‘Operation Domestic’ – an unexplored avenue of Greek migration

"Greek women came to Australia in large numbers and in the early sixties they outnumbered the men”

Greeks of the diaspora have migrated for a variety of reasons, whether as a result of events in Greece, or to be close to family that have already migrated. Dr Maria Palaktsoglou, Lecturer in Modern Greek language and culture in the Department of Language Studies, Flinders University, has recently discovered another reason Greek women in particular decided to make the long journey to Australia and has decided to investigate it further, so as to understand more fully the experiences of these women.

Through a scheme established by the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) and Australia in the late 1950s called ‘Operation Domestic’, Greek women were invited to migrate to Australia as domestic servants for families both in cities and in the country. This plan was intended to benefit both countries involved, as many in Greece were still suffering the social and economic after-effects of both the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War, as well as the Greek Civil War that followed.

Australia, on the other hand, was much more economically stable, and there was a need for cheap domestic labour. These women were apparently eager to escape the harsh economic climate of Greece, and so agreed to migrate to Australia. In total, nearly 4000 Greek women were involved in this scheme. While researching Greek migration, Dr Maria Palaktsoglou stumbled upon ‘Operation Domestic’, and was surprised to discover that although domestic servants have received much attention from scholars around the world in more recent years, there has not as yet been any research undertaken on this unique group of Greek women who came to Australia from the late 1950s.

Dr Palaktsoglou is currently the Director of Studies and the co-ordinator of first year Modern Greek topics at Flinders University. She is well versed in matters relating to Greek migration, having carried out research related to both literary history and semi-migration-history. She has written two books and several articles on these topics, which makes her well suited to an analysis of the Greek women who were a part of ‘Operation Domestic’. She is herself also a Greek migrant to Australia, so can relate somewhat to the women who were a part of ‘Operation Domestic’.

Palaktsoglou told Neos Kosmos: “I can partly understand the emotions, the doubts, the fear these women experienced before and upon arrival and settlement in Australia. It’s a story which needs to be told.” Indeed, research on these women is vital now, as most are in their late 60s and 70s. Dr Palaktsoglou fears that the unique experiences of this group of women may be lost in the future, so is eager to draw from their extensive “cultural knowledge and personal memories” to aid this essential study on Greek migration to Australia.

Similar studies have emerged about Greek women who migrated to Canada for similar reasons, and Palaktsoglou has realized the importance of similarly documenting the experiences of those who came to Australia. She has already spent some time in National Archives around Australia collecting information about Greek female migrants to Australia, and has analysed newspapers from the period.

She also plans to access the archives of the ICEM for more information. Dr. Palaktsoglou has identified three main aims of her research, being to collect these women’s stories first hand, to figure out exactly how ‘Operation Domestic’ worked, and to determine how long it lasted, as well as how successful it was in aiding Greek women to leave a country that was in economic turmoil. She is now searching for Greek Australian women who came to Australia under the ‘Operation Domestic’ scheme so as to gain this information.

She has not yet conducted any interviews with women, as the correct procedure for research involving human subjects did require her to gain ethics approval from the Flinders University Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee before seeking interviewees. Having now gained that approval, Dr Palaktsoglou has now advertised publicly for Greek female migrants who arrived in Australia under the ‘Operation Domestic’ scheme, through the ICEM, in the late 1950s and 1960s, and then were then domestic workers in Australia.

These women will help Dr Palaktsoglou include this significant group of Greek women in the body of knowledge already existing on domestic workers around the world. Those who do become involved will be interviewed, either in Greek or English, with a Greek-speaking researcher from Flinders University, about their immigration and later domestic work. As demanded by ethics standards, all confidentiality is assured, and the women involved will remain anonymous in all resulting publications – whether they are articles or books.

Dr Palaktsoglou believes that this research will benefit not only the growing number of people around the world investigating domestic workers, but will also aid general history focusing on Greeks of the diaspora, as well as specifically Greek-Australian history. She told Neos Kosmos: “I believe that the project is very important as it will add to the collective history of Greek migration to Australia. Greek women came to Australia in large numbers and in the early sixties they outnumbered the men.

Despite that, we do not have many works which specifically address women’s migration.” Dr Palaktsoglou is seeking to redress this imbalance. She does have some information about the women from archives she has already consulted: “For the women who came as domestic servants the information is very limited. Because it’s early stages I do not know what the findings will be but I hope that the outcomes will be revealing. According to the Scheme ‘Operation Domestic’, the women who were targeted were ‘underprivileged, with no dowry and no real prospect of getting a prosperous future’ (a good marriage that is).

So it’s interesting to see if these women stayed with their employers for the duration of the two years and if they settled in the country successfully.” Dr Palaktsoglou is hoping that, with the cooperation of a number of the Greek women who were involved in this scheme, she will be able to add to the already rich body of knowledge of Greek domestic workers and Greek female migration to Australia.

This will not only help us today discover how significant members of our community migrated to Australia, but also ensure that those in the future will have as much information as possible about the history of Greek migration to Australia. Those who are interested in participation, or for further enquiries, contact Dr Maria Palaktsoglou, Lecturer in Modern Greek at Flinders University, South Australia on (08) 8201 5960 or maria.palaktsoglou@flinders.edu.au