Self-organised struggles of migrant care workers

Basel, Switzerland (oD) – How do migrant workers successfully enact labour and social rights? ‘Respekt’, a local network established by Polish live-in care workers in Basel, Switzerland, challenges widespread assumptions held by unions.

They appeared suddenly, had voices and faces: Polish women care workers tending elderly persons in Switzerland in what is a 24-hour job. At the 2014 May Day march in Basel, Switzerland, they took centre stage at the ‘expense’ of the established labour unions. Wearing self-made scarfs in the red and white colours of the Polish flag, they carried a large banner with the slogan “No more exploitation – We demand rights and respect!” Other banners read “A six hour salary for a 24-hour job?! Not on our watch!” “A six hour salary for a 24-hour job?! Not on our watch!”And as the demonstrators reached the local parliament, Bozena Domanska, a Polish care worker, climbed on stage and started to speak about her work:

“Just like thousands of other women from eastern Europe, I know what it means to work 24 hours a day and take care of elderly persons. The work itself is not the problem. The problem is the isolation we live in as women confined to the private household of others, without contact with other people, with no life of our own, responsible day and night for persons who are ill. We live a life dictated by the rhythm of others, from eating times and the kind of TV programmes we watch all the way to sleepless nights.”

In clear words she decried the practices of her employer, a private care-enterprise making large profits by exploiting their employees, women care workers.

“It is scandalous that women working around the clock earn wages on which they cannot live. Many Swiss people seem to think that because we come from Poland or Hungary these wages are sufficient. But the Swiss laws apply to us as well and so do the Swiss labour rights. Employers still think that it is somehow natural for women to do care work for free. But we have had enough of this! We established the network Respekt to give women care workers a voice in the fight against exploitation and wage dumping. As women we demand that care work is recognized across Europe as an important contribution to society. So we fight for fair wages and a better financing of care work.”

Challenges and barriers to the mobilization of migrant care workers

It is challenging to organize women care workers in labour unions. Home care workers are engaged in households in what is considered the private sphere of the family. The relation to their employers is based on strong personal ties. The contracts governing their employment and working conditions are often vague and they are geographically dispersed.

In this 24-hour job there are many women migrants living in Switzerland temporarily and moving between their own families in eastern Europe and their workplace in Switzerland in a rhythm of one to three months. As so-called ‘live-ins’ their working hours are not fixed and there is generally speaking no clear guidelines as to when they can ‘call it a day’. Their dependency on these jobs is strong as they provide for the family in their country of origin. At the same time, they have little to no job security or even effective protection against dismissal. Losing the job means losing income as well as the roof over their head. Losing the job means losing income as well as the roof over your head.

These circumstances call for unconventional ways and means of collective action and organisation. As examples from different parts of the world show, many care workers have networks before they enter into contract with labour unions. Women care workers tend to organize outside existing structures and institutions such as the established labour unions, in the more informal political and social networks of ethnicity-based communities.

One of the reasons for this situation is that care workers, as migrants and women working in the private sphere, are not the primary focus of male-dominated labour unions. Furthermore, care workers tend to have a relatively weak identification with their profession, as employment in the private sphere of household holds little prestige. Care workers tend to see their professional activity as transitory and temporary, as something they will turn their backs on as soon as possible. This lack of valorization of their profession is one of the reasons why care workers rarely construct a professional union-based identity. Identifying with their respective community or migrant status is easier.

The Polish church as a center of social mobilisation

Polish care workers in Basel are no exception to this. Their social mobilization and collective action are anchored in their community in which the Polish church plays a crucial role. The church is a meeting point where women build and maintain a social network beyond faith and religion. Going to church provides a break from everyday life routines and a temporary escape from the controls and demands of the household. The church is also a piece of home, a transnational intermediary space. Time off to visit Sunday mass is rarely rejected by an employer family. After mass, the care workers meet in the church parish house for coffee and cake. In this space of intimacy they share their worries as well as their experiences with employment agencies and families. “He (the boss) treats Poles like shit. He earns a fortune thanks to us.”

In one of these Sunday gatherings Agata Jaworska made the courageous decision to take her employer – a local job agency – to a labour court and sue for missing payment for overtime and night attendance. She was supported by a Polish colleague Bozena Domanska working for the same employer: “He (the boss) treats Poles like shit. He earns a fortune thanks to us.” Bozena Domanska said that the lawsuit was also intended to encourage other women. “We are Cinderellas from the East. And because we are afraid we do not dare to stand up for ourselves.”

A local public services union (vpod) and a dedicated lawyer specialized in labour law supported the two care workers. Crucial in the decision to file the lawsuit was the support of the man in need of care whom Agata Jaworska attended. He was infuriated by the care enterprise’s business practices and particularly the fact that he was paying 10,000 CHF a month for his care but Agata Jaworska only received a tiny fraction of the money.

A matter of Respekt

“We like to do our work but we will no longer be exploited. We demand fair wages and working conditions in accordance with the local laws.” In the spring of 2013, the two women took this message to a broader audience. A documentary film about their work and lives in Poland and Switzerland was produced and aired on national television. Polish women care workers now had a face. The positive feedback to the documentary was substantial and encouraging as Polish women care workers received many expressions of sympathy from the Swiss public. Polish women care workers received many expressions of sympathy from the Swiss public.

The message spread and the two care workers’ network broadened as colleagues joined their effort. Some connected with each other through facebook and exchanges began about their work via social media. The care workers decided to establish a group they called “Respekt” to convey their organisation’s main goal, namely respect in everyday life for themselves and their work.

The lawsuit over unpaid overtime pay and the countless hours of night attendance is part of a larger resistance against the image of the household as the natural environment of women where work is not compensated in wages but compassion and love. Such representations are propagated through job agencies which reinforce the picture of “self-sacrificing”, “devoted helpers” and “good souls” to gloss over the fact that care is work.

Beyond fair wages and working conditions, care workers demand more time for rest and the right to leisure time. Spare time is a precondition for meeting people outside the household, whether they are friends from the Polish community or locals. While entering the workplace is usually equated with the public sphere, for care workers the relation between private and public is reversed. They only enjoy privacy once they leave the private household which is their workplace and visit public places. Last but not least, spare time is an important prerequisite for the ability to organize a labour union.

An unconventional way of organizing as a labour union

Today, the Respekt activists are regular members of the labour union VPOD. They pay only a symbolic membership fee but have access to legal and social counselling. At the same time, the Respekt network retains its grassroots orientation and autonomy in relation to the established labour unions. At the founding meeting of Respekt, the care workers decided to create a solidarity fund to support others in their own labour-related lawsuits. Thirty percent of the sum awarded in successful lawsuits is paid into this fund in order to finance and pay for future legal action, lawyers and legal fees. They only enjoy privacy once they leave the private household which is their workplace and visit public places.

The monthly meetings in the union house after the Sunday mass remain a central anchoring point for the Respekt network. The core activity is the exchange of information about working conditions and rights, so-called “Know-your-rights-workshops”, where care workers pass on their knowledge about social and labour-related legal issues.

The Respekt activists consider the practical solidarity within the groups just as important as the publically visible legal and political battles over rights. The organisation does not focus solely on the situation at the workplace but everyday life and issues such as circulating information on access to healthcare services, residence permits, or even contracts for a cell phone. Discussions extend to the way care work in their own families in Poland could be organized and redistributed, for example, to the husband.

It is striking that the political subjectivities of many migrant activists are rarely constructed in relation to their professional interests as care workers. One reason for this is that many of them have initially learned different, often academic, professions in Poland.

What provides a common ground and bond is the situation as migrants going back and forth between two countries, the precarious dependency on job agencies and the families in which they work, and the experience of having left the solitary confines of the household. By collective action, the way migrant workers self-identify changes, as they increasingly see themselves as subjects with rights, as subject in a common fight for fundamental social and labour rights.

 Empowerment strategies

Empowerment strategies are crucial. Through such strategies, care workers put themselves into the position of fighting for their rights in the household and improving their own situation, for example by negotiating clear work agreements, including leisure time and fair wages. Because of the overlap of work and personal relations, care workers have a strong sense of moral obligation and responsibility towards their direct employers. They are – as the feminist economist Nancy Folbre put it – prisoners of love. By voicing demands and standing up for their rights, they jeopardize ‘good relations’ with the family and risk being dismissed as ‘uncaring’. This dilemma has been voiced time and again in the Respekt meetings. Empowerment strategies are crucial.

At the gatherings, by sharing these experiences and engaging in role play, the care workers try to develop strategies through which they can draw attention to their own needs self-confidently and demand their rights for self-care as well as respect for their own emotional and physical limits.

Improving German language skills is an essential tool. The Respekt-network initiated German language courses in which women with good language skills teach their colleagues and transmit essential communication skills. Practical solidarity includes circulating information about job opportunities and, in case of job loss, the network tries to organize temporary housing.

These different practices of support and solidarity empower the members of the Respekt network. They are increasingly self-confident actors who raise their voices and show pride in their work which is of enormous importance to society but remains mostly unnoticed.

Slow political movement

Agata Jaworska’s lawsuit against her former employer is a success story. In the spring of 2015, the court reached a verdict in her favor. Her employer had to provide substantial sums of back pay and compensate Agata for night attendance work at a rate of half of the regular minimum wage. The activists celebrated the successful outcome of the legal battle by shouting «Wszyscy jesteśmy Agatą!», (“We are all Agata”) and announced a flood of lawsuits. Since then over a dozen care workers filed lawsuits against for profit labour broker agencies. The precarious working conditions of live-in care workers are now discussed at the national level. By the end of 2016, the Swiss Federal Council will have to decide whether the labour laws will extend to private households. By the end of 2016, the Swiss Federal Council will have to decide whether the labour laws will extend to private households.flag-1463474_1280

The creative unionizing strategies by the Respekt network have drawn public attention to the situation of care workers. But the Polish care workers have also contributed to broader public discussions over the organisation of care work and how fair working conditions are essential for a good health care system taking care of the ever-growing number of persons in need.

The immense contradictions and injustices which characterize live-in work relations persist. In particular the larger and fundamental questions of the global and gendered distribution and value of care work remain unaddressed. A continued push to keep the often unnoticed work provided in private households on the political agenda is imperative.

In relation to the broader public debate around care work, initiatives such as the Respekt-network point to the importance of going beyond the everyday struggles of employees and toward the creation of alliances and cooperation across borders. The Polish care workers in Basel have succeeded to step out of their status as the object of political negotiation and develop their own strategies. By doing so they challenge established labour unions and encourage them to broaden their focus and open up to migrant networks and new forms and organizational strategies by migrants employed in precarious work conditions.

 

This report prepared by Sarah Schilliger for openDemocracy.