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Bulgarian care worker sues German nursing industry

Grzegorz Szymanowski
July 16, 2020

Thousands of eastern European women, for the most part, care for German pensioners in their homes. They're effectively on call around the clock but are paid for just a few hours. Dobrina is taking her case to court.

Bulgarien Dobrina D. / Altenpflegerin
Image: DW/S. Kamburov

Underpaid migrant carers

Cooking, washing up, cleaning the kitchen, fetching medication, shopping, ironing, accompanying her client on a trip to the doctor, or for coffee — before spending the evenings at home with her client watching TV. Bulgarian carer Dobrina had her hands full looking after a German pensioner. Her working day often did not even end at bed time. She would often have to get up in the night to change soiled undergarments or to bring more medication.

The 96-year-old German woman had Dobrina almost constantly by her side, as live-in help.

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"I had to be on call 24 hours a day. There were no days off, I didn't even have any time to myself," Dobrina says. She's now 69 and back in Bulgaria, but struggles to shake the memories of 2015 caring for a nonagenarian in Berlin. "My company betrayed me."

The Bulgarian contractor that arranged her employment nominally assigned her with six hours work per day. She was paid €950 ($1,080) after tax per month.

She has taken her case to court successfully, at least in the first instance. A Berlin labor court ruled that her employer must pay her minimum wage for being on call 24 hours a day, back pay worth €42,000. But the Bulgarian employment agency has appealed. The second case involving Dobrina started on July 16.

Dobrina in her kitchen / Altenpflegerin
Dobrina worked as a carer in Germany until 2016, now she is suing her former employer Image: DW/S. Kamburov

Many do not know their rights

Justyna Oblacewicz from the DGB trade union umbrella group is following the case with "huge excitement." For four years now, the Berlin resident from Poland has been advising the eastern European care workers, most of them women, looking after an estimated 300,000 Germans in their homes. She hears stories like Dobrina's every day.

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"We are very happy that somebody has finally had the courage to go to court," Oblacewicz says. She thinks there are several reasons that it is only happening now, even though the complaints are years old: Many of the carers only spent a short time in Germany, during which they were hugely busy, and many spoke only limited German and did not understand their rights working in the country.

Furthermore, she says many feared getting the sack if they spoke up. Rumors circulated the sector freely claiming that troublemakers were put on a kind of "black list," meaning they would not get further work. The DGB and Oblacewicz are supporting Dobrina's court bid. They hope that many more carers might follow in her footsteps.

Justyna Oblacewicz
Justyna Oblacewicz from the German trade union umbrella group DGB says Dobrina's is not a singular caseImage: DW/L. von Richthofen

Non-existent boundary between work and free time

The business model for recruiting care staff from abroad takes advantage of the wage disparities within the EU. In effect, it works like this: A Polish carer strikes a deal with a Polish agency, while the German family does the same with a German agency. Then, the two go-betweens strike a further deal among themselves.  The carer would then move to Germany, typically for a temporary stint of between one and three months. After tax and other necessary deductions, they would usually earn in the region of €1,300 per month.

Justyna Oblacewicz says that the agencies are making a nice profit.

"They bear only the most minimal risk and have great flexibility. Those bearing the burden are ultimately the care workers, for whom the boundaries between work hours, on-call hours and free time rapidly disintegrate. *

Eastern European support essential to understaffed German system

German language books for nurses
Germany's aging society depends heavily on care workers from abroad, who need to learn the language.Image: Nina Baumann

Many of the agencies brokering these contracts allude directly to round-the-clock work in their very names: PeopleCare24, wecare24, Lebenshilfe24 ("life assistance 24," roughly translated). They make no bones about offering 24-hour service while paying people like Dobrina for six.

"Competition is fierce and customers sadly expect this formulation with the number 24 in the name," says Frederic Seebohm from the German association of household assistance and care providers.

Read more:Germany outlines plan to attract skilled migrant workers

Seebohm and Oblacewicz are by no means natural allies but they do agree on one thing: the German state has tried to stay out of the home care question for too long. The acute staff shortage also makes it very difficult to switch to alternatives, for instance visiting nurses rather than live-in carers.

Seebohm argues that Germans have become accustomed to requiring live-in help from eastern Europe, and that "there is no other way." He also claims that many such carers are actually working with no contract, and no protections whatsoever, making his branch the lesser evil.

But for Oblacewicz, overdue change is surely on its way: "If this verdict does not change the working conditions in the sector, then I have no idea what will."

Dobrina is watching the proceedings from her home in Nessebar on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast with cautious optimism.

"I want to show my colleagues and all the others that we don't just have obligations, we have rights too, and we must defend them," she says. If victorious, she intends to put her back pay towards her grandchildren's education. She does not want them to have to graft as low-paid help in western Europe in later life.

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