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The satisfaction paradox revisited

Patterns of wage interpretation among migrant and ethnic minority workers in low-wage jobs
Satisfaits malgré de bas salaires. Regards de travailleurs européens issus de la diversité
Satisfechos a pesar de los salarios bajos. Miradas de trabajadores europeos provenientes de la diversidad
Karin Sardadvar, Ekaterina L. Markova et Ambra Poggi
Traduction(s) :
Satisfaits malgré de bas salaires [fr]


Les emplois à bas salaire et peu considérés socialement sont en général associés à un faible niveau de satisfaction au travail. Pourtant, ce n’est pas toujours le cas. Le but de cet article est d’éclairer les données qui ressortent de certains secteurs économiques et segments d’emplois, où des travailleurs immigrés (ou appartenant à des minorités ethniques) conjuguent bas salaires, faible considération sociale et niveaux élevés de satisfaction au travail. Sur la base de données empiriques qualitatives tirées du secteur du nettoyage en Autriche, du secteur des déchets en Bulgarie et de l’aide aux personnes âgées en Italie, nous présentons quatre modèles d’interprétation de leur salaire par les travailleurs : (1) « C’est mieux que rien » – le manque d’alternatives ; (2) « C’est mieux qu’avant » – l’héritage des expériences passées ; (3) « C’est mieux que là-bas » – la comparaison avec le pays d’origine ; (4) « Ensemble, on s’en sort » – le salaire comme contribution au revenu familial. Nous concluons que des circonstances défavorables et une vision relativiste de leur salaire amènent les travailleurs à revoir leurs aspirations à la baisse.

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Introduction: The empirical puzzle of low-wage work satisfaction

1A ‘good job’ encompasses the concepts of wages as economic compensation, job status as social status, and job satisfaction as a subjective psychological criterion. At the same time, it represents individual accomplishments in the labour market in regard to workers’ entire life (Bang & Lee, 2006). Job satisfaction in particular depends on objective working conditions as well as subjective factors (see, e.g., Easterlin, 2001 ; Frey & Stutzer, 2002; Diener et al., 1999; Clark & Oswald, 1994; 1996; Poggi, 2010). As a rule, jobs characterised by low wages and low status are associated with a low level of job satisfaction (Eurofound, 2013). However, this is not always the case.

2The aim of this contribution is to shed light on a puzzle that emerges in some economic sectors and low-skill occupations with high shares of immigrant or ethnic minority workers who experience low pay and low job status associated with comparatively high levels of job satisfaction. To address this ‘satisfaction paradox’ (Zapf, 1984) and thereby gain a deeper understanding of some of the mechanisms of social inequality, we investigate how workers perceive and interpret their wages. We thus address the ‘satisfaction paradox’ by linking it to qualitative, interpretative research.

3We specifically investigate how processes of adjusting aspirations (e.g., adaptation processes) and specific reference points shape wage satisfaction for migrant, immigrant and ethnic minority workers in low-wage jobs. We draw on six qualitative case studies from three different European countries and sectors, each of them comprising 10 to 20 qualitative interviews (see box 1). These case studies were conducted in the Austrian cleaning sector, the Italian elderly care sector and the Bulgarian waste collection sector.

4We start by providing an outline of the theoretical background (section 2), and continue by presenting the data and methods (box 1) as well as the relevant characteristics of the investigated sectors (section 3). We then present four empirical patterns of interpreting wages and discuss their potential to explain the satisfaction paradox (section 4) and end with some conclusions (section 5).

Theoretical background: The satisfaction paradox and the relative income and adaptations theory

5Despite the general correlation between low wages and low job satisfaction, low wages are in some cases accompanied by a surprisingly high degree of job satisfaction. One possible explanation for this apparent paradox has been suggested by the relative income and adaptations theory. According to this theory, increases in absolute income do not significantly increase happiness (Easterlin, 1974 ; 1995). After reaching the income threshold necessary to satisfy an individual’s basic needs, the main force driving that individual’s happiness-income relationship is not absolute income but the individual’s relative position within the income distribution (Clark & Oswald, 1996 ; Stutzer, 2004; Ferrer-i-Carbonell, 2005). In certain population sub-groups, such as poor and deprived individuals, not only does relative income matter, but adaptation mechanisms also emerge (see Neff & Olsen, 2007). In these cases, the process of adjusting aspirations leads to a downwards revision of aspirations that reflects disadvantaged circumstances (Clark, 2009). Thus, people often report to be satisfied with their quality of life even if they live in disadvantaged circumstances (Zapf, 1984 ; Harker, 2001 ; Beiser et al., 2002 ; Sam et al., 2008 ; Baltatescu, 2005). Zapf calls these people ‘adapted people’, the process ‘adaptation’, and terms this phenomenon the ‘satisfaction paradox’. In the light of social inequalities and the unequal income distribution, it is a crucial research interest to understand how this satisfaction paradox comes about in order to avoid drawing the misleading conclusion that workers are simply satisfied with low wages.

6Glatzer (1987) and Olsen and Schober (1993) explain this phenomenon with the aid of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Festinger’s theory postulates that dissatisfaction is a state that people cannot endure for a long time because of the associated cognitive tension. Hence, they try to reduce this tension in two ways. The first way is to change the situation so that it meets the standards of the person. The second way is to change one’s own standards, i.e., to re-evaluate the perceived situation in order to adapt to it. Immigrants, for instance, were observed to make re-evaluations based on the differences between their actual conditions and the situation in their countries of origin (see Harker, 2001 ; Beiser et al., 2002 ; Baltatescu, 2005 ; Clark & Senik, 2010).

7Thus, according to Elster (1982 ; 1983) and Qizilbash (2006), adaptation is due to habituation and resignation to poor circumstances; it increases individual wellbeing – but at the cost of autonomy. Adjusting aspirations can lead to human limitations in terms of the capacity to acquire and to retain and process relevant information for making informed judgements (Qizilbash, 2006). These human limitations can lead to a low quality and limited quantity of available opportunities. Sen states that people change their perceptions as an outcome of a process of social or cultural conditioning, that is, people basically learn to adjust to straitened circumstances by the ‘sheer necessity of survival’ (Sen, 1984, 309 ; 1987, 63). This then leads indirectly to the ‘acceptance of the unequal order’ and turns the deprived into ‘implicit accomplice[s]’ (Sen, 1990, 126 ; cf. Nussbaum, 1995 ; 2000 ; 2006).

8To sum up, job satisfaction is indeed related to wages. Nevertheless, there are also some other variables unrelated to job quality (dissonance, relative thinking, adaptable expectations, etc.) that affect the level of job satisfaction. We need to take these into account in order to explain variations in the registered satisfaction levels across workers in order not to misinterpret relatively high wage satisfaction as a proof of objectively acceptable working conditions. These variables could lead to positive subjective evaluations of job quality even if objective indicators (such as wages) indicate bad working conditions. In this context, we explore further evidence of these processes by relying on different methods. Our analysis builds upon an earlier contribution (Markova et al., 2015) that presents initial empirical qualitative findings on migrant and ethnic minority workers’ perceptions of low wages in light of the compensating wage differentials theory and the relative income and adaptations theory. In this contribution, we present additional empirical findings and look more closely at the relative income and adaptation theory.

Data and methods: Investigating economic concepts through qualitative analysis

This contribution is based on six organisational case studies conducted from 2011 to 2012 as part of the research project “Work and Life Quality in New and Growing Jobs” (see They include two Austrian cleaning companies, two Italian organisations providing domiciliary elderly care and two Bulgarian waste collection companies. The case studies involve a total of 50 semi-structured qualitative interviews with employers, managers, works councillors and workers. Employee interviews lasted between one and three hours each and were carried out face-to-face at workers’ homes or work sites. The data was analysed using interpretive coding methods.

We analyse the empirical findings obtained in the case studies in the context of the theoretical background summarised in the previous section. In doing so, we focus on qualitative data in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the reasons, attitudes and motivation of the workers that underlie the reported job satisfaction. Most of the literature refers to survey data and generic satisfaction scales that may distinguish between different aspects of job satisfaction. While quantitative data thus allows us to ascertain whether or to what degree a worker is satisfied with her or his wage and job, the qualitative interview data provides different kinds of information. It can provide explorative and inductive findings and, as such, new pieces to the aforementioned puzzle, based on the relevance systems of the people in the field. Yet, this approach is not to be misunderstood as a relativization of ‘hard facts’ and measures such as low pay. Rather, it aims to find the individual stories and social patterns behind these hard facts.

Low-wage work in different contexts: Sector characteristics and wage levels in the investigated countries

9The countries and sectors included in the analyses for this contribution were selected to represent different regions in the EU, different frameworks of regulation, and different groups of migrants and ethnic minorities. Here, we take a look at some sector characteristics and at wage levels as a context for the investigation of the satisfaction paradox in the subsequent section.

Domiciliary elderly care in Italy

10There are two occupations in the domiciliary elderly care sector in Italy: social care operators and personal assistant caregivers. The social care operators are social workers trained to provide basic social care and act as a support to medical and nursing staff. Their activities are addressed (a) to meet the basic social and health needs and (b) to promote the welfare and autonomy of the elderly person. They are most frequently employed in residential care structures. The personal assistants are generic caregivers who do not need to have any formal qualification and who can also work in a co-habitation regime. Their tasks are limited to (a) personal assistance (in particular, helping the elderly person to satisfy primary needs: eating, getting dressed, getting up, etc.), (b) maintenance of the person’s home (for example, tidying and cleaning) and (c) relational support. About 90% of personal care assistants are immigrant women, mainly from Romania and Peru, often working in Italy illegally (Bizzotto & Villosio, 2011).

11In 2011, at the time of research, according to the collective agreement, the minimum gross wage level for social care operators (trained caregivers) was €1,313.40 per month. Most often, workers work part-time, and working hours may also be subject to unpredictable reductions. The minimum monthly wage set by the collective agreement for personal assistants (unqualified caregivers) in the cohabitation regime ranges from €790 (care for self-sufficient people) to €900 (care for non-self-sufficient people); in the case of non-cohabitation in the client’s home, the minimum hourly wage is €5.60 and €6.20 respectively. These minimum wage levels in the elderly care sector are on average lower than the minimum levels in other sectors; for instance, the minimum monthly wage in manufacturing is €1,502, in construction €1,520. The progressive disinvestment of the public sector in elderly care due to budget cuts is pushing wages further downwards (Bizzotto & Villosio, 2011).

Commercial cleaning in Austria

12The commercial cleaning sector in Austria has been steadily expanding since 2000. However, the share of part-time workers has increased, too, and is high at almost 50%. Approximately two thirds of the employees in the sector (65.3%) are women. While the sector in general is thus female-dominated, there are pronounced patterns of gender segregation within it (Sardadvar et al., 2015 ; Sardadvar, 2016).

13The share of immigrants in the sector is high, with the large majority of immigrants coming from countries outside the EU. With regard to their country of birth, 40% of the workers in the sector were born in Austria, 40% in the former Yugoslavia and 10% in Turkey (Eichmann et al., 2008, 64).

14In Austria, as in other countries (see, e.g., Aguiar & Herod, 2006 ; Schürmann, 2013), cleaning work is low-status and low-wage work. Wages in the cleaning sector by and large correspond to the collective agreements; there is rarely any wage competition between companies and about 80% of cleaners are placed in the same wage bracket (Holtgrewe & Sardadvar, 2011). This applies particularly for office cleaning, which the research focussed on. In 2011, office cleaners earned €7.52 (2016: 8,36) per hour and residential building cleaners €7.57 (2016: €8.75), according to the collective agreement. The minimum wage for a formally unskilled full-time office cleaner amounts to roughly € 20,000 per year. For comparison, the mean wage of all full-time employed blue-collar workers was at €32,055 gross per year in 2014. Overall, the group of female blue-collar workers, which includes office cleaners, has the lowest average income in the country, at €10,887 gross per year (median income, part-time wages included) (Statistik Austria, 2016).

Waste collection in Bulgaria

15The waste management sub-sector in Bulgaria is comparatively undeveloped; the country ranks last among the EU-27 countries in waste management (EEA, 2010). The largest share of waste is still landfilled, and the recycling rate remains low (EEA, 2013). This level also reflects the quality and organisation of work in the sector. The main workforce in Bulgarian waste collection and urban sanitation are people of Roma ethnicity with low educational levels, many of them without primary education. Gender segmentation in the sector is high (Sardadvar et al., 2015). The social vulnerability of this group of the workforce is high, and was exacerbated during the course of the 2008 economic crisis, when other low-skilled employment opportunities previously open to them were lost. Hence, Roma workers’ chances of finding alternative employment are very low (Peycheva et al., 2012). In addition, waste collection, sweeping and public sanitation are perceived as occupations with low social prestige (Kirov, 2011).

16The minimum wage in Bulgaria was the equivalent of €174 per month in 2011 (Bulgarian Government Act No. 250/11). The at-risk-of-poverty threshold was €139 (NSI, 2010), and the average gross monthly earnings for basic occupations for 2010 were €181 (NSI, 2013). The waste sector is not covered by a collective agreement, and the average salaries in the waste sector are low. A sweeper’s wage in 2010–11 was between €178 and €194 – close to the minimum wage for the country. Waste collectors receive between €200 and €340, depending on the type of company (private/municipal) and the city.

Empirical patterns: Workers’ interpretation of wages in light of the satisfaction paradox

17It is crucial to note that the findings reveal aspects of wage dissatisfaction as well as satisfaction. In the data, ‘wage dissatisfaction’ refers to two main points: first, that the wage does not provide security and does not cover living expenses (Bulgarian waste collection, Italian elderly care), and second, that the wage is perceived as unfair, for example in relation to tenure or the hardships of the job (Austrian cleaning) (for details, see Markova et al., 2015). In this contribution, however, we focus on the evidence of wage satisfaction.

18This section describes patterns that may enhance our understanding of the satisfaction paradox. They illustrate the ways workers frame and interpret their wages. These patterns are not to be understood as a typology differentiating between groups of workers, but they are patterns of reasoning and interpretation that we identified in our analysis. This implies that one individual can refer to more than one pattern. We will provide details on the contexts in which each pattern emerges in the sections below. With regard to the relative income and adaptations theory, these empirical patterns provide a possible answer to the question of how it can be that many of the interviewees, despite their awareness of the bad aspects of working conditions and low wages, still claim a considerable amount of satisfaction.

Pattern 1: ‘Better than nothing’ – the lack of alternatives

19Parts of the investigated workforces have only very limited employment alternatives on the labour market due to low formal education, lack of skill recognition and/or negative stereotypes. In the case of the Roma minority in Bulgaria, low education and external negative stereotypes in particular play a part (Markova, 2012 ; Markova et al., 2012). Migrant workers in Italy often have to find a job requiring a low education and skill level. For some, elderly care work is the only possibility of employment in Italy. In the case of cleaning in Austria, work in the sector is one of the main options for finding employment with low or non-recognised qualifications and/or low German skills. The lack of alternative options in the labour market that results from these aspects of social inequality has an impact on wage interpretations and satisfaction.

20In the context of the situation of waste workers in Bulgaria – low pay, low education and low social prestige – we find the perception that there are no other options and therefore it does not make sense to complain about the working conditions from the workers’ points of view:

“Ashamed or not – I simply do not have a choice.” (waste collector, Bulgaria)

The lack of alternatives, which is also typical for care workers in Italy, becomes very explicit in the reasoning of the following interviewee:

“At the end of the month I get 300 Euros of net salary. I don’t go anywhere with that amount. But I always say better 300 Euros than nothing.” (personal assistant, Italy)

21In the case of this precariously employed low-wage worker, we may not infer that she is satisfied, but the analysis suggests that she interprets her wage more positively than would be expected, and she does so in light of the absence of opportunities for receiving a higher wage.

22Austrian cleaning workers also interpret their jobs in light of the fact that they perceive few labour market alternatives. For different reasons, work in cleaning was typically one of the few options people felt they had when they started to work in Austria. Among these reasons are low German skills, low education, non-recognition of diplomas and losing one’s job at middle age.

“I thought to myself: There won’t be anything else for me than something … a cleaning job, yes.” (office cleaner, Austria)

23The cleaner just quoted, for example, does not think that the wage is appropriate, but at the same time, she has internalized the idea that low-skilled work is automatically low-wage work:

“You also have to take into account, you don’t have training for this, nothing. There is nothing you can show. So why should it be more then?” (office cleaner, Austria)

24Ironically, the strong regulation of wages in the Austrian cleaning sector by the collective agreement also contributes to the perception that there are no grounds for higher aspirations with regard to wages.

“This is not as much as other people get. But what am I to do? This is the law; office cleaners get this.” (office cleaner, Austria)

25Indeed, most cleaning companies adapt their wages to the minimum amounts stipulated in the collective agreement. On the one hand, cleaners are clearly aware that their payment is regulated by the collective agreement. Hence, they have some knowledge about the legal basis of their employment conditions and thus their rights. On the other hand, this also seems to lead to an attitude according to which they do not see much room for improvement or negotiation (Sardadvar, 2012, 15f.).

26In all these cases, a perceived and often realistic lack of alternatives with regard to finding another job or receiving a higher wage contributes to accepting the wages not contentedly but without strong complaints.

Pattern 2: ‘Better than before’ – the heritage of past experiences

27Typically, the workers in our case studies never planned to become personal assistants, cleaners or waste collectors. Especially unqualified caregivers seem to end up in care work as a result of ‘other things happening’ in their lives rather than because of a specific preference for working in the sector. Similarly, in the Austrian cleaning sector, not a single interviewee had ever planned to work in cleaning, and no cleaners but one were originally trained in the profession. Rather, unforeseeable developments in people’s biographies, combined with personal contacts and a lack of alternative options, led workers to the cleaning sector (Sardadvar, 2012, 8). Apart from a smaller group of waste collectors in Bulgaria, where working in the waste sector is a family tradition, waste collection is also usually not the first career choice. Waste collectors have ‘walked the talk’ of the labour market, having worked in a range of other jobs before starting in the waste sector. For them, employment in waste collection is the only possible option to remain in the labour market.

28Against this background, Bulgarian waste collectors evaluate their work in relation to ‘what could have happened’, e.g. as a ‘solution’ to downdrift rather than as a sign of it. Waste collectors consequently value the fact that the job gives them a regular income.

29“I work here for three years already and I am very glad to be in that company. … I am really happy with that job. I am always paid on time.” (waste collector, Bulgaria)

30Similar points are made in the Austrian cleaning sector. Many workers appreciate the punctual wage payments. As such, it is clearly not a matter of course for workers to get paid on time, so they interpret this as an asset. In Austrian cleaning, with its prevalence of part-time and short-term flexible work, it is also very relevant for workers to get paid for all the hours they have worked. This underlines the fact that in other occupations and companies, low-wage workers are confronted with late or unreliable payments (see Markova et al., 2015). Moreover, some of them explicitly compare the job to other precarious low-wage work that they used to have, which makes their employment in the cleaning sector or with their current employer in the sector appear in a favourable light by comparison.

31The lack of alternatives (pattern 1) combined with the heritage of past life experiences (pattern 2) lead workers to simply revise downward their aspirations and adapt to difficult circumstances. Workers end up in jobs that they probably would avoid if there was the opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, they exhibit some degrees of job satisfaction. This is possible because the individuals’ interpretations of their jobs reflect their trajectory into them. Hard trajectories allow workers to enjoy higher satisfaction levels. Comparatively decent jobs paying objectively low wages then become enough to be satisfied in individual cases.

Pattern 3: ‘Better than there’ – the comparison with the country of origin

32As noted above, many previous studies have found that wage satisfaction is evaluated in relative rather than absolute terms. For migrants from poorer countries or who had adverse living conditions in their countries of origin, the adaptation process as outlined above may be an additional explanation for satisfaction with a low wage. Indeed, in the interviews, we find migrant workers comparing their wage to that of peers in their home country or their own experiences or imagined chances there. Relative to the situation in their country of origin, then, wages in their country of residence may appear reasonable.

33In the Italian care sector, workers as a rule have experience in different fields in their countries of origin, but have found elderly care to be the only option for employment in Italy (Bizzotto & Villosio, 2012). In Austrian cleaning, the context of migration plays a part: here, we find that refugees from the Yugoslav wars still display particular gratefulness for their jobs even now, about 20 years after their immigration (Sardadvar, 2012 ; 2016).

34Additionally, references to the home country are made with regard to the possibility of supporting a family living there from the wage received in the country of residence. In this context, an important aspect of assessing one’s wage is whether it allows sending some of it to family abroad, even if this means a reduction of one’s own standard of living (Bizzotto & Villosio, 2012). A personal assistant from Peru working in Italy says about her wage:

“I’m happy [with this job] because with the money I earn I can help my relatives.” (Peruvian personal assistant, Italy)

35Thus, instances of high job and wage satisfaction among immigrants in the sectors investigated can be affected by comparisons between the standards in the countries of origin and the wages in the country of residence. This pattern applies to migrants both in Italy and Austria, but not to the ethnic minority examined in the Bulgarian case.

Pattern 4: ‘Together we get by’ – the wage as a contribution to the family income

36Within low-wage jobs, women are usually worse off due to a high share of part-time employment and the segmentation of the labour market (see also Sardadvar et al., 2015 ; Sardadvar, 2016). For women working part-time in low-wage jobs, parts of the satisfaction paradox can be explained by their framing their wage as a contribution to the family income. We find this interpretation most clearly in the Austrian cleaning sector, which is characterised by a high share of female workers, most of whom work part-time, sometimes involuntarily (Holtgrewe & Sardadvar, 2011). Overall, these workers report that they have enough money to get by. However, especially for women working part-time, this is strongly connected to the fact that most of them have partners who usually earn more them themselves. Sometimes, costs are also pooled and shared within the family living in a household (e.g., adult sons) as a whole. For wage satisfaction, it thus makes a crucial difference whether you have to make ends meet on your own or you can share costs with a partner and so have two or one and a half incomes. Asked about their income, female cleaners in the Austrian case studies responded as follows:

“Well, but I live in a family (…). My husband also earns more than me. And I somehow get by (…).” (female cleaner, Austria)

“Only one wage, that’s not enough. But when my husband works, my son and so on, it works.” (female cleaner, Austria)

37This wage interpretation based on a male breadwinner model (in these cases, with a female co-earner, reflecting a typical pattern in Austria) also appears in the data in other ways: a case in point is a young waste collector in Bulgaria. Asked about his wage, he says that his salary is fair with regard to his tasks. However, he adds that he is satisfied only because he does not have to take care of a family.

38This pattern shows that a wage that somebody is satisfied with is not necessarily a living wage. The family context of part-time low-wage earners therefore has to be seen as a crucial aspect with regard to the satisfaction paradox as well. This pattern is situated within countries with a prevailing male-breadwinner model, which applies to all three investigated countries to different degrees, and thus applies to women differently than to men. Meanwhile, relying on the family’s income is of course an important aspect of vulnerability and dependency, as a partner may become unemployed, or unable to work, or a couple may separate.

Conclusions: Empirical insights into the satisfaction paradox

39In this contribution, we have provided empirical evidence from qualitative research that may enhance our understanding of the satisfaction paradox. We have presented four patterns of wage interpretation that are linked to the relative income and adaptations theory. They were identified in all three countries, but the contexts differ: The instances of satisfaction are located on different income levels in the examples presented. In Bulgarian waste collection, they refer to the existential level of being able to afford to live and contribute to feeding a family. In Austrian cleaning, the questions that arise refer more to the fairness of payment and the low status of the job, to wage differences between female and male employees and to how to get by on a part-time wage. In Italian elderly care, dissatisfaction refers to the unpredictability of wages due to non-guaranteed working hours and the low job status. This analysis is based on low-wage jobs, but while Austrian cleaning has a rate of pay similar to that of other low-paid jobs in that country, Bulgarian waste workers’ wages are close to the poverty line, while the minimum wages of Italian care staff are lower than those in other sectors, and are at the time of writing being pushed further downwards.

40The patterns of wage interpretation that we have pointed out as backgrounds to help understand the satisfaction paradox are: (i) ‘Better than nothing’ – the lack of alternatives; (ii) ‘Better than before’ – the heritage of past experiences; (iii) ‘Better than there’ – the comparison with the country of origin ; and (iv) ‘Together we get by’ – the wage as a contribution to the family income. Linking these empirical findings back to the theory presented above, we draw the following conclusions.

41In pattern 1, which we find in all three countries and sectors, the lack of alternatives as well as biographical and social characteristics such as low education, lack of skill recognition and/or negative stereotypes limit options and chances. Thus, limited employment alternatives on the labour market, the lack of opportunities and high unemployment rates may lead workers to accept work of low quality as well as low wages. The knock-on effects of the great recession of 2008 have exacerbated this situation. For a range of reasons contingent on the country and sector context, workers in our sample have a strong sense that there are no other options and they feel lucky to have a job at all. Since jobs with better conditions are not seen as available, workers re-evaluate their conditions and adapt their expectations to the situation.

42In pattern 2, also found in all countries and sectors, the heritage of past experiences (previous periods of unemployment and previous precarious and/or low-wage jobs) lead to workers’ revising their aspirations downwards and accepting low quality of work as well as low wages. Both patterns (1 and 2) lead to resignation to poor circumstances and are likely to increase individual wellbeing. Workers adapt to disadvantaged circumstances and become ‘implicit accomplice(s)’ to their exploitation (Sen, 1990). Thus, adaptation allows workers to positively evaluate job quality even if objective indicators (such as wages) indicate bad working conditions.

43In pattern 3, the comparison with the country of origin, migrants find their wages adequate in comparison to the wage level in their countries of origin; in other words, what matters is their relative income. This pattern can be found with migrants in the Italian and Austrian sectors, but not with the ethnic minority examined in the Bulgarian sector. Also, the interpretation of women’s wages as the (lower) ‘contribution to a family income’, pattern 4, is a case in point for a relative, rather than absolute, evaluation of wages. In this pattern, the breadwinner ideology continues to shape perceptions of women’s wages, which may include a risk of being financially dependent on a partner or husband, thus putting women in a particularly vulnerable position. This pattern differs with regard to gender and has to be seen in the context of male-breadwinner countries.

44We conclude that absolute wage figures can provide information that may differ from workers’ own interpretations. Thus, wages cannot be looked at only in absolute terms; rather, we need to see what workers relate them to and how they interpret them in order to understand alleged satisfaction correctly and not take it as evidence for objectively acceptable wages.

45The patterns presented in this paper are a contribution towards a deeper understanding of the satisfaction paradox. In a previous contribution based on the same data sources, we pointed out that the satisfaction paradox can be also partially explained by the theory of compensating wage differentials and presented further patterns of wage interpretations (Markova et al., 2015). According to this theory, job satisfaction may depend on non-pecuniary working conditions (Poggi, 2007 ; 2010). Workers may perceive satisfactory non-monetary working conditions as an economic benefit amounting to an extra wage. In such cases, especially where companies give non-monetary benefits to the workers, they may be able to pay lower wages while registering positive levels of their workers’ job satisfaction (Rosen, 1986). Thus, while wages are low, and partly also perceived as low, other aspects of the work and the working conditions appear to compensate workers for this disadvantage.

46In sum, workers’ relative and upgrading interpretations of their jobs and wages, and their internalization of their lack of alternatives, render them vulnerable to the acceptance of bad working conditions and may prevent them from advocating for more favourable working conditions or finding a job with better conditions. These findings can provide an important reference for the work of unions and other employee representatives.

47The findings presented also have methodological implications. Quantitative surveys, for instance, may overestimate low-wage workers’ job-satisfaction if the contexts presented here on the basis of qualitative research are not taken into account. For example, if a female cleaner evaluates her part-time wage as ‘enough’, it may only be enough because she sees it as part of the family income, but this does not allow the drawing of conclusions on the actual individual wage level and on whether it is a living wage at all.

48Altogether, in looking at explanations for incidents of low-wage job satisfaction, there can be many reasons that make people satisfied with their jobs. The evidence presented here helps to understand how relative satisfaction comes about. It does not, however, change the fact that, at the same time, workers have low wages in objective terms, that they still realistically perceive their wages as low and that some of them have incomes that are not sufficient to make ends meet.

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Karin Sardadvar, Ekaterina L. Markova et Ambra Poggi, « The satisfaction paradox revisited »La nouvelle revue du travail [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2017, consulté le 29 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Karin Sardadvar

Working Life Research Centre FORBA and Competence Centre for Empirical Research Methods, Vienna University of Economics and Business (Austria)

Ekaterina L. Markova

Institute for Study of Societies and Knowledge at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

Ambra Poggi

Laboratiorio R. Revelli (Collegio Carlo Alberto), University of Milan Bicocca

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