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Millions of people around the world are on the move. In some cases this movement is voluntary, as people search for better life opportunities. In others, however, the migration is forced, as people flee poverty, civil unrest, and war.
A category which deserves particular attention is that of migrant workers and, more specifically, those employed in domestic work. In Europe, about 9.5 million people work as domestic workers, including millions of home care workers (ILO, Who Are Domestic Workers?, online, 2020, pp. 1-2).
A domestic worker is defined by the International Labour Organization as “a wage-earner working in a private household, under whatever method and period of remuneration, who may be employed by one or by several employers who receive no pecuniary gain from this work” (ILO, Who Are Domestic Workers?, online, 2020, pp. 1-2). Domestic workers are usually employed as housekeepers, nannies, cooks, drivers, gardeners, and other personal servants.
Migrants carry out a significant proportion of domestic work. In 2013, the ILO estimated that 54.6% of domestic workers in Northern, Southern and Western Europe were migrant workers, a majority of whom are migrant women. Among them, 6.3 million are declared and at least 3.1 million are working undeclared. In Italy, these sectors employ 2 million people, of which 60% is foreign, Romanian in particular (ILO, Who Are Domestic Workers?, online, 2020, pp. 1-2).
The Romanian Diaspora: a Historical Background
Romanian migration to Italy is a relatively recent phenomenon but of very large dimensions: Romanians are, in fact, the most numerous group of foreign citizens in the peninsula and, by 2022, the Romanian community has a considerable economic, social, and cultural importance (IDOS, Radici a metà, Rome, Caritas, Milan, 2022, pp. 1-24).
The first Romanians who left the country did so in order to escape the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The migration, however, has taken consistency with the fall of the latter: the consequent closure of factories and rampant unemployment led Romanians to leave their country in search of better wages. In a few years, Romania had lost over 2.5 million inhabitants, equal to 10% of the population: for Romanians who move abroad, Italy quickly became the first destination (IDOS, Radici a metà, Caritas, Milan, 2022, pp. 1-24).
Italy was chosen as, at that time, it had not very restrictive entry policies and because of its cultural proximity: as Italian is, like Romanian, a neo-Latin language, it is not particularly difficult to learn; moreover, the fact that Italy is a Catholic country facilitated the flow from the Catholic regions of Romania. It should also be remembered that during the regime the Italian textile and manufacturing industries were present in Moldova, which was part of Romania at the time. Consequently, a network of relations had been created between the two countries.
The Romanian community in Italy sees a prevalence of the female component: women are 57.4% of the total of Romanians residing in the country, a much higher gap than the overall average of foreigners which sees the presence of 93 men for every 100 women. Women work mainly in care services, they are mainly domestic helpers and carers, as well as finding employment in catering and tourism (European Commission, The Impact of the Economic Crisis, online, 2012, pp. 1-224).
Care Work and its Regulation
Care work does provide important and essential services to society: caring for someone’s household or family member is a very intimate job. Being able to adjust to an employer’s preferences and communicating about intimate and emotional issues are just a few examples of how migrant domestic workers integrate in their host country’s society.
I started to take care of an old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s syndrome in December 2005. At the time I had been in Italy for around 5 months: I moved from Carsoli, a town in central Italy, to Tivoli, close to Rome, where I found this opportunity through my sister, who has been there for a while. I have been living with her for 6 years, until her death. My permanence there gave me the opportunity to learn Italian, which was not so difficult considering its similarities with Romanian.
As I spent all of my time with her, we became really close: I used to wash her, feed her, and take her to the doctor. To take her everywhere. Every time someone asked her “Who are your children?”, she used to answer “Raffaella, Gianluigi, and Giovanna”. We used to have a strong bond.
She was very close to my son Cosmin too, who considered her as a grandmother. Indeed, when he had an accident and his foot broke, her family took him to the hospital and he stayed with us for 2 months. In that span of time, she treated him like a grandson: every night I used to find them chatting and laughing in the living room. So, when she died, it was a great loss for both of us (Ileana, former carer and current housekeeper, interview by Francesca Maria Lorenzini, online, May 7, 2022).
But how is domestic work regulated in Europe and in Italy? In 2011, the International Labour Organization adopted the Domestic Workers’ Convention, which specifies a set of basic minimum rights all domestic workers should be guaranteed by national laws. The “Promoting Integration for Migrant Domestic Workers in Europe” project, in particular, is helping increase the awareness of integration challenges facing migrants in the domestic work sector in their destination countries (ILO, Domestic Workers’ Convention, online, 2011, page 189).
The European Commission and an alliance of employers, trade unions, civil society organizations as well as international institutions call on EU governments to better protect these migrants by ratifying and implementing the Domestic Workers’ Convention.
Only 8 EU Member States have, thus, done it so far: currently, a number of national laws exclude domestic workers from minimum employment standards. Ratifying and implementing the Convention requires that countries ensure domestic workers have the same rights and freedoms as other workers.
In the case of Italy, the Bossi Fini Law initiated, in 2002, the procedures for the regularization of carers and unregulated workers, which from that moment are officially recognized by the state. According to Italian law, the domestic worker is a worker like any other and the employment relationship is, as for any other subordinate worker, governed by the relevant national collective bargaining agreement.
Given the particularity of the employment relationship, especially in cases of personal assistance, the limitations contained in the regulations regarding working hours do not apply to domestic workers. An important difference occurs in the event of unlawful dismissal by the employer, as the legislation on real protection in the workplace is not applied.
In the second episode of Piume (In English: “Feathers”), the official podcast of the publishing house BeccoGiallo, the protagonist of the graphic novel Sindrome Italia: Storia delle Nostre Badanti (In English: “Italy Syndrome: A Story of Our Carers”), Vasilica, a caretaker, talks about her working experiences in Italy and in the United Kingdom.
In the United Kingdom undeclared work is not allowed, and migrants need to know the official local language and to attend professional courses for the caring of older people. Only after a test are they declared suitable for the job. At this point, it is necessary to register with a working agency which provides you clients. In Italy, there is no legal protection for the worker nor the employer and not even some kind of financial help on behalf of the government to ease the process of employment (Vasilica, carer and housekeeper, episode 2, Piume).
Italian families are dependent on foreign caring work. What would Italy be like if these workers no longer came to work, even for a day? Would Italy be on the brink of a precipice?
Integration Process and “Italy Syndrome”
Many women who decide to move to Italy are supported by a web of acquaintances in the country of destination. This is the case of Emilia, who decided to leave Romania with her then partner, now her husband.
I was only 20 at the time. We decided to come to Italy because it was a popular destination from Romania at the time and we had great expectations about our life there… Furthermore, my cousin had been living there for a year at our arrival and she helped us in finding a house and a job. I have been working as a babysitter, housekeeper, and butcher, while my husband used to work for a varnisher.
At first it was really hard because we did not know the language, but we were really lucky because we found a lot of people, both Italian and Romanian immigrants, who helped us both with the language and work. They transformed Italy into our second house.
Therefore, in April 2001, our daughter Sabina was born: not having our families around made the situation more difficult, but fortunately we could afford a babysitter, with whom Sabina still keeps in touch.
Honestly I did not want to come back to Romania: it was my husband who insisted on doing it as he wanted to open his own business. So, in 2012 we left and he founded his varnisher business, an activity which was almost unknown in Romania and that now counts 10 employees.
In the meanwhile, I opened a saloon: indeed, I attended a course to become a hairdresser before moving to Italy. I used to own the saloon until 2019, when my husband’s business increased more than expected: he could not continue alone anymore and I quit my activity to work with him (Emilia, former housekeeper, interview by Francesca Maria Lorenzini, online, May 8, 2022)
The situation was much more difficult for Vasilica who came to Italy alone, without any connection.
You arrive in a country you know nothing about, you don’t know the language, or what you are going to encounter. I left my country because my family was poor, my children didn’t have food at our table and I didn’t see another possibility. Nobody told me what I would find outside and, when I joined an Italian family, they didn’t even know who I was. Indeed, it was difficult for both of us.
I first went to Palermo as a babysitter, working from 6.30 am to 10 pm without a break for nearly two months. As the lady I lived with didn’t think I should eat too, I kept going on with cookies, milk, and coffee. I didn’t eat meat for weeks. When you are a migrant, nobody looks at you as if you were a person: you have to put aside your feelings, emotions and family which, for me, was composed by my children. When I no longer had them I no longer had anything. This was the worst thing. I think it was at that point that I started to develop the Italy Syndrome (Vasilica, carer and housekeeper, episode 2, Piume).
When we talk about “Italy Syndrome”, we refer to a widespread depressive status that occurs in foreign domestic workers both in their host country and in their country of origin at their return. While this syndrome is not recognized as a mental illness, depression is defined by the World Health Organization as “a mental disorder characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities” (Evans-Lacko, Aguilar-Gaxiola, Al-Hamzawi, “Socio-economic variations”, Psychol Medicine, Vol. 48, online, 2018, pages 1560-1571).
One of the main consequences of the “Italy Syndrome” is a sense of alienation, that Emilia experienced: When I came back to Romania I felt lonely, as if I was a foreigner in my own country: the habits were different, the mindset too… people were envious towards us and I considered coming back to Italy several times (Emilia, former housekeeper, interview by Francesca Maria Lorenzini, online, May 8, 2022).
Tiziana Francesca Vaccaro, author of Sindrome Italia and friend of Vasilica, talks about her work.
The reason why I chose Vasilica’s story for the writing of “Sindrome Italia” is related to the fact that her story was the most complete: she migrated from Romania to Italy, then she came back and moved again, but this time to England.
The Italy Syndrome accompanied her during all these experiences, in finding herself lost, in not recognizing her house, her grown up children and the people she left.
Unlike the other women who were still in Italy and worked as carers, she had a greater awareness, precisely by virtue of the fact that she had lived the experience in a deeper way. Her testimony was a response to a thing she had not experienced yet: listening. She wanted, somehow, to tell her story to other women so that they could know what to expect both in Italy and at their return.
I remember that during one of our conversations she told me: “It seems so strange to me that I’m telling you these things that even my closest friends don’t know. Instead, a stranger is slowly learning everything about me” (Tiziana Francesca Vaccaro, actress, director, and author, interview by Francesca Maria Lorenzini, online, May 10, 2022).
There are times in which women come to Italy alone, leaving their children home to the care of fathers or grandparents, in the best of cases, but also of neighbors or left in orphanages. In 2020, UNICEF had at least 350,000 assisted children in Romania, equal to 7% of Romanian minors: out there, there is an army of “White Orphans”. Also known as “Euro-Orphans”, both the neologisms are used metaphorically to describe a “social orphan” in the European Union whose parents have migrated to another member state, typically for economic reasons. The expression itself is a misnomer, since it describes temporary child abandonment, rather than the death of both parents (Nowak, Gaweda, Janas-Kozik, The Euro-orphans, Polish Psychiatric Association, Vol. 46, online, 2012, pp. 295–304).
Regarding this aspect, Marius and Camelia’s experience is revealed to be significant.
We came to Italy in 2001 and remained there until 2007. We moved looking for better life opportunities, in particular for our children: a boy and a girl. When we left, the former was around 6 years old, the latter only 1 year and half. Nevertheless, we decided to leave them in Romania in the care of their grandparents.
Even though we enjoyed our time in Italy – we used to have a lot of friends, both Italian and Romanian – our stay was really hard not only because of the language but, particularly, because we missed our children.
When our daughter started primary school, we decided to come back to Romania. We also considered taking our children here but at the time this seemed the right choice.
Our return was difficult: even though we were finally reunited with our children, we didn’t feel it was our home anymore and we had to start everything from the beginning for a second time (Marius and Camelia, former construction worker and housekeeper respectively, interview by Francesca Maria Lorenzini, online, May 8, 2022)
If Marius and Camelia’s story has a happy ending, there are children who cannot handle the distance. Indeed, the lack of parental care often jeopardizes the state of health of the minor who tends not to eat regularly, worsens school learning and can lead to frequent bad company. From a psychological point of view, the consequences can range from a disposition to depression up to, in the worst case scenario, suicide (Montrella, Dramma Sociale, Agi, online, 2019, pp. 23-25).
Their parents, mothers, in particular, experience these feelings, too. Their emotions have a name, which is “Italy Syndrome”, a mix of depressive symptoms that affect these women during their stay in Italy, but especially when they return home.
In those families that now consider them strangers, in those very poor countries where they are pointed out as “rich” by those children with whom the bond has been irreparably broken. These symptoms are, indeed, accentuated by the distance of family members and concern for children, partners and sometimes even their distant parents. Added to this is the lack of a social network of support.
But the highest price is paid by the children. Phone calls, packages, and money fail to fill the emotional void.
“We used to come back twice a year: at Christmas and in August. Every time we had to come back to Italy, our son was desperate and didn’t want to talk to us on the phone for a month or more. “Why don’t you stay here?”, he used to say. For our daughter it was easier as she was younger: she didn’t know how life was with us,” says Camelia referring to her job as a nanny, leaving her children to raise other people’s ones (Camelia, former housekeeper, online, May 8, 2022).
For these women, talking about their experiences is very difficult: most of the times, the things that happen in Italy, remain there. They are not told to the children nor the husband. When they talk with family members waiting for them at their home, they say that everything is fine. The family of origin does not really know what these women are going through, neither in their bodies, nor in their heads. And it is one of the reasons why, during their stay abroad and upon their return, they develop a series of symptoms and malaises precisely because of what they have not been able to say over the years.
Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS, Radici a metà, IDOS Editions: Milan, 2022, pp. 187.
Editorial Board, “European Alliance Calls on EU Governments to Implement Convention on Domestic Workers”, European Commission, 2021. Available online at: https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=89&furtherNews=yes&langId=en&newsId=10037.
Editorial Board, “The Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Situation of Women and Men and on Gender Equality Policies”, European Commission, 2012, pp. 224.
Editorial Board, “Who Are Domestic Workers?”, International Labour Organization, 2020. Available online at: https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/domestic-workers/WCMS_209773/lang–en/index.htm
Evans-Lacko S, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, Al-Hamzawi A, “Socio-Economic Variations in the Mental Health Treatment Gap for People with Anxiety, Mood, and Substance Use Disorders: Results from the WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys”, Psychol Medicine, Vol. 48, 2018, pp. 1560-1571.
Montrella, Sonia, “C’è un Dramma Sociale che Affligge le Badanti dell’Est e i Loro Figli”, Agi, 2019. Available online at: https://www.agi.it/cronaca/badanti_colf_est-5819944/news/2019-07-11/
Nowak, M; Gaweda, A; Janas-Kozik, M, “The Euro-Orphans Phenomenon and the Courses in Therapeutic Work and Psychiatric Treatment: A Case Study”, Polish Psychiatric Association, Vol. 46, 2012, pp. 295–304.
Triandafyllidou Anna, “Irregular Migrant Domestic Workers in Europe: Who Cares?”, Routledge: London, 2016, pp.256.
Vaccaro, Tiziana Francesca, “Sindrome Italia: Storia delle Nostre Badanti”, BeccoGiallo Editore: Milan, 2021, pp. 153.