Austria: Women migrant care workers demand rights
New research by Amnesty International has revealed exploitation of women migrant care workers in Austria, with shockingly poor pay, discrimination and excessively long hours, pushing some to the brink of collapse. The vast majority of those who work as live-in carers for older people are women migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe, who are often subjected to various intersecting forms of discrimination and abuse. Care workers told Amnesty International that unfair wages, lack of sick pay and inadequate breaks were a daily reality even before the pandemic, but Covid-19 made working conditions unbearable.
Live-in care work is emotionally and physically exhausting at the best of times, but during the pandemic, many women migrant workers worked excessively long hours and shifts for months on end. What’s more, they do this essential work for below the guaranteed minimum wage in Austria.Marco Perolini, Western Europe Researcher at Amnesty International
“Women migrant workers are currently under compensated and under protected. We call on the Austrian authorities to meet their human rights obligations and guarantee fair and safe working conditions for all live-in carers and ensure the rights of migrant women are equally protected.”
Austria has an aging population – more than 25% of the population will be older than 65 by 2040 – and thus a growing need for care workers. As well as those who work in care homes, informal family carers, and health care workers, around 60,000 people in Austria provide live-in care for older people. 92% of these carers are women and 98% are migrants, mainly from Romania and Slovakia.
The vital role of live-in care workers is not valued economically, socially or politically. In Austria women are generally paid nearly 20% less than men. Migrant workers are paid 25% less than nationals, and migrant women are paid 26.8% less than non-migrant women. Migrant women caring for older people are often paid below minimum wage. For example, Slovak care workers in Austria are paid on average €10,080 per year while the minimum wage for employed care workers in Austria is €17,484 per year. Fair remuneration of care workers is a concern across the region. Last week the German Federal Labour Court ruled in a landmark judgment that live-in care workers in Germany, many of whom are migrant women from Central and Eastern Europe, should be paid the minimum wage. Fifty-eight per cent of care workers in the United Kingdom are paid below real Living Wage.
Live-in care workers in Austria commonly alternate working rotas of two or four weeks, with many migrant women returning to their countries of origin for their rest periods. Therefore, COVID-19 restrictions on international travel during the pandemic had a particularly negative impact on these live-in care workers, many of whom had to extend their working rotas in Austria. With Covid-19 measures also limiting visits from family and friends of the people in need of care, many women migrant carers have had to work very long hours often for weeks on end and being on-call 24 hours a day. Most live-in care workers are not protected against excessively long working hours as they are self-employed. These excessive hours have led to many workers experiencing stress and burn-out.
Eszter, from Romania, said:
I should have returned home on 21st March . However, I had to stay. It was very difficult for me because I never had a break. And these breaks are crucial! I left my client’s house at night to get some fresh air. I worked 3.5 months in a row during the lockdown. I also had problems with my agency then. They never called me and cut my earnings. Then, I collapsed and had to see a doctor.Eszter, care worker from Romania
While the Austrian authorities did put in place some Covid-19-related support mechanisms for live-in care workers, they were not always made accessible to migrant care workers because of some of the eligibility criteria, including the need to have an Austrian bank account which many do not have.
In many instances, live-in care workers are mis-classified as self-employed. They have little autonomy to negotiate their remuneration and working patterns because, as domestic workers, they work under the supervision of the older people they care for and/or their families. Moreover, placement agencies operate as intermediaries between them and their clients, often playing a key role in deciding tasks and remuneration without any opportunity for workers to discuss and negotiate.
The live-in carers’ situation is further compounded by the fact that only employed care workers enjoy minimum wage, working hours protection, and access to sick pay. For the 98% of live-in care workers who are self-employed, none of these human rights are guaranteed.
“We don’t want to be self-employed. Employees have more rights. As a self-employed [person] you don’t have any rights. We only have obligations. No holiday pay, no unemployment benefits. We want somewhere we can go to when we have problems,” said Dora, a Romanian care worker.
The situation of live-in care workers in Austria is a stark example of how precarious work has a disproportionate impact on women migrant workers. Across Europe, women, young people, migrants and people belonging to ethnic and religious minorities are more likely than others to work on part-time, short-term and insecure contracts, without adequate access to sick pay, maternity leave, paid holidays and other benefits.
“In Europe, more and more people are working in precarious conditions, including in the care sector. Everyone has the right to be safe at work and to be paid fairly. We stand in solidarity with women migrants working as live-in carers, and call on the Austrian authorities to extend minimum wage protection and working hours protection to all live-in care workers, to strengthen labour inspections and to provide counselling and remedies for discrimination and abuse at work,” said Marco Perolini.