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Eastern Europe – On costumes, conflicts, and cultural spaces (02/2015)

Care from the east for older people

Christoph Dieffenbacher

Thousands of women from Eastern Europe work with older people in Switzerland, caring for them in their own homes, often around the clock. They find their jobs via commercial agencies, generally under precarious conditions and for low wages.

The 94-year-old resident of Basel, C. M.-S., is looked after by two Polish women, alternating every three months, who run his household, care for him, and accompany him to the park, to lectures, and to the theater. 55-year-old B.M. from Wrocłav, a trained teacher and psychologist, has cared for older people in their homes in Germany and Switzerland for years now.

Sarah Schilliger. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Sarah Schilliger focuses her research on migration and social injustice.

Sarah Schilliger, a young sociologist at the University of Basel, has examined the phenomenon of so-called commuter migrants from Eastern Europe: For her dissertation on the living and working conditions of such migrants, she talked to care workers, traveled with them on the commuter bus, and met with employment agency staff.

Older workers helping seniors

“It’s mainly women over the age of 45 who care for older people in their homes here,” says Sarah Schilliger, “and they come from Poland but also from countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania.” She explains that the female commuter migrants have followed different paths to transnational mobility and have different motives for it, but what they have in common is that their earnings help to safeguard their own and their families’ incomes.

They do not migrate in order to leave their country but to be able to stay there. These women, many of whom have vocational qualifications, work in Switzerland for low wages and often with no security or social insurance.

Here they are welcomed with open arms as the “kind people” from the east: People in need of nursing care who are looked after well and cheaply in their own homes reduce the burden on their relatives and on the state – even when the employment agency fees are taken into account.

However, Sarah Schilliger sees the risks in this type of female employment: “When a person lives and works in the same place, the boundary between work and leisure becomes blurred.” The women are often socially isolated as they are rarely able to leave the rooms of the private household. There is not even an official figure – she regards the 30,000 to 40,000 cited in the media as too high.

New shortfalls in care

On the whole, however, there are “hundreds of thousands of people” from Eastern Europe who are “working temporarily in ‘the west’,” according to Sarah Schilliger. And as the female commuters live apart from their own families at times, new shortfalls in care are emerging.

In some cases, traditional forms of care are breaking up, with husbands participating more in housework and the care of children and aging parents. Or women from even poorer countries take over the role – such as the woman from Ukraine who cares for her older parents while her daughter looks after people in need of care in Switzerland.

The sociologist says that such “globalized care chains” are leading to a shift in global inequalities and strengthening gender-specific hierarchies. She sees a trend towards further privatization and economization of nursing and care work.

In Switzerland, where care is regarded as a private matter, demand for female care workers from Eastern Europe has increased substantially – also because public care services have been rationalized considerably in recent years and private care services have experienced an upturn.

Further growth can be expected, both as a result of the demographic trend and due to the need for as much independence as possible in old age. A move that Schilliger regards as necessary and supports personally is for care workers to form a network and fight for their rights in co-operation with the trade unions. She expects the state to improve their occupational health and safety and to expand public nursing care for older citizens instead of rationalizing it.

Sarah Schilliger works as a senior research associate at the Department of Sociology, University of Basel. Her research focuses on migration and social injustice.

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