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24-hour Poles

Wulf Wilde / bkMarch 12, 2014

Many German families leave their old and invalid relatives to be looked after by female careworkers from Eastern Europe. These women work at all hours of the day and night - and also on the margins of the law.

Waldbreitbacher Franziskanerinnen
Image: Waldbreitbacher Franziskanerinnen

Tens of thousands of households in Germany employ women from Eastern Europe to look after their old and sick relatives at home. They often live and work in the homes of the invalids themselves to ensure round-the-clock care. Most of these women come from Poland, but many also hail from Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia or Ukraine. These careworkers are often referred to casually as "24-hour Poles" or "Polish pearls," although the official term is "care migrants."

It's not known exactly how many 24-hour careworkeres there are in Germany. The problem is that their work is often illegal, or is at least in a legal gray zone. Conservative estimates suggest that there are between 100,000 and 150,000 Eastern European care migrants in Germany, although at a conference on Germany's so-called "care crisis" on Monday and Tuesday (10./11.03.2014) in Berlin, figures of up to 500,000 were also quoted, says sociologist Agnieszka Satola, who wrote her PhD on the subject at the University of Frankfurt.

Affordable care

Satola carried out interviews with more than 50 women during her studies, all of whom negotiated their own work in Germany. "These women work in a rotation system, where several of them look after one person, switching every few weeks," Satola told DW. "The entire organization happens within the framework of an ethnic, often family-oriented, friendly or collegial network." The women usually make contact with the German families by word of mouth.

Careworker with patient
Polish careworkers often live extremely isolated livesImage: GKT Service/Carework

Satola says the foreign carers earn between 900 and 1,500 euros a month ($1,250 - $2,080), with free room and board.

Most German families could not afford to pay for 24-hour care through a German home care service, which costs between 4,800 and 10,000 euros a month, partly because by law two people need to be employed for each invalid.

Germany's national health insurance system generally only offers a maximum of 1,550 euros per person, or up to 1,918 euros in special cases.

Big demands

Families who look after their relatives themselves can claim up to 700 euros a month from state care insurance, a regulation that has dramatically increased the demand for foreign careworkers since its introduction in 1995. There are now dozens of private agencies that find foreign carers legally. These agencies, which usually work together with Polish partners, calculate fees of between 1,400 and 2,000 euros, depending on the qualification and language abilities of the worker - and they charge a fee, of course.

But often these services are in a legal gray zone. "Very often, these women don't have the required documents, particularly the proof that they are registered in a social insurance system anywhere," explains Nadja Kluge, recalling her own experience as a counselor with the "Fair Mobility" project, an initiative started by the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) to campaign for fair working conditions for eastern European workers in Germany.

"Another problem is that these careworkers live in the homes of the invalid and are effectively on call 24 hours a day," explained Kluge. This contravenes care industry regulations that prescribe an upper limit of 300 hours a month. Satola also sees the intense physical burden and the stress of being constantly on call as a real problem, especially since many of the women are themselves between 50 and 60 years old.

Hard labor

"This is a generation that has fallen victim to the transformation in Poland," says Satola. Many people were laid off and could not find another job, while others can't live on their meager pensions in Poland.

Screenshot of the Fair Mobility website
The 'Fair Mobility' project campaigns for fairer working conditionsImage: /www.faire-mobilitaet.de

Most of them are leaving their own relatives behind in order to earn money in Germany. In addition, they often live very isolated lives, says Satola.

"What is common to all of the women is that they often live alone for weeks or months with a person they can barely communicate with," either because they don't speak a common language, or because the patients are senile or too sick.

In Satola's interviews, many of the women described their lives as very limited and difficult. "That has had an unbelievable effect on their psyche," said Satola. The careworkers effectively take on "the responsibility for all the problems of their client's situation," the sociologist explains. "Apart from the care and the housework, their work is often also psychologically demanding." One consequence of this is that the women often make great demands on themselves. "That constitutes a certain work ethic, by which the women compensate the often unacceptable, exploitative working conditions with the necessary and valuable effect of working with people on the other hand."

Satola is also critical of the fact that the working conditions are not being addressed in Germany. Like Kluge, she would like to see better controls in place as well as medical and psychological training, and language lessons.