Examining the impact of the Corona crisis on “live-ins” – that is migrant workers living in the households where they provide elder care - is key, because elder care in Germany rests for a large part on this type of care provision. German households employ up to 500,000 migrant carers. Most of them are Polish, but increasingly also Romanian, Bulgarian or Ukrainian. The Corona pandemic highlights the exploitative nature of this working arrangement.
There are different ways to employ live-ins: on the basis of a German contract, with a contract from the country of origin (in accordance with the EU posted workers directive), as self-employed, by directly employing the care worker or without any valid contract. The biggest association representing brokering agencies in Germany, Verband für häusliche Betreuung und Pflege, estimates that 90% of live-ins work without a valid contract.
Live-ins’ employment conditions are often at odds with legal requirements concerning minimum wages and working time (including clearly defined working hours and regular resting periods). Their tasks include housecleaning and laundry, meal preparation, grocery shopping, companionship and supervision, and bodily and treatment care. Good positions are those where care receivers are still mobile (and hence do not need to be lifted) and carers do not need to get up at night (to change a diaper or empty a stoma bag, for example). That’s how many positions are advertised: ‘Without waking up at night and without lifting’.
Intense periods of work (between several weeks and up to three months) are followed by time off at home in the country of origin. When on duty, live-ins have little time and no opportunities for contact with people other than the care receiver(s) and their family. Social media is thus an essential means of communication and an important source of information for migrant live-in workers.
Migrant care workers find work either through personal contacts or through specialised companies (so-called ‘agencies’) based in Germany or in their country of origin. We observed discussions within one of the biggest (in terms of members) Facebook groups for Polish live-ins active in private homes across Germany.
In such groups, job postings offering wages equal to or lower than 1.500 euros per month stir heated debates. These exchanges start with an angry or disdainful comment expressing indignation at the offered wages, featuring some iteration of "We’ve got to have self-respect!". The pandemic accentuated commenters’ resentment: "Nowadays, [working] for that kind of money?! And you get the virus for free, as a bonus. Let the ladies from the agency go [work there] themselves!"
The pandemic created tensions between live-ins who wanted to keep working and those who accused them of putting themselves and others unnecessarily at risk or accepting the unacceptable. A sample post in the group: "I read more and more vulgar comments about women who want to work. This is a personal matter. None of those who comment [negatively] will feed our family or pay our bills – you have to work. [...] I committed to take care of two elder people and now when they need me the most, I should leave them? I won't."
In April 2020, first Polish, then German authorities re-instated border controls and introduced a two-week quarantine obligation after crossing it. This added a new type of recurrent comments under job ads: questions about the quarantine and border controls. "Will a written note from the employing family be enough to cross the border?" Some workers were also asking about transport, because most bus and minivan companies stopped their usual shuttles between Germany and Poland. Others limited the number of passengers and the frequency of connections, or increased ticket prices.
The number of questions about quarantine and transport shows that coming and going between work in Germany and one’s household in the country of origin is a crucial element of live-in care work. Without the possibility to live-in and travel home after several weeks on the job, irregular care work in patients’ homes would not be attractive at all, given relatively low wages (if one had to pay rent and live off those wages in Germany) and strenuous working conditions.
During the pandemic, job ads included the mention that the agency will provide a certificate exempting the holder from quarantine. Some urgent job postings were also explaining that the caregiver who was initially supposed to fill in the position is stuck under quarantine in Poland. Taking into account the pandemic, this information might also mean that the caregiver quit.
Pandemic or not, there seems to be no political will to support migrant care workers in the difficulties they face given the particularities of their job. After restricting cross-border traffic, German authorities introduced some exemptions that could apply to live-in workers. According to the federal government’s representative for care, Andreas Westerfellhaus, were not unnecessarily impeding entry and departure for care workers. German federal and state authorities also quickly introduced measures targeted at softening the economic blow of the crisis, including emergency aid for businesses and their employees, and (in some states) daily allowances for cross-border commuters. Yet, live-ins will probably not have access to these relief funds, since at least 90 percent do not have a (German) contract.
Temporary policies have also been introduced to safeguard care provision in Germany. Care- dependent people can obtain financial aid. A law also offers short-term support for employed individuals providing unpaid care to relatives. This measure can be seen as a way to deal with care shortages due to the departure of many live-ins and the temporary closing of adult day care centres.
These measures however do not address the problems faced by live-in employers. Families and agencies have thus taken matters in their own hands, organising transport individually and giving out bonus payments to live-ins who decided to extend their stay. Apparently, demand for the services of brokering agencies has increased, as many self-organized live-ins returned home and families look for replacements.
The pandemic is a magnifying glass for all unsustainable care arrangements. In the same way that the problems of parents who bear the brunt of caring while working from home are not an individual but a societal issue, elder care needs are not a private problem that families have to solve individually through exploiting workers from abroad.
Dr. Anna Safuta is a postdoctoral researcher and Kristin Noack a research associate, both at the Collaborative Research Centre ‘Global Dynamics of Social Policy’ at the University of Bremen. A. Safuta holds a binational Belgian-German PhD in sociology. In her research, she focuses on social policy, migration, and the intersections of gender, class, and ethnicity. K. Noack is a PhD fellow at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences. In her PhD she focuses on the role of migrants in elder care provision in Germany, with an eye on gender and the welfare state.
This article was originally published as part of Routed Magazine’s 10th issue, on the theme of “Epidemics, labour and mobility”. It is based on a project funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Projektnummer 374666841 – SFB 1342).