Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Domestic work and home care brokerage in Sri Lanka and Austria: on ‘fictitious commodities’, dis/embedded markets, ‘institutional logics’ and social inequalities

30th of August, 2023

Brigitte Aulenbacher and Wasana Handapangoda

Since the 1990s, in the era of neoliberal globalization, a new migration industry has taken shape: the brokerage of domestic services by recruiting mostly female workers from the poorer parts of the world or of the population and placing them as domestic or care workers in middle- and upper-class households around the globe. The article draws on two projects and compares the transnational brokerage of domestic work in Sri Lanka and home care in Austria[1]. It aims at analysing this migration industry through Polanyian, neo-institutionalist and intersectional lenses.


Labour and care brokerage as paradigmatic case of the ‘commodity fiction’ and its limits


In the Sri Lankan and Austrian case, brokerage agencies are intermediators, and the core element of their activity is, in a Polanyian sense, the transformation of labour and care into ‘fictitious commodities’ which are sold like ‘genuine commodities’ but neither have been ‘produced for sale’ nor can ‘be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized’ (Polanyi 2001, p.75; see Aulenbacher and Leiblfinger 2019). In both cases, these inherent limits of the ‘commodity fiction’ (Polanyi 2001, p. 75) become visible when it comes to the so called ‘matching’ of the households (employers or care recipients and relatives) and the domestic and care workers in the live-in work arrangement: on the one hand, brokerage agencies as marketeers consider domestic and care workers as a more or less readily workforce in competitive labour markets and therefore offer to exchange them if the arrangement does not work as expected by the households (Aulenbacher et al. 2020; Handapangoda 2023); on the other hand and far away from the idea of workforce ‘detached from the rest of life’ (Polanyi 2001, p.75), households as well as brokerage agencies often expect that domestic and care workers subordinate their whole life to the demands and needs of employers or care recipients during the period they are hired for (Handapangoda 2023; Lutz and Benazha 2024), transforming live-in work as a specific case of ‘unfree labour’ (Parreñas 2021).

Although the ideology of the ‘free market’ is most significant in the field of domestic work and home care brokerage, the consumer as well as the labour market can be considered as dis/embedded markets in a Polanyian sense: while pretended to be ‘self-regulating’ (Polanyi 2001, 157) by supply and demand, they are obviously embedded in the normative and   institutional order of the society. This means they are politically shaped and regulated by the state (laws, politics, and policies) and influenced by further “institutional logics” (Thornton et al, 2012, pp. 3ff., 65ff.) – besides those of the market and state also by religious, familial, professional, communitarian etc., orientations which are inherent to the respective care, employment, welfare, and migration regimes of the countries involved. This normative and institutional order also shapes and is shaped by social inequalities, e.g., in terms of the division and recognition of labour, care etc., in the relations of gender, race/ethnicity and class. In this normative and institutional order hybrid and stratified live-in work and care arrangements take shape (Dammayr 2019, p. 51ff.; Aulenbacher et al. 2018), which are formalized and informally organized. In this setting, the commodification of labour and care is interwoven with imageries of the ‘ideal’ migrant and female worker defined along criteria, such as education, nationality, colour of skin, religion, emotions etc., who is expected to fulfill the professional as well as familial demands of the household and to provide the services promised by the brokerage agencies. Thereby the legal status of labour and care brokerage legitimizes the live-in arrangement despite the extremely exploitative working conditions workers are often subject to (Aulenbacher and Prieler 2024; Handapangoda 2023; Parreñas 2021; Prieler 2021; Steiner et al. 2020). 


The Sri Lankan kafala and the Austrian self-employment model of brokerage

In Polanyi’s perspective (2001), brokerage typifies how state and non-state actors interact and at times compete to limit exposure to the market (Goodwin 2022). Dealing with the ‘fictitious commodity’ labour, in Sri Lanka brokers act as ‘bureaucratic interpreters’ (Wee et al. 2020, p. 994). They translate policy texts into tacit and explicit advice as well as private contracts (Wee et al. 2020) and aim at professionalizing domestic services by certifications, education etc. Kafala, a private sponsorship system by the employer, characterizes unarguably the most significant rule of law governing the recruitment of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) from Sri Lanka to the Middle East (e.g., Kuwait and Saudi-Arabia). It defines the employer – employee  relationship, giving employers absolute control over MDWs’ work and residency status in the Middle East. This means that their entry, stay/work, and exit from the country of destination are subject to employer’s express consent. Importantly, kafala as a sponsorship scheme is connected to an excessive brokerage borne by the employer. This is particularly the case of Sri Lanka where employers have to pay around $5,500–6,500 for hiring one domestic worker. Brokerage therefore creates a form of debt slavery, whereas it is recovered by the employer through exploitation, overwork and non-payment or withholding of salary to MDWs. The whole commerce behind this employer – employee relationship coalesces around the exploitation of labour power through market capitalism. Migration brokers are thus powerful players in the dis/embedded consumer and labour markets. They exercise a greater degree of latitude in determining the relation of market and non-market institutions, thus wavering between self-regulation of the market at one end and absence of the market at the other, combining the logics of the state, market and profession with a system of personal debt, thereby promoting extremely exploitative working conditions in the frame of ‘unfree labour’ (Parreñas 2021).   

 Austria’s strongly neoliberal self-employment model of senior home care brokerage is considered to be forerunner of legal and affordable care provision (Steiner et al. 2020) embedded in a care regime in which the logics of the welfare state, family, profession and market converge (Shire 2015): cash-for-care policies – uncommitted care allowances and additional federal allowances to support the live-in care arrangement –, legalization of live-in work and its professional acceptance as personal care by the Home Care Act as well as the separation between brokerage of personal care and personal care as free trades, have created the conditions for a flourishing consumer market in which brokerage agencies offer their services by recruiting self-employed care workers, mostly women from Eastern Europe  (Aulenbacher et al. 2020; Leiblfinger and Prieler 2018; Leiber and Österle 2022). Brokerage agencies deal with the ‘fictitious commodities’ of care and labour by offering householding, companion, everyday life and medical assistance as services, intermediating the ‘ideal’ care worker, drafting the contracts for all parties involved, thereby indirectly influencing many caring and working conditions of the live-in arrangement, such as fees, honorarium, transport, demands, etc. Furthermore, brokerage agencies act as stakeholders and lobbyists to influence the (self-)regulation and business conditions of this migration industry by themselves or by addressing the state (to increase the federal allowances, to indirectly regulate the market by a national quality seal, etc.) (Aulenbacher et al. 2020; Leiber and Österle 2022). Thereby brokerage agencies as the most powerful players of all the parties involved, formalize more and more their own business conditions striving to improve the domestic services while the negotiation of the live-in arrangement in private households remains in a zone of informality due to the reason that self-employment is not covered and protected by the labour law and rights (Aulenbacher and Prieler 2024).


Comparison and conclusion


In the Sri Lankan and the Austrian case of live-in work and care, blurring boundaries between work and leisure time, sexual harassment, extended demands and duties, ethnic or racist stereotypes and division of labour, and lack of respect for workers are part of the everyday practice (Aulenbacher and Leiblfinger 2019; Prieler 2021; Handapangoda 2024). Brokers are aware of the exploitability and vulnerability of poor female migrant workers and of the social inequality – workers pushed to migrate, employers or care recipients able to pay for the services – as constitutive element of their business. They often consider themselves as mediators between all parties involved. However, they provide their services primarily in favour of the employers or the care recipients and their relatives because most of the payment comes from them while many decisions concerning everyday life and work in the live-in arrangement are made in the informality of the private households and this means: between unequal parties and beyond the given contracts.

The Sri Lankan kafala and the Austrian self-employment-model of brokerage evidence how different the commodification of labour and care are embedded in socio-spatial and historical settings in the Global North and South and the normative and institutional order of the countries involved. Nevertheless, such extremely different models of the ‘commodification’, ‘marketization’ and ‘corporatization’ (Farris and Marchetti 2017) of labour and care in the global brokerage industry – kafala as a system of personal debt and self-employment as a system of neoliberal self-responsibility – have in common that labour rights fail. On highly competitive dis/embedded consumer and labour markets, the formalization, professionalization and regulation of domestic services by brokers can be combined with extremely poor working and living conditions of the domestic and care workers. However, struggles and protests of domestic and care workers – as a Polanyian ‘countermovement’ (Polanyi 2001, see Aulenbacher et al. 2020) – around the globe (Blofield & Jokela 2018; Marchetti 2022; Schilliger 2024) indicate the limits of this new ‘commodity fiction’ (Polanyi 2001) in domestic service provision.

[1]Austrian country study of the D-A-CH-project „Decent Care Work? Transnational Home Care Arrangements“ funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF (project I 3145 G 29) and conducted by Brigitte Aulenbacher (applicant/chair), Michael Leiblfinger, Veronika Prieler, Johannes Kepler University Linz/Austria; duration 06/2017-11/2021 ( and Lise-Meitner-Grant „‘Ideal’ Migrant Subjects: Domestic Service in Globalization“ (project M 2724-G) funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and conducted by Wasana Handapangoda (applicant/chair) and Brigitte Aulenbacher (co-applicant/mentor), Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria, duration 11/2019-04/2023.



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Brigitte Aulenbacher

Prof. Dr. Brigitte Aulenbacher is Head of the Department for the Theory of Society, Institute of Sociology, at the Johannes Kepler University Linz and Vice-President of the International Karl Polanyi Sociey.

Wasana Handapangoda

Dr. Wasana Handapangoda is currently a Visiting Scholar (Lise Meitner-Grant/FWF) at the Department for the Theory of Society, Institute of Sociology, at the Johannes Kepler University Linz (2019-2023)

Read the other essays on the Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing here: