Why the “System Relevance” of Care Workers Can No Longer Be Denied

The ‘corona crisis’ reveals that care workers play a particularly important role in post-industrial societies. In this SILENT WORKS interview Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki talk to the scholar-activist Christine Braunersreuther about why this is only now coming to light and what political consequences it could have.

 © Photo by Rachel Young (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) © Photo by Rachel Young (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the ‘corona crisis,’ all those care workers who otherwise get little to no attention and thus usually have to work under miserable conditions, are unexpectedly being appreciated. In her big speech on TV on March 18th, German chancellor Angela Merkel thanked all those who are “keeping the shop running,” which has now become a popular expression for ‘keeping things going.’ In her turn of phrase, the “shop” is nothing less than the nation, the economy and the system.

Yes, the big THANK YOU ... I don't know whether in Germany people were also clapping on their balconies every day at 6 pm to thank those maintaining the system. Here in Austria that ceased after a while because there was a lot of criticism about this immaterial form of recognition from those affected and from support groups. This is very typical for care work. Care work is not only work done out of love, but very often it is work against love – and nothing or not much else. When care work does not take place on a completely unpaid basis in “private households,” then it is precariously paid – whatever the profession. This applies just as much in medical care as in child care and 24-hour home care.

This praise is specious under the conditions of ‘quarantine nationalism’ currently prevalent. Quarantine nationalism is based on the strict exclusion of all those who do not belong to the nationally constructed ‘we.’ But where do all the workers come from who work in the care sector in countries like Austria and Germany and who are keeping the shop running?

The 24-hour caregivers about whom and for whom I can speak, both in Germany and in Austria, come for the most part from eastern or southeastern Europe. Their exact places of origin vary from region to region. On the one hand, it depends on what countries are close to the border. In Berlin, for example, most of the caregivers come from Poland, in Vienna from Slovakia (by the way, there are also many medical nurses from that region in clinics); in Styria there are caregivers from Slovenia. Women from Bulgaria and Romania, in contrast, are represented everywhere, but they come from different places. How agencies or persons are recommended mostly has to do with word of mouth among neighbors. Only a few caregivers come from countries that are not part of the Schengen area. The others are allowed to work here as EU citizens, but cannot obtain a right of permanent residence because they are working transnationally - i.e. they retain their official place of residence outside the country.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung writes, for example, that “throughout Europe the pandemic is endangering the home care of old people because care workers can no longer visit them - or have left the country in a hurry to return home.” Two things surprise us: firstly, that blame for the political and economic responsibility for current problematic situations is being shifted to the pandemic. Secondly, that previous history is being ignored here. In short, the current care crisis is not primarily due to the fact that the Schengen area has been constructed as a ‘borderless’ circulation sphere that favors the movement of goods while imposing conditions on the movement of people. To the effect that the work of these people as mobile workers is being made precarious so that drastic savings can be made in the care sector. In other words, isn’t the current debate distracting from the real problem, namely the neoliberal restructuring that the Schengen system itself enables?

There is actually a third surprising thing about that quote. The Süddeutsche Zeitung could have written: “Hooray, finally the elderly in Eastern Europe can be cared for by their relatives again.” But they don’t say that – and probably don’t even realize that they are reproducing a classical Balkan stereotype. Maria Todorova coined the term Balkanism to describe this special form of racist devaluation of eastern European regions and people. As you can see, it has hardly entered public awareness. How else could it happen that a renowned daily newspaper does not notice that it has simply forgotten about the elderly people in half of Europe, regarding those countries merely as the carers’, i.e. the service providers’, countries of origin?

No wonder that this form of transnational outsourcing of care work is called neo-colonialism in academic thinking. Colloquially, it is also often called “new slavery.” I find the latter term inappropriate, however, as it euphemistically ignores the racist atrocities of slavery. But what both systems do have in common is that they forget the people behind the service. When people talk about vulnerability in the context of care work, they are usually referring only to the vulnerability of those being cared for. All you want from the care givers is that they have a big heart and a lot of patience – but you don't worry about their vulnerability. This is due not only to Balkanism, but rather largely to the nature of care work: referred to as invisible work, it is carried out by ‘good spirits.’

This actually answers both points that you were so surprised by: blame for the problem can be shifted to the pandemic so easily because in the past it was kept completely under the lid of the precarious system that was nonetheless still running. And of course, there is a story behind this – many stories, in fact. The story of the former Austrian chancellor whose mother-in-law was looked after by an irregular worker from Slovakia is a beautiful one. This was uncovered by an investigation in 2006. The Home Care Act, which regulates the regular work of 24-hour caregivers, was passed in 2007.

The Schengen system, which is intended to ensure the uninterrupted flow of goods, raw materials, data and people, contributes significantly to the illusion of ‘frictionless capitalism.’ An illusion which, last but not least, enables the devaluing of care work. After all, when everything runs more or less by itself, no human work is required, or at least it can be considered “not systemically relevant.” If, at the moment of the ‘corona crisis,’ it becomes clear that this is an illusion, then this is also due to the fact that countries like Hungary are refusing transit for reasons of “national security” – and care workers no longer come to Austria by bus from, for example, Bulgaria as they usually do. To circumvent the problem, special planes are now being chartered – so you simply ‘fly over’ the barrier to an uninterrupted flow. In this manner, much more is suddenly being invested and it seems like a lot is being done to ensure that the working conditions are ‘right.’ But the question arises: have the working conditions really been optimized as desired?

No, the conditions have not improved at all. We are a long way from optimizing here, even if it is ‘nobly’ announced that flights and accommodation are paid for. The caregivers are expected to spend two weeks in quarantine before starting their service. Unpaid, in rooms with three to four beds, sometimes with strangers. After that, another two weeks of quarantine in their places of origin. That is four weeks of unpaid work. For this they get a bonus of €500, which is even less than they normally earn per month. The average income of a caregiver is €1,000, but almost €300 of that goes to social security. And: No one gives a damn about what would happen if the virus started spreading in one of the so-called “quarantine hotels.”

These accommodations are paid for by the Chamber of Commerce. This is not as generous as they keep pretending. In Austria a large share of the regular caregivers work on a self-employed basis, and they make up the largest group among the EPUs (one-person companies). This means they are responsible for the greatest share of the contributions to the Chamber of Commerce, for which they otherwise hardly receive any benefits (some provinces such as Styria are an exception here). The caregivers have thus long since paid for their accommodation themselves.

The fact that the caregivers are mostly self-employed can be attributed to the above-mentioned Home Care Act. Self-employment has the disadvantage that no labor law standards apply. The profession would not otherwise be possible: over the course of weeks the daily working hours can be up to 22-24 hours without days off. In Germany this regulation does not apply; there, care workers must be employed by families. The result is absurd working hours: 7:00 – 7:30 prepare breakfast. 7:30 – 8:00 break, 8:00 – 8:30 clear breakfast and brush teeth. 8:30 – 9:00 break, etc., so that the 40-hour week is not exceeded. To put it sarcastically: there really isn't much friction left in neoliberal capitalism. The many people working irregularly are not even mentioned here. In Germany, it is estimated that the share of irregular working conditions in the care sector is much higher, as many families are not willing or economically able to employ carers.

Another striking feature of the current media narrative is that they say that care workers “cannot come to work” (i.e. are passively affected). Shouldn't the question be asked whether they want to come to work at all under the current conditions?

The fact that this isn’t happening is also due to the dehumanized view of them as invisibilized service providers – which makes it almost logical. The people behind ‘the service provided’ are only seen when you have personal contact with them – for example, when the Romanian caregiver had better be nice to the granny suffering from dementia. To some extent the carers’ needs are also perceived in this personal contact. Institutionally, the existence of such needs is suppressed on the capitalist care market. Otherwise, this precarious system could not and would not work.

And it is in the same spirit that nobody asks whether the care workers can actually come to work. The main concern is that the international care chain works. But what about the personal care chains of the care workers themselves? What do they do when their children have no school and they are not allowed to go to their grandmother's in the afternoon because she is in a high-risk group? Will they board a plane to spend six weeks abroad doing care work rather than being home? And if not, how will they pay their next month's rent?

Care work is based on a direct, often personal connection to a specific person who would be in dire straits if there was a strike or refusal to work. Unlike in Italy's logistics sector, for example, striking and refusing to work therefore appear to be less viable options …

Of course a strike would be feasible! It is more difficult to wage strikes in care work, however, because it requires greater solidarity. For 24-hour caregivers in Austria this applies in two respects. On the one hand, it is difficult to show solidarity with each other. The fact that they are self-employed makes it almost impossible to organize in trade unions. With Vidaflex, the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) has kicked off an attempt to establish an insurance with simultaneous trade union support, including for strikes, for self-employed carers. The approach is a good thing in itself. A membership fee of €25 for this may not sound high at first – but with their monthly earnings of €700, it is still too much for most of the carers.

Nevertheless, the care workers are quite well connected – although they hardly see each other due to their working hours. The Facebook group of Romanian care workers has close to 35,000 members, and there is a lively exchange of information. One of the consequences of this is that exploitative agencies or overpriced travel services no longer find clients. A lot of information about the measures related to the corona pandemic was provided in more detail and in better quality, especially about the situation of the people who have been flown in. And there has been solidarity with the unpaid carers and nursing family members. That is good – and should not be underestimated.

However, solidarity on the part of the people cared for or their families would also be important. If this solidarity were strong, a strike would certainly be possible. The strikes of kindergarten teachers, which were supported by parents, have shown this. After all, it would be in everyone’s interest if the caregivers were highly motivated and economically well served. But of course private persons cannot finance this; the state social system must play a role and either co-finance it or, as would be absolutely necessary in the long run, provide alternative forms of coping with old age which are also effective against the huge problem of isolation. Intergenerational housing and shared flats are models whose implementation has already been well tested in Scandinavia. Here, however, we have deliberately missed the boat on implementing them – because the system works as it is anyway, on the carers’ shoulders.

Another point is that people think care workers just can’t go on strike. This is due not least to a poor assessment of their work. A (monetary) value is attributed exclusively to production work, while care and reproduction work have never really been considered from an economic point of view. Slowly but surely, something is changing about this way of thinking. There is hope that this kind of critical thinking will be able to leave the bubble of feminist economists and attract political attention. Because the caregivers themselves are very well aware of the value of their work.

The labor struggles in the 1970s, which were associated with numerous strikes, showed how, for example, female cleaners in Great Britain worked basically around the clock like machines – cleaning offices at night and doing household and care work during the day – and had to get by practically without sleep. Today, the ‘low pay economy’ poses a similar problem, as can be seen in the words of Angela McRobbie. This is because in the low-pay economy, parts of the population are “incarcerated” with long working hours, which means there are little or no opportunities for further job training, for day release or for upping qualifications. Does this not apply to the care sector in particular, and to what extent does this open up or block paths to politicization?

In my conversations with caregivers I have learned that there are hardly any expectations of further training measures, but that their motivation for further training is nevertheless very high. However, due to the work situation, mostly informal channels are used for this purpose. German courses, for example, are hardly taken up at all; instead, if the persons supported are willing, they learn and practice whatever is possible. Online offers are also very popular. Some family doctors have also already started to train caregivers in medical activities – and have confirmed this. For the doctors it is a great relief if they don't have to come to the house for every injection, and for the caregivers it is an important asset in their portfolio, guaranteeing them better payment because they can then also take on cases requiring a higher care level.

Self-employment and transnationalism are preventing the process of politicization. Many caregivers behave with a great reserve in the workplace because they are constantly aware that they are in a foreign country. They know neither the legal system nor the political structures and do not want to get actively involved, as they do not even have a residence permit. Similar to the so-called “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) of the 1960s and '70s, they are treated as guests and so of course they feel that way. And guests are not usually politically active. Especially not guests from Eastern Europe. For it is not only Western Europeans who have internalized Balkanism. It of course had and still has effects on Eastern Europeans, who now often have the feeling that they have to adapt to neoliberal Western European capitalism, which was their ideal, as they were led to believe for so long and intensely.

In Hong Kong, nurses threatened to go on strike during the ‘corona crisis.’ This could be seen as an indicator of the new negotiating power of the care sector, which many academics and journalists increasingly understand as well, and as an opportunity to find hope in the current crisis. What does it mean to cry out loudly for “a new world after the virus” that will enable the care sector to fight for real improvements in wages, working conditions and, last but not least, the opportunity to acquire more qualifications? And what does it mean to do this together – across those boundaries that separate workers from those who research and speak for them?

First of all, it means taking a critical look at oneself and at the well-oiled, smoothly running system. This is because the international care chain often begins with precisely those academics and journalists who can only exercise their professions because they externalize care work and ignore social inequalities. In the short term, it is easier and often cheaper to organize au pairs and care givers for the elderly from Eastern Europe – at wages far below those in Western Europe. Had people always thought like that, there probably wouldn't even be childcare facilities today. Therefore, it is important that academics and journalists in particular see themselves as advocates and make political demands and get loud. I demand and want to see an academic activism!

To make this more feasible: When the previous government coalition undertook an indexation of the child benefit for employees whose children were registered abroad, there were quite a few media reports on this. For one thing, because this measure is still controversial under EU law. But the injustice done to those affected was mentioned much more frequently, however. Since then, Bulgarian women, for example, only receive half of this lump sum – which, however, represents for them a significant and often necessary increase in their earnings. Already at that time there was a wave of fear that a crisis of care could occur. Unjustifiably, as I could have said before, since a majority of the caregivers don’t have children of eligible age. Nevertheless, I found the feedback as reflected in newspaper forums, among other places, positive. Politically it still didn't change anything. Neither the transitional government nor the current coalition of ÖVP and the Greens have so far reversed this controversial reduction.

I hope that the care crisis during the corona pandemic has at least raised awareness of the fact that these care workers exist, indeed there are a great many of them, and that they work under degrading conditions, so that positive political measures will finally be taken to improve the care situation.


The SILENT WORKS project is dedicated to excavating forms of labor that are buried under present regimes of AI-driven capitalism. Find all details and up-to-date information on the SILENT WORKS project here: https://silentworks.info

About Christine Braunersreuther

After training as a chemical laboratory assistant and working as a local and cultural journalist, Braunersreuther studied museum studies at the FHTW Berlin. She works as a curator, journalist, lecturer for exhibition theory and is also active in local politics. She is currently working on her doctorate on ‘Possibilities of (re)presenting transnational care work’ at the laboratory for critical migration and border regime research at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology at the University of Göttingen, curating an exhibition on the labor of 24-hour care workers for the Pavelhaus in Laafeld and coordinating the “Grazer Soundscapes,” a project of Radio Helsinki for Graz Culture Year 2020.


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