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The Truth of Care. The Exploitation of Migrant Women in Pandemic Austria

 

Interview to Flavia Matei (D.R.E.P.T. pentru ingrijire – Vienna)

[German translation]

We publish an interview to Flavia Matei, Rumenian activist based in Vienna and member of D.R.E.P.T. pentru ingrijire, a collective of health workers and activists who support migrant women performing home care 24/7. The interview is a contribution to the debate on to enhance women’s revolt and migrants’ freedom against the borders in the horizon of the strike which lives in the struggles even during pandemic times. The interview shows how the beginning of the pandemic crisis and the subsequent closure of the borders of Eastern Europe where most domestic workers come from determined a sudden difficulty in finding migrant labor force which is essential for health and social services in Austria and in most western European countries. As for the agricultural seasonal workers, the government organized charter flights to fly in hundreds of migrant women to employ in health and care work, but dumped on them the costs and the risks of the pandemic. As soon as these women arrived from Eastern Europe, they were locked in unpaid quarantine and the job agencies illegally confiscated their documents. The public and official recognition of the essential character of migrant care work went hand in hand with the exacerbation of exploitation, the doubling of the shifts, the absence of protections. Moreover, the government and jobs agencies used the supposed motherly and feminine vocation to ‘care’ to blackmail migrant women workers and impose miserable wage and safety conditions, while devaluing their work through institutional racism. Migrant women care-workers reacted to this racist devaluation and blackmail by protesting against those who just want to use them as cheap and exploitable workforce. The interview shows that even in the harsh conditions imposed by the pandemic migrant women are moving, communicating, struggling and claiming freedom of movement, freedom from patriarchy, exploitation and racism. The task to come is how to expand, connect and amplify these struggles. Global feminist strike lives in these struggles.

 

TSS Platform: In this transitional time of pandemic, in which somehow neoliberalism can be considered suspended, at the same time we know that this suspension is being paid by the mostly exploited and oppressed subjects: women, migrants, precarious workers. How are their material life and working conditions being affected?

Flavia Matei: In the field of the care work the market is not suspended at all, it is quite the contrary: this neoliberal market has expanded quite strongly. This cheap labor, done by migrants and especially by migrant women, has been even more commodified. In Europe Western states are negotiating with Eastern states to import this labor and they are negotiating in exactly this language, as if they were not talking about people. So, they are just negotiating numbers, these many hundreds of care workers needed in Austria so that the intensive care system does not collapse, these many thousands seasonal agricultural workers needed in Germany so that crops do not dry on the fields, and so on and so forth. During the pandemic we see how these people have been reduced, even more than before, to the concept of merchandise. Despite the risks and all the increasingly difficult situations that they face in this time, their working conditions have become only worse. They are not paid better even if they expose their health to very high risks and to this whole pandemic situation. The safety regulations that are normally recommended to the whole society, such as staying inside, avoiding unnecessary trips, avoiding big groups, isolating oneself, do not apply to migrant workers. The market considers them expendable: they do not get masks, do not get tested, do not get any sort of extra measures of protection so they can do their work better, they do not get paid better because they are jumping into and saving the “system”. For instance care workers still have to pay high commissions to placement agencies, still work for very low salaries, and they have to travel over three countries by plane and expose their health to corona virus without any sort of subventions regarding taxes and so on.

In this specific situation, are new paths, new fields of struggle emerging among care workers in Austria?

Our group did not start during pandemic, we were already in contact more or less with each other. There was already an organizing group, that I support with my activism experience and political understanding, because most of them do not speak German. So I am filling these gaps, translating and explaining to them how the Austrian system works and all the legal aspects they have to take into consideration. But what has changed during the pandemic is that obviously this field of work is getting a lot of attention, because 95-96% of care workers in this intensive 24/7 assistance in Austria is done by immigrant women. So, obviously when the borders got closed and mobility got reduced to the minimum, the whole system shuttered. There has been a lot of media attention, there has been a lot of clapping from the politicians, a lot of pretty words acknowledging their work and their input in the system and so on, but there has not been any sort of subvention, increase in salaries, not even little things such as for instance: the women who were already working in Austria when the crisis hit, they could not leave anymore, they could not do their change for shifts, so they are now working for 8 weeks, and they normally work for 4 weeks. They are completely exhausted, emotionally, physically, psychologically. And there has not been any sort of help from the state, for example to let them have one day per week free, so that they can regenerate a bit. There is a lot of call for volunteering in other fields of the social system, but there has been nothing in this regard. Another example is, for instance, that there have been some state financial supports, some lines of financing for care workers that got stuck in Romania and could not go back to work and do not earn anything in this time and for the ones that are here and work longer. And there have been a lot of media work to show that the state is supporting the care workers. But actually what happened is that this financing is inaccessible to the care workers because the applications are always in German, so this is the first barrier for them; the second one was that they needed a fiscal code, but most care workers do not have a fiscal code because their income is under 11.000 euro per year, so they do not have to make any fiscal declaration at the end of the year. But now they require them to have it, so there is another bureaucratic procedure they have to do in order to have the fiscal code, and this is again in German, this is again with the fiscal agencies here, it is a very complicated procedure also for those who speak German like me.

Why did they ask for this now?

I do not really know, I can only give my idea: maybe they wanted to have a more complete registry of how many care workers are actually active. But the fact is that most women did not apply for this financing, because once they have a fiscal code, even if they earn under 11.000 euros per year they would be forced to have this fiscal declaration at the end of the year.  It is just impossible for them to do themselves because they do not speak the language and the procedure, again, is very complicated, so it would mean that they would have to pay an accountant every year and obviously they do not want to do that. With the same line of financing another barrier was that they were required an Austrian bank account and could not apply with a Romanian bank account, but most of the women were already stuck in Romania so they were required to open an Austrian bank account from Romania on-line. Very absurd. This has been the situation for those who stayed in Romania.

Conversely, for the care workers who continued to work in Austria, the situation has been again a stupid fiasco like this: one Land stepped up and said “we offer 1.000 euros brutto (lump sum) to all care takers that continued their shifts”, in addition to their salaries as a bonus, to show the ‘appreciation’ but also to convince them not to go back to Romania, since the care system has been in crisis and they do not have enough workers; then the other Länder reacted, made a meeting and they all agreed to give them the same amount and lowered it to 500 euros. So also the first Land had to lower the amount. Firstly, women were really happy because 1.000 euros would have been quite reasonable, even if less than what the normally earn, that is about 1.300/1.400 euros. But it would have been a reasonable amount for them, but then it was reduced of one half. They were disappointed but said it was better than nothing. Last week while we were translating the application for them in Romanian from German, because we are trying to help them to access these funds as much as we can, we actually discovered that they are going to get just 500 euros brutto, that means even less. At the end of the day they are getting a bit more than 300 euros, which is nothing. With that amount of money migrant women cannot even pay their medical insurance. It is actually humiliating for these women and what started out to be a measure to show appreciation for their work produced at the end the reverse: the women feel very insulted now and very unappreciated, they feel like this is just something to shut them out.

How is this situation impacting on those who found themselves in Romania when the borders were closed?

For the women who are stuck in Romania the situation is quite terrible. They do not have other job opportunities, they are not earning anything right now so their whole existence and the existence of their families are actually being jeopardized now and also they cannot access these funds that were supposed to help them. The Romanian state is also not helping them in any way, they are driving a lot of families, a lot of people – both male and female – to despair, thus pushing them to take the charter flights under any circumstances and conditions, with or without safety regulations, so that they can finally earn something for their families. A lot of them have bank credits, so they are under a lot of pressure on the economic side.

How is the notion of “care” being used in this pandemic in terms of responsibility for the nation and the collectivity? How is it interpreted by women care workers?

What I noticed first was that this discourse, this ‘moral responsibility’ connected with care work, came actually from placement agencies. It makes sense, they were protecting the capital. Right after the borders closed the placement agencies were the ones who panicked first. They put a lot of pressure on the women to stay at their workplaces, because when the borders were closing there was still a bit of grey area, a window in which women could go back home. Hungary had not clearly said that there was no transportation allowed, transport companies had not yet cancelled all possibilities, so there was a small window to go. The placement agencies have reacted very fast with a lot of this emotional and moral responsibility, saying “what kind of a person are you to abandon your patients in these circumstances? Don’t you realize that nobody can come to replace you, what will happen to these poor people?”. They appealed a lot to this mother role, this sense of woman’s duty to care the elderly and sick people: a message that was very much repeated to care workers was “where is your humanity?”. It was a very disgusting rhetoric and it was one of the first messages that our group tried to fight, explaining and making it clear that care work is work. There is no moral responsibility towards the Austrian families, those are your employers and nothing else. But it was quite tough because agencies play a very strong authoritarian role, so their discourse did have effect. But the more time passed and the more care workers saw that there was nothing being done for them: there were always these expectancies and these demands they have to fulfill, but nothing was coming as an exchange value for them. The rage also started to appear among them and the whole discourse was reverted: women started to ask “where is your humanity? How are you supporting me, how are you helping me? You only come for cash in the commission but otherwise you do not even call to know if I need masks, gloves, anything to avoid to get infected”. At some point they really lashed back and the placement agencies had to make a step back. It was one of the small victories we had in this field.

Is this pandemic allowing even more intensive forms of institutional racism?

I can talk for hours about this because every week there is another scandal. I have been an activist for many many years and I have to admit I have never worked so intensively and so under pressure as in this period: the framework, the conditions are rapidly changing from one week to the other, there is a crisis every week. For instance, Austria organized a flight with 230 migrant care workers three weeks ago, who had to stay 2 weeks in quarantine (without earning anything) before they could actually go to work: we just found out last week that as soon as they arrived in the country, their personal documents have been taken away. Women did not realize that this was something unusual, they thought that the hotel takes the ID’s as a guarantee for the room, for the housing. They just did not realize it was something illegal and we found out completely accidentally and at that point, when ten days had already passed since their documents were taken, they still did not get them back. So, we made a lot of pressure, called the journalists, made official requests from the Labor Ministry, because at that point we did not even know who had taken the ID’s. The women said it was the placement agency, but to us it did not make sense and sounded very abusive. After a lot of calls and research we found out that the local authorities of the city where women have been held during their quarantine actually commissioned the placement agencies to get and hold their ID’s as a safety measure to be sure they do not leave the quarantine. We made a lot of noise in the press with these and denounced it as illegal, exploitative and actually a sign of human trafficking and finally their ID’s have been brought back. So they even contradicted themselves, because if it was a legal measure, then why didn’t they hold them until the end of the quarantine?

Where did it happen?

It happened in Schwechat, while the local authorities are from Bruck an der Leitha. And this is just a very recent example, but things like that are happening every single week.

How is this time of pandemic impacting on political organization and communication?

I have to say that it is working much better. At the beginning, when I started working with this group it was very difficult to reach care workers, because there was always this fear that the placement agencies could find out that they are in contact with us, that we are doing something against the wheel of the placement agencies. So, there was a lot of suspicion, a lot of insecurity, zero initiative from them, and so on. But now they need information and they realized that the placement agency is not on their side, so now there is a lot of courage, we are receiving hundreds of messages every day, with questions such as how to access the funds, which Romanian office to call to ask how to go back home, and so on. There is a lot of interaction and a lot of organizing work from our side and I feel like that our group, which has been trying for three years to do this community organizing, has never been so successful as now. Now it is clear where the correct information comes from and who tries to manipulate women treating them as mere labor force. For us to finally have this reaction is very motivating because it shows how it is really possible to break the isolation and invisibility that characterize care work as such.