Hungarian Care Workers in the Global Care Chain – Family Strategy and Unequal Gender Role Arrangements

Attila Melegh, Corvinus University of Budapest
Dóra Gábriel, Demographic Research Institute, Budapest
Gabriella Gresits , Demographic Research Institute, Budapest
Dalma Hámos, University of Pécs

In our paper we aim to present the main characteristics of live-in care migration from Hungary to Austria. Due to aging, the demand on care workers is increasing. Our analysis shows the supply side of the phenomenon. Our paper focuses on three main issues, the mechanism of decision-making of migration, gender roles and gender arrangements within the family, and the institutions connected to care workers’ migration.

Our research method is based on ethnographic fieldwork, and a combined interview technique. We combined the narrative interview technique with half-structured interview method, and analyzed the narratives by Rosenthal’s method of objective hermeneutics (Rosenthal 1993). We conducted field work in the southern part of Baranya County, Hungary, and in the surroundings of Graz, Austria.

As opposed to assumptions of individual rational decision making, interviews showed that the decision about migration is made on familial basis, and migrants make a decision by themselves only if they are widows, single, or their children are already grown-ups. The results of our research confirm the validity of the theory of new economic labor migration, that migration is based on a household decision, opposed to the neo-classical economics model.

As women undertake the responsibility of being the single earners in the family, they develop a more masculine type identity, while men end up in some kind of a gender panic. Besides becoming breadwinners in the family, women’s household duties do not cease to exist. Care workers’ daily life can be described by conflicting moral commitments of earning money abroad and caring for their own family.

Our analysis raises that gendered family economy aspects have not been taken into account properly in European migration. It also shows that there are elements of coercion, long-term structural constraints, and most of the “rational” advantages do not explain this type of labor migration.


In our paper we aim to present the main characteristics of live-in care migration from Hungary to Austria. Due to aging, the demand on care workers is increasing. Our analysis shows the supply side of the phenomenon. Our paper focuses on three main issues, the mechanism of decision-making of migration, gender roles and gender arrangements within the family, and the institutions connected to Hungarian care workers’ migration.

Our research method is based on ethnographic fieldwork, and a combined interview technique. We started the interview with narrative interview technique, namely we asked the interviewees to talk about their or their partners’ personal migration story. We analyzed the narratives by Rosenthal’s method of objective hermeneutics (Rosenthal 1993). The second part of the interviews, we applied half-structured interview method. We conducted 27 interviews, with 21 care workers, 4 "left-behind" partners, and 3 colleagues of recruitment agencies.

We conducted field work in the southern part of Baranya County, Hungary, and in the surroundings of Graz, Austria. Baranya County is located in the Southern part of Transdanubia. During state socialism, Baranya County was a heavily industrialized region. Large amount of people were employed in heavy industry, mainly in black coal, and uranium mining, besides, people were also employed in the light industry. After the end of state socialism, the region went through a remarkable decline, whose drawbacks still have serious impacts on the locals’ employment, living conditions, and on the region’s economy. The other reason we decided to observe the area was due to the ethnical (Swabian) composition of the region.

As opposed to assumptions of individual rational decision making, interviews showed that the decision about migration is made on familial basis, and migrants make a decision by themselves only if they are widows, or single, and their children are already grown-ups. Partner interviews clearly show that labor migration of spouses and partners is only a theoretical option in the discourse of the family, but it cannot be realized in practice. Bad health conditions and "incapability" of partners strengthen and enforce migration of women. Other significant coercive factor can be the long-term economic consequences of the transition after 1989, debts, overconsumption, or failure in entrepreneurship. The results of our research confirm the validity of the theory of new economic labor migration, that migration is based on a household decision, opposed to the neo-classical economics model.

One of the main results of our analysis is that migration is significantly influenced by the former employment in the sending country. Hungarian unqualified and unskilled factory worker women had a stable employment until the transition. Their job provided them with a low standard of living, but a secure life. Life course interviews demonstrate that economic transition occurred in the early ’90s brought the period of insecure jobs, dismissals, termination of positions, consequently the period of frequent job change among former working class women. In narratives which describe employment history as a downward spiral, migration is frequently presented coercive, while only those see it as an advancement whose career is more stable.

Intergenerational care arrangements of Hungarian care workers show a different pattern from other Central and Eastern European migrant caregivers known from the literature. Hungarian care workers are mostly in their fifties and sixties at the time of the departure, therefore they hardly leave any of their parents behind. However, younger Hungarian care workers are more and more present in the labor market, and the number of children left-behind with their grandmother, or babysitter is increasing.

As women undertake the responsibility of being the single earners in the family, they develop a more masculine type identity, while men end up in some kind of a gender panic. Besides becoming breadwinner in the family, women’s household duties do not cease to exist. Care workers’ daily life can be described by conflicting moral commitments of earning money abroad and caring for their own family.

Those who had more human capital, and received a job in Austria by their transnational-ethnic network, had different arguments. Besides economic motivations, their narratives contained further aspects that interestingly did not explain labor migration on their own. One of these narratives was the adventure narrative, of which we found out after conducting the partner interview that the interviewee did not reveal certain motivations.

Our analysis raises that gendered family economy aspects have not been taken into account properly in European migration. It also shows that there are elements of coercion, long-term structural constraints and most of the "rational" advantages do not explain the timing, the form and understanding of such steps.

Presented in Session 1088: International Migration and Migrant Populations