Being Available Around the Clock: Giving Voice to Romanian Live-In Caregivers in Austria

Drawing of caregiver and elderly woman
When the system requires migrant labor to provide in-home care, who cares for the caregivers? (Image: geralt/Pixabay)

Today we look at the back story of “Experiences of precariousness and exploitation of Romanian transnational live-in care workers in Austria,” published in the Journal of Industrial Relations. In the paper, Lisa Seubert (née Hopfgartner), a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology at the University of Innsbruck; Christian Seubert, an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology at Innsbruck; Franziska Sprenger, who earned a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Innsbruck and wrote her master’s thesis about Romanian live-in care workers; and Jürgen Glaser, a full professor for applied psychology, discuss both the challenges of reaching the interview subjects and the policy implications for Austria of what their answers provide.

Due to demographic change, elderly care becomes more and more important around the world. As women in industrialized countries entered the labour market, they outsourced care work to migrant women. Workers opting for this demanding job risk being trapped on a continuum of exploitation. There is ample evidence for exploitation and precarious employment of predominantly female Eastern European and other migrant caregivers working in Western welfare states. While live-in care work in Austria has been legalized and regulated by law in 2007, almost all live-in caregivers are self-employed, making labour law and social protection hardly applicable. Although the media draws attention to the grievances of 24-hour care work in Austria regularly, there is no unionization fighting for live-in caregivers’ rights. Consequently, transnational live-in care work in Austria remains virtually unchanged to date, even though Austria’s care system depends on migrant live-in caregivers, which became especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, we saw the need for action to give Romanian live-in caregivers a voice by studying their experiences from a psychological perspective.

The first challenge was access to the field, which we found via an activist woman who appeared in the media and who stands up for live-in caregiver’s rights. The activist woman granted us access to three Facebook groups for Romanian live-in caregivers but warned us that it would be difficult to find interviewees who report their experiences with live-in care work because many feared negative consequences. Indeed, finding interviewees has proven challenging.

Surprising for us was that our interviewees were quite happy with the current employment situation despite negative experiences such as low wage levels, extensive working hours, and being urged to do tasks beyond care work. Although the job was described as challenging and hard, interviewees emphasized their experience of meaning and identification with the job. Moreover, many interviewees highlighted that they often formed close relations, or even friendships, with the person to be cared for. These aspects were seen as important resources to cope with the strenuous and challenging care work. However, the closeness to the clients can also make caregivers vulnerable to exploitation.

With our interview study, we aim to expand earlier research on cross-border work in Austria, particularly on transnational live-in care work. Previous studies conducted policy and regime analyses, whereas we employed a psychological perspective on workers’ experiences. This perspective can offer deeper insights on why people engage in transnational care work, the hardships they encounter and what resources help them to persevere. Moreover, Romania is now the most important country of origin for live-in care in Austria and to our knowledge, this is the first study particularly examining live-in care workers from Romania. Lastly, because our study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, this topic was also addressed by interviewees and sheds light on this additional burden.

Our findings complement previous studies on cross-border work and live-in care work in Austria. Moreover, the results support the guidelines of the International Labour Organization (2016) for the implementation of more decent employment and working conditions for domestic workers. Moreover, a recent call from Amnesty International (2021) for a human rights-compliant framework to improve undervalued and precarious live-in care work is supported by our findings. We hope our study serves as a good basis for the promotion of decent employment and working conditions for 24-hour care workers in Austria.

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Lisa Seubert

Lisa Seubert (née Hopfgartner) is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology at the University of Innsbruck. Her research focuses on work and employment and its relation to health, well-being and general life. She is especially interested in precarious employment in disadvantaged or discriminated groups, such as care workers.

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