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Post(pandemic) struggles in social reproduction: Romanian live-in care workers in Austria: exploitation and self-organization

Note from the LeftEast editors:The present text, which we co-publish with TSS is part of a series of publications and webinars on the topics of social reproduction, (women’s) labour and migration in East-Central Europe and beyond. The video from the first webinar Responses to Covid-19 and (post-)pandemic: social reproduction, migrants and women in Central/Eastern Europe and beyond, where this text was first presented can be seen here. The aim of the series is to raise awareness about struggles for labour, reproduction and migrant rights, as well as of the condition of women in society and how these have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. The publications and webinars are coordinated in cooperation between the Bulgarian Left feminist collective LevFem and the platform Transnational Social Strike, and sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – Bulgaria. Most of the participants in the series are part of the newly emergent network EAST (Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational), which unites activists and workers in/from East-Central Europe. For more information about the network you can contact them at essentialstruggles [at] gmail.com. Reposting articles from this series is allowed with the condition of referring to the original publication source.  

DREPT – the union-like group of Romanian live-in care workers in Austria. Courtesy of their fb group.

My name is Cornelia Igas.

I am 38 years old, I come from Romania and I work as a live-in care worker in Austria. Earlier this year, I have joined the platform “DREPT – Interest group for live-in care workers” in Austria and have been active in the organizing of migrant care workers ever since. Our group has been recently formalized into a Non-Governmental Organization and is slowly and informally taking up the role of a union for Romanian live-in care givers: we offer advice and assistance to care workers in need, we communicate over social media all relevant information about our workers’ rights, we offer crisis intervention and conflict mitigation, we do political lobby and media work, and we work with state institutions to improve working conditions for us all.

Together with my other Romanian care work colleagues and our dedicated activists, we, in DREPT, fight for better labour rights and higher, fairer wages for all migrant live-in care workers in Austria! We demand the annulment of the self-employment system and replacing it with regular, labour contract employment – so we too are protected from abuse and exploitation at work!

  1. About live-in care in Austria. The mobilization of Romanian care givers.

Live-in care offers services of care and personal assistance for the sick and the elderly in their own homes. The almost 60,000 24-hour care givers working in this system in Austria are almost exclusively migrant women from Eastern European countries. Romanian caregivers represent the biggest group working in Austria: around 33,000 persons are actively working in this field. Transportation companies bring us to Austria in packed minibuses. In Austria we work for 2, 3 or 4 week shifts at a time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not even the nights are our own, as we have to remain on call, in case our clients need our assistance. Many of us don’t even benefit from lunch breaks. In many cases, we don’t have much privacy while we’re in the patient’s home, and in more extreme cases, the care worker shares a room with the person they look after, so they can be available throughout the night. In many cases, care workers are asked to go above and beyond their duties and look after more than the person they were hired to assist.

After finishing our shifts, we return to our homes for period equal to the period of time worked. At home, we regain our strength and spend time with our loved ones.

Our job is very hard, both physically, but also emotionally and psychologically. Our clients are suffering from various mental health conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer, have very limited or no mobility in some cases and it’s not an easy task to be with them around the clock, every day of the week, closed between the limits of their homes, for a whole shift at a time. We work around the clock and are on call even during the nights. For this work, we earn between 2 and 5 Euros per hour, which is less than minimum wage in most European Union countries.

Live-in care givers in Austria work as freelancers, we are all self-employed, as this is the only work arrangement permitted by the Austrian authorities in the elderly care industry. This cuts us off from all social benefits, such as unemployment insurance, paid vacation, paid medical leave, as well as any labour protection and collective agreements through unions or the Workers Chamber. This system also leaves us with no protection when faced with workplace exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, as self-employed workers, we are officially members of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, which theoretically should be representing our interests. But the Chamber of Commerce represents the interest of all companies, and implicitly, it also represents the interests of placement/ intermediary agencies – with whom most of our conflicts take place.

It is no exaggeration that the worst of it all, in this field of work, are the placement agencies, which decide our compensation, choose our clients and dictate our shifts. They make us sign abusive work contracts, mostly under intense pressure, after tens of hours of travel and with no possibility of negotiation. Sometimes these contracts are drawn up only in German, and more often than not, the care workers’ proficiency in German is not sufficient for them to understand and negotiate the contracts they have to sign.

In the next stage, intermediary companies are forcing live-in care workers recruited in Romania to accept transportation from a company hired by them, limiting the ability of care workers to pick the transportation company and method of their choosing. In some cases, care workers have been critically hurt in accidents which were the result of tired, overworked drivers being pushed to transport care workers to and from Austria without proper rest.

In many cases, care workers are only presented with the contracts once they arrive in Austria, where they are under intense pressure to sign them and with virtually no option to return to Romania if they were to refuse signing the contract. this, of course, leaves care workers with no possibility for negotiation. Intermediary companies also manage our finances.

For this, they cash in high commissions not only from us, but also from our client’s families. A lot of problems come out of their “representation.” When conflicts between placement agencies and care givers take place, a clear conflict of interests occurs, as the Chamber of Commerce is in the position of representing both sides. In reality, nothing happens and the care givers are left completely unprotected.

So you see, our only solution is self-representation and self-organizing. DREPT filled in a very necessary gap in this sense. The work members do within DREPT is voluntary, so we try to fit it somehow while juggling our jobs, our personal life, our families and our free time. But we try to help the people in need nonetheless. Because we know that there is nobody else who will help. In addition to building a community where care givers can receive support, advice and feel less alone, we strive to inform our members and other care workers about rights and benefits available to them.

On our Facebook page, we post relevant information from the Austrian state, we share information about travel restrictions, we campaign for issues that affect us, such as the right for our children to receive the same child benefits as Austrian children, and we discuss the best reform strategies for our work sector. We also strive to support our members in workplace abuse situations, such as payment denial from intermediaries, and provide advice and considerations for issues that affect care workers – what things to consider before signing a contract with an intermediary company, how to end collaborations with them, how to ensure care workers understand the contracts they are being asked to sign and that the contract clauses are satisfactory, etc. We also share information on abusive intermediaries, we care for each other and provide advice and support in situations where care workers are forced to demand their rights.

  1. Care work during Covid-19

In the care work field, we experienced the lockdown very quickly and suddenly. There was no time to prepare for it, make arrangements, find solutions. As the borders closed, half of the live-in care workers were trapped at home, in Romania, suddenly facing the fact that they had no income and couldn’t travel for work for an unclear period of time. The other half of my colleagues, were stuck at their work places in Austria – in a foreign house, with their client, not knowing when and if all this will be over. They were left with no choice but to continue working, extending their shifts indefinitely, until the borders would re-open. Both workers who were at home, in Romania, and workers who were on the job, in Austria spent long periods of time not knowing any information about how the lockdowns and border closures will affect each of us and with no support from either the Romanian or the Austrian state.

That’s when the madness happened: of course the whole live-in care system in Austria fell into a crisis: there were not enough care workers available and the ones stuck at their work place were burning out. The state improvised solutions: while everyone was told to stay home, respect physical distancing, and avoid unnecessary travels, the live-in care workers were brought into Austria by charter planes and specially organized train corridors. In such conditions, the infection risks were high, but our financial risks were even higher: quarantine costs were always regulated as the responsibility of the care givers, while this was supposed to be the responsibility of the state. We should have gotten better working conditions and higher wages for travelling and working cross-border during a pandemic.

During those times, DREPT had demanded that care workers be paid for the two weeks of quarantine we were told to observe, that care workers receive fair compensation for the risky work we performed, that commissions paid to placement agencies be suspended for the duration of the pandemic, and that the child care benefit for our children matches the benefits received by Austrian children, considering our contributions to the Austrian society. But all we got was unnecessary bureaucracy, systemic obstacles and applause. Applause doesn’t feed our families and it doesn’t prevent burnout.

  1. How we survived Covid-19: we stood together as a family.

During the difficult period of the Corona crisis, when the lockdown occurred and the borders closed, I was at home, in Romania, with my family. Perhaps you will think that it was better, because at least I was home and not working far away from my family, with no possibility to return. But the thing is, it wasn’t at all as easy as it might seem. In my country, everything was also getting worse and worse regarding the number of Corona infections, and everything was getting more and more expensive, every day. And I had no income. My husband was out of work for three weeks, as well. I couldn’t work because I couldn’t travel to Austria due to the travel restrictions and there was no clear information when this would change or how long we would have to survive in these conditions. But, nevertheless, we stood together as a family and made it through these tough times. This was the best part of it all.

The worst part was that I couldn’t work and secure our regular income and the fact that we couldn’t go out of our homes at all, only for shopping – and that too had be done in a very short time and under a lot of stress. Romania imposed a very strict policy of permits to leave your house. Every time you wanted to go grocery shopping, you had to fill out an affidavit listing the reasons for leaving your house, your address, date, time and other personal data or risk very high fines for just being on the street.

Not being able to work had a heavy impact on my mental well-being because the uncertainties were immense: we didn’t know how long the borders would be closed down, how long the lockdown in my country will last and if we’re going to survive it all one way or another.

Thank you.