracts, social protections, and labor rights“ (Reeve, 2017).

The whole economic system has to change.

In addition to that, the Gender Pay Gap exists in the informal sector as well as in the formal sector. Moreover, female migrants might not be aware of their labor rights. And when they are, they do not claim them to local authorities because they fear deportation and other juridical consequences against them. Illegal female migrants are among the most vulnerable groups in the labor market regarding sexual violence (ILO, 2016). Although it should be of the employer's interest to maintain the productivity of her/his employees, supervisors rape female workers, imperil their health, and consequently, reduce their productivity. It seems paradoxical, but in this case, male supervisors exploit the social divisions to maximise their benefit and their sexual satisfaction. Often, male farmers do not care about physical exploitation, so they do not invest time and money in well-being due to the surplus of illegal migrants in Europe’s labor market. It is cheaper to hire someone new rather than invest in the worker’s health condition. In general, neoclassical theories can explain why farmers hire cheap labor. However, sexual exploitation cannot be fully explained by the rational agent theory, nor does the offer-demand mechanism lead to self-regulation in this sector. If Europe’s economy sticks to neoclassical policies and only look at issues in the formal sector (Kabeer, 2003), the exploitation of female migrant workers in Europe’s agrarian sector will continue and any form of decent work remains unreachable for them.

The Responsibility of the EU

The EU’s foreign policies with regard to international trade and migration are linked to the dynamics of exploitation mentioned above (Maier, 2010). Europe’s political inertia to disempower social justice feeds the structural barriers and inequality. Because they are people of color and without any legal documents, they do not benefit from the EU’s human rights agenda. They are disadvantaged and discriminated by the system. For these reasons, several effective mechanisms need to be set-up to ensure labor rights of female migrants.

So far, the EU focuses on “women’s empowerment” related to economic growth and innovation within a neoclassical framework (The World Bank, 2011). Unfortunately, the EU and local authorities in Italy hardly mention the well-being of the female workforce in their gender strategies which tend to block any justice-oriented change in the economy (European Commission, 2017). As a consequence, the position of the female workforce at the bottom of the global value chain is unlikely to change. Creating conditions for decent work for all people in Europe has failed because “in several fields of study, sex is not taken into account as a factor in behavior, yet sex may be among the most important explanatory variables” (Millman & Kanter, 1987). If there is too little awareness of the impact of a male-dominated hierarchy, the gender-blindness in EU foreign policy continues and consequently exploitation of female workers too.

Although the agrarian sector in Italy shows the strong deficit of neoclassical models (Braunstein, 2007), policy-makers still assume that working conditions will be regulated by competitiveness, that workers can freely choose their employment, and that each individual is responsible for her/his pursuit of happiness (Benería/Berik/Floro, 2016). In reality, gender inequalities regarding property ownership, resources, and power have effects on the labor market itself (Maier, 2010). Agents are influenced by socially constructed gender roles to the extent that decisions of employers and employees are not exclusively rational. Due to these factors, female migrants working on Sicilia’s plantations are marginalized, invisible from the public sphere, and excluded from any social security. This workforce has little option but to accept informal work arrangements because it is impossible or too time-consuming for them to be registered as a legal migrant. It is time for EU policy-makers to recognize that the labor market is shaped by patriarchy.  

Revealing the True Cost

Revealing the ultimate costs means recognizing these women. The 61st Commission on the Status of Women, with its focus on “women’s economic empowerment” in the changing world of work, was an important milestone for dealing with exploitation of female workers in the feminization of labor. It made clear that there is no monetary amount that can compensate social injustice, as pointed out by the journalist Priyanka Borpujari: “True justice for migrant workers requires the establishment of economies that work for people, instead of our current paradigm of people working for economies” (Borpujari, 2017). The whole economic system has to change. This is the one and only solution for Europe’s agriculture to be built on decent work rather than exploitation.


Miriam Müller is a masters student in Politics, Administration and International Relations at Zeppelin University and an advocate for feminist economics.


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Marissa Conway