The Market for Migrant Domestic and Sex Workers July 2002 – December 2006


This project examined empirical, theoretical and policy questions about domestic work, commercial sex and trafficking by investigating the market for migrant labour (including the labour of those aged under 18) in these sectors, and tracing connections between this demand and socially tolerated attitudes towards gender, race/ethnicity, age and sexuality. Paid domestic in private households and the commercial sex trade are both largely unregulated spheres of economic activity relying on a predominantly female workforce. Working conditions are often very poor, and workers are at risk of various forms of abuse and violence. In Europe they are both important sectors of employment for migrant women, and the markets have been strongly affected by global economic and social changes.

This project built on pilot research published by the International Organization for Migration to produce and analyse quantitative and qualitative data on prostitute users, employers of domestic workers and third party beneficiaries in six countries (Sweden, Italy, Thailand, India, Barcelona and London), supplemented with ethnographic research on the market for migrant sex and domestic workers in Tenerife. Funding was obtained from the ESRC to extend and develop this pilot work through matching and supplementary research in the UK and Spain, and more rigorous and detailed analysis of the data generated by the pilot study and the follow-on research.

Principal Investigator

Bridget Anderson, Julia O’Connell Davidson (University of Nottingham)


Caitlin Farrow (University of Nottingham), Inka Stock (University of Oxford), Patrizia Testai (University of Nottingham)


Economic and Social Research Council

Professionals' Advisory Group

Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham


Spain, UK


GenderIllegalityLabour Markets




Sex and care work raise important questions about the relation between labour, labour power and embodiment, and what happens to ideas of contract when the liberal fiction of disembodied labour power cannot be sustained. This research sought to generate data that would allow us to engage with theoretical debates around migration; forced and free labour; embodied and emotional labour; gender, race, sexuality, nationality and citizenship.


This project involved in depth interviews with a non-random sample of ten users of migrant prostitutes, ten employers of migrant domestic workers and between five and ten third party beneficiaries of migrant prostitution or domestic work in each city. The interviews were structured around a standard set of topics and examined respondents’ attitudes towards gender race/ethnicity and domestic work/commercial sex. Interviews with representatives from a range of organisations and experts in the UK and Spain allowed data to be contextualised. A small pilot survey on the more general demand for commercial sex and domestic work was also developed. Ethnographic data was also gathered from Tenerife, with a view to examining the role of tourism in constructing markets for sex and domestic work.


The research found that there is no absolute level of demand for the services of sex or domestic workers. Where these services are cheaply available, people are more likely to feel that they “need them”. But an affordable supply is not a sufficient condition for demand. Demand is also linked to personal histories and circumstances, and social norms play an important role in employment decisions and practices. Employers of domestic workers valued the economic, social and political inequalities that separated them from migrants because it allowed them to imagine that they were “helping out” rather than simply “employing”, which enabled them to manage an otherwise potentially conflict-ridden relationship. They often actively sought migrants knowing their vulnerable immigration status would give the employer greater control over aspects of the employment relation, in particular labour retention. The same was true of some employers in the sex sector.

It was also found that employers and clients had very different ideas about children’s involvement in sex and domestic work. Employers tended to relate to their adult domestic workers as if they were children (calling them “girls”, “naughty” etc). They felt that children could make good domestic workers and often stated that they would employ a child if they lived in countries where this was common practice. Clients on the other hand, while attaching sexual value to youth also tended to believe that only adults could consent to the prostitution contract, and such consent was important to them. Client interviewees were cognizant of recent debates about the commercial sexual exploitation of children in a way that domestic workers employer interviewees were not aware of debates about domestic as one of the worst forms of child labour.

The research also drew attention to the role of the state in constructing markets for commercial sex and domestic work. The state directly generates demand for domestic workers through its policies on provision of care in private households for example, but also, the fact that it does not treat either domestic work or commercial sex as employment like any other has great significance for the markets for sex and domestic workers. It means that the (implicit) contracts forged with workers in these sectors are treated as a private matter, and the state thus creates what is effectively a radically free ‘free market’. However, ‘sellers’ and ‘buyers’ of services are not equal, and certain immigration statuses create marginalized groups who are vastly unequal to buyers.