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24 Hour Care During the #Pandemic: Closed Borders, Trapped Workers

This interview was done by a feminist strike collective from Vienna, Austria.

Originally published by Fever Struggle.

In Austria, more than 80,000 people work in 24-hour homecare, almost all of them are women. They mainly care for old people, from handling daily tasks like shopping, cooking, and cleaning to coping with medical tasks like personal hygiene. In 2018, only 96 of the care workers had Austrian passports. Almost all of the care workers travel to work in Austria from Eastern European countries, half of them from Romania. Intensifying the guest worker regime, cheap labour is brought in from Eastern Europe. Caregivers continue to live in Romania or other countries and come for several weeks at a time for round-the-clock care. Only in this way it is possible to survive on low pay. To keep these wages low, these workers are forced into bogus “self-employment,” while agencies collect up to 400 € in “commission” from the workers every month.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation of care workers from abroad has become worse, although it is becoming abundantly clear that the care system could not function without them. On March 30th, the first workers were flown into Austria from Romania and Bulgaria to cover new cases. Before they go to the patients, they are forced to stay in quarantine for another 2 weeks without pay. The carers who have been stuck at their workplaces since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis have still not been replaced. Care workers in Austria are organizing in a group called Drept pentru îngrijire, or “justice for the care workers”. The group was founded after the former right-wing government cut the family allowance for workers living abroad in 2018. A feminist strike collective from Vienna talked with Flavia from Drept pentru îngrijire on March 28th about the current situation and the struggle of the 24-hour care workers.

Can you tell us what the current situation is like for workers in 24-hour care?

Many of them feel uneasy. Some are now in Austria and have had to extend their rotation due to the COVID-19 crisis and some are stuck in Romania and therefore currently have no income. So in both cases, the whole situation is quite stressful and it is unclear how things will continue.

What does the work rotation normally look like for the workers and what has changed because of COVID-19?

Basically it works like this: workers come from Romania for 2 to 4 weeks in a row and work 24 hours a day caring for the patients. They do work that hardly anyone wants to do and they are paid very badly, between 40 and 80 € net a day. This means that many of the personal care workers earn hardly more than 2€ net per hour. After a whole month of continuous work the workers earn no more than about 1300€. The situation has now worsened. Some of the workers complain that they simply do not get enough food from the families for whom they work. They have to go shopping themselves, even though they are in the house with older seniors. By having to deal with these daily tasks themselves, they also expose the patients to the risk of infection. The employment agencies do not contact them at all except when they want to collect their commission. Otherwise, the care workers are not even called or asked how they and the patients are doing and if they need anything.

At the moment the borders are largely closed to individual traffic. Is it still possible for care workers to travel between countries?

No, it is only possible to drive at night through Hungary. Between 9 PM and 5 AM, I think, it’s possible to drive by car towards Romania. But the workers who came for the rotation at the beginning of March took buses, not cars. Because there are no more transport buses because the bus companies have cancelled all their trips the workers are really stuck here.

What about protective measures against contracting COVID-19?

Often there’s nothing at all. Some of the workers quickly organised something with the families at the beginning of the crisis to obtain protective equipment such as masks and gloves, but not everyone was able to do that. Those who didn’t do it simply don’t have masks or gloves now. You also have to understand that they work with seniors which means their patients are people with serious illnesses, many suffer dementia to a certain degree. So this is not an easy job. They are not sitting in front of the TV all day or something like that. It is really physically and mentally exhausting work. You have to get up 4 to 5 times in the night because the patients might have a panic attack or get confused. The job has great physical and psychological effects on the workers. Four weeks is the normal cycle for Romanian care workers is already very intense. But most of those who are stuck in Austria have been working for 6 or 7 weeks. Many are really at their limit.

This situation you describe was the subject of your struggles and organization even before the pandemic. Can you tell us how it has changed now?

Well, normally care workers and their work are invisible to a large part of society. However, now during the COVID-19 pandemic many people realize how important this work is and what would happen to Austrian society when personal caregivers are missing. But still, in the crisis the conditions for care work have become even worse, not better. I think that is the main problem. On Monday, March 30th, the province of Lower Austria will fly in 231 Romanian and Bulgarian care workers. They will have to stay in quarantine for 2 weeks before they can go to their clients, but these 2 weeks are unpaid. When the rotations start it is not clear how long they will last. And when they go back to Romania or Bulgaria, they will probably have to stay in quarantine again for 2 weeks, which is again unpaid. In total, they will be away for at least 2 months, but only paid for 1 month. These things are getting worse at the moment.

Do you have more information about who organizes the flying in of care workers?

It was organised by the regional government of Lower Austria and the Chamber of Commerce. There is no discussion about how the care workers get to the airport in Romania. Just like before, they are simply driven to the airport in overcrowded minibuses without any protective measures. This is unacceptable. All the measures that the government imposes on people do not apply to these migrant caregivers at work.

You have managed to unite these isolated care workers and have built up an organization of solidarity. Is there a common struggle happening now?

Yes, we are trying to support the care workers who are stuck in Romania. Registration for a hardship fund recently started so the care workers could get some money from the Austrian state because they have no income at the moment. Although the registration process is described as being very simple, the documents are only in German making it extremely difficult for non-German-speaking workers to complete it. As a result, we translated these documents into Romanian and put them online. We are trying to provide a lot of information and publicize it so that these women will receive these funds.

Can you tell us what solidarity looks like?

I think that the media play a very important role. At the moment all the articles and news reports about 24-hour care work are from the perspective of Austrian families and patients. It is very important to point out that that these seniors are not getting the support that they need during this pandemic. But it is also very important to make the other perspective visible. We should also pay attention to the working conditions of care workers brought to Austria and the pay and support they receive—or do not receive. We have to put pressure on the state institutions. Care workers who are now in Romania postpone coming back to work because they would lose their health insurance. The health crisis is now a huge problem in Romania as well. They need their health insurance. They earn nothing in Romania but still have to pay their social security contributions.

Can you tell us more about your efforts to organise?

Our group is called Drept pentru îngrijire, which means “justice for the care workers.” We are a group of Romanian 24 hour personal care workers and activists. We have been working together for about 3 years since the indexation[1] of family allowances for migrant families was introduced in Austria. Since then, we have been fighting for better working conditions for migrant 24 hour care workers. We have written a manifesto[2] with demands, a petition, and organized various actions.
We have also made demands for care workers in Austria during the COVID-19 crisis. It is important to reduce mobility across three countries as much as possible to lower the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. We understand that we do not know how long this crisis will last and that it will potentially endanger the lives of the care workers if they cannot continue to work. The most important thing for our group is that we are protected from COVID-19, even if we come to Austria to work.
First, our group demands that workers no longer be transported in overcrowded minibuses. There should be appropriate distances between the passengers. Second, care workers should be fully paid if there are quarantine measures due to travel. And third, there must be additional financial support for 24 hour personal assistants such as the cancellation of social security contributions or the cancellation of regular commission payments to the employment agencies during the crisis. Above all, we want a fundamental change of this kind of work. At the very least, 24 hour care workers should be given access to unemployment benefits and all other workers rights.

The group Drept pentru îngrijire is connecting care workers and organising on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/dreptpentruingrijire/

[1] Indexation means the amount the family allowance is adjusted to the cost of living based on the child’s place of residence. Care workers from Eastern Europe are particularly affected by this. Workers from Romania now receive only half the allowance they were paid before.
[2] The manifesto of 24-hour care workers can be found here in multiple languages (English, Romanian, Slovakian, Hungarian and German):
https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1hw1bReLC97F7P-_FV1ZnnojJDTWiw291


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