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International Symposium on Care Work

The Changing Face of Care Work in Austria and Germany

A typical situation in an Austrian kindergarten. Photo by Arbeiterkammer Oberösterreich, Austria.

August 08, 2015

Austria and Germany, two economically powerful Western European countries on the border with Eastern Europe, are regarded as conservative welfare states currently undergoing fundamental processes of reorganization. Both face rising demands, obligations and costs in the domain of care and care work, especially in elder care and child care; both meet these obligations in private households and in professional domains.

May 1st – Day of Invisible Labor! Statue of popular German actress, Ida Schumacher, dressed to symbolize invisible work. Photo by Birgit Erbe.

The Exploitation of Migrant Workers

Most care in Germany and Austria is provided for free in families, mainly by women. Although women’s increasing labor-market participation and alternative forms of living means the family no longer assumes a fixed structure, governmental cash-for-care policies aim to maintain it through monetary incentives and tax advantages. In Germany and Austria, as in other countries, migrant women are often employed for the three Cs: cleaning, caring and cooking in the household. This system leaves the traditional divisions of labor between the genders untouched, and relieves the public sector of demands for care.

The border location of Austria and Germany, the disparity in income between West and East, and the presence of a large body of well-qualified workers in Eastern Europe encourage the employment of migrant women, especially from these countries. In order to regulate the so-called 24-hour care, Austria chose to legalize this form of domestic work. In Germany, migrant labor in the domestic sphere includes legal, semi-legal and illegal residence and employment. Politically desired and subsidized in Austria, and informally tolerated in Germany, live-in employment has been established although it falls short of both countries’ employment standards. Around-the-clock availability and high responsibility, combined with social isolation and low income, shape the work of migrant women living in their employers’ households.

In Austria and Germany, with the help of the welfare state on the one side and migrant labor on the other, middle-class households are able to obtain the necessary care. In East European countries, however, a new bottleneck in supply is emerging, as the relatives of migrant women who stay behind lack care. Migrant women often attend to two households, shuttling between the Austrian or German households where they are paid to take care, and their home country, where they catch up on unpaid reproduction work.

Care Work in the Public Sector

Especially since the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity schemes, professional care work in elder care and in child care has come under considerable pressure, in part because new private providers have begun to compete for the region’s substantial market. In addition, rationalization and reorganization measures in line with New Public Management have meant that workspaces and work processes have been streamlined, making them more economically efficient in ways that conflict with good care. In elder care, irregular work schedules make it difficult to safeguard mental care or even physical support. In kindergartens, the promise of upgrading child care work through education is offset by problematic conditions, such as large class sizes.

The domains of elder care and child care have long been regarded as “strike-resistant,” because workers are often reluctant to leave the persons in their care unattended. But this dynamic has begun to change: kindergarten educators in Germany are currently on strike for better pay and working conditions, and for improved professional status. Strikes like these spread to Austria in 2009: Austria’s “Kollektiv Kindergartenaufstand” (Collective Kindergarten-Riot) was founded following Germany’s last wave of strikes. The collective used alternative forms of action to call attention to poor working and employment conditions in child care.

In addition to union support for strikers in kindergartens and elder care, new forms of civil society and social movement action and alliances are emerging in both Germany and Austria. Initiatives such as Care Mob, Care Revolution, Care Manifesto combine critiques of care work organization with political demands that involve a fundamental critique of capitalism and proposals for alternative visions of a good life.

At the same time, however, rationalization in the care sector has gone hand in hand with new social polarizations and new divisions of labor, for instance between care management and care givers, undermining potential solidarity.

Alternative Conceptions of Care

Finally, there are new proposals that aim to meet society’s rising care needs, while offering adequate organization of care work. Locally administered residential care communities, primarily catering to dementia patients, have developed since the 1990s, seeking to offer alternatives to both family care and nursing homes.

Local residential care communities are generally organized by family members, who continue to provide some care work while mobile care service providers take on the rest. This version of assisted living is constructed on the model of the family, but it becomes paid work. Most of these arrangements are middle-class projects, offering skilled personnel the opportunity to conduct their professional work in a more satisfying manner than in-patient care allows. But limited finances for these projects often lead to precarious employment relationships: qualified staff only works part-time, while precariously employed workers, often migrant women, take on menial tasks. Although the approach addresses neither poor pay nor low social recognition for care workers, it clearly reflects pressure to at least offer legal employment relationships.

Care Work as Contested Terrain

These developments in the care sector highlight the polarizing effects associated with the reorganization of West European welfare states. The latter have not only come under pressure from fiscal austerity. Reorganizing welfare activities has required making them productive from the standpoint of economic growth and (international) competitiveness. On the one hand allegedly “unproductive” expenditures for the elderly have been exposed as more or less informal ethnically stratified care arrangements. On the other hand, the increasing subjection of welfare to economic imperatives turns parts of care work, for instance in child care, into an investment in economic competitiveness and future career prospects of young people. However, our examples show that the decline in individual care, qualified work and social cohesion is related to divisive ways of organizing care work. Furthermore, the examples show that the path from the welfare state to the investment state has provoked protests that seek to organize care workers as well as receivers and to make care a contested terrain of social welfare.

Roland Atzmüller, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria and member of ISA Research Committee on Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy (RC19)
Brigitte Aulenbacher, Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria and member of ISA Research Committees on Economy and Society (RC02), RC19, Sociology of Work (RC30), and Women in Society (RC32) and Vice-Chair of the Local Organizing Committee of the Third ISA Forum of Sociology, Vienna 2016 <brigitte.aulenbacher@jku.at>
Almut Bachinger, International Centre for Migration Policy Development, Vienna, Austria
Fabienne Décieux, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
Birgit Riegraf, University of Paderborn, Germany and member of RC02, RC19, RC30, and RC32 <briegraf@mail.uni-paderborn.de>

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