Capitalism relies on a very simple mechanism. It has only one goal: accumulation. It does that by pursuing profit. That means, it must take out more than it puts in. But that goes against the laws of physics. There is no perpetuum mobile. There is also no way to generate something without regenerating the raw material. And that is exactly where capitalism cuts all the corners in order to make profit. It focusses on production, but doesn’t want to pay for reproduction. For example, Earth: capital exploits nature, but doesn’t want to waste time letting it recover. It loots, exploits and moves on, until there is nothing left to destroy. The same goes for human beings. Capitalism treats them as just another commodity, meant to be sold for more than it costs to make and maintain them. The problem, for capital, is that people are an unpredictable commodity. They have needs and desires, they fall ill, and they fight back. There is a constant tension between making profit and making life. When the latter finally wins, when we win, it will be the end of capitalism.
What Do We Do About the Elderly? The Austrian Case
But there is still some way to go until then, and capitalism will not go without putting on an enormous fight. The perfect example for everything that is wrong with how the world is set up now are the 24-hour domestic care workers in Austria and other countries of the Global North. They offer an essential service. Without it, our society would have to face some serious moral questions: what do we do about the elderly? Under capitalism, they are viewed as useless burdens. Their labour can no longer be bought and sold, so they cannot be used to make profit. But people are not naturally capitalist. They don’t want their parents and grandparents to be left to die when they are no longer able to work. Yet it is also very difficult to organise their care within the family. It would mean a younger member of the family, usually a woman, would have to give up paid work and stay home. That is also not in the interest of capital, which fakes feminism in order to get women into the workforce.
The solution to the problem of elderly care comes through the state, which subsidises this service by helping families pay for care workers that move in with the elderly person. However, so the whole scheme doesn’t get too expensive and social peace is nevertheless maintained, these care workers are recruited from abroad. From countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, or Slovakia, where the economy has been wrecked by 30 years of capitalism and large portions of the population have no choice but to leave their country, their children and their own elderly relatives in order to care for those of others.
Not surprisingly, many have jumped at the opportunity to make a profit of the work of these vulnerable care workers. Recruitment is done through placement firms that charge a fee out of the care worker’s wages. These firms are very loosely regulated, which means all kinds of abuses can and do happen. For example, contracts are drawn up only in German, which means that the care workers sometimes misunderstand key clauses that later come back to haunt them. These firms also have an “Inkassovollmacht”, which means they can retain payment if the worker doesn’t comply with their demands. Some firms also impose their own transport services as part of the employment package, charging the care workers for it. If there is a problem with the host family, the recruitment firm should but doesn’t protect the workers. They are expendables, easily replaceable, easy to manipulate, and useful only as long as they produce a fee.
COVID-19: Lack of Income vs. Risk of Infection
As was to be expected, the COVID pandemic has changed a lot of things when it comes to transnational care networks. First of all, with the closing of the borders, it was for a while impossible for new workers to come into Austria and those who finished their 4-week Turnus to go back home to rest. This is very challenging work, 24/7, so care workers need to take these breaks in order to be able to take up another patient. But in the absence of care workers from abroad, there was nobody there to make sure the elderly people are fed, washed, put to bed and taken out in the garden for a bit of fresh air. So the state quickly adapted. Although social distancing, travel prohibitions and staying at home are the rule for everyone else, charter flights were quickly organised and the borders opened to bring in care workers for 24 h elderly care. The possibility of recruiting staff locally was not even considered. And why is that? Because Austrians or people resident in Austria would never accept the working conditions and low wages imposed on these foreign workers. Nor are they desperate enough to risk becoming infected with COVID.
But these foreign workers are desperate enough. They actually welcomed the opening of the borders especially for them, since they would rather face potential death by COVID than a certain death by complete lack of income for themselves and their families. They have no other means of surviving, no other sources of income. They are happy to board those charter planes or crowded minibuses where the risk of infection is sky-high. Once they arrive in Austria, they are quarantined for two weeks, at their own expense. Only once they show no COVID symptoms are they released to the host families and start work. Once the 4-week turnus has been completed, the placement firms put pressure on them to take on another shift. If they refuse and ignore their threats, a new problem arises: how to return to the home country? The means of transport are very limited, the borders still technically closed. It should come as no surprise that the placement firms have come up with a way to profit from this as well: they offer transportation, at inflated prices, to the border only. Once in their home country, the care workers are once again quarantined. Again, they have no income during this period. To compensate for all these shortcomings, some Austrian regional authorities have started offering bonuses for the period of the pandemic.
Organising Resistance: the Example of D.R.E.P.T.
Fortunately, in recent years these workers have started organising for resistance. They were aware how essential their work is even before the COVID pandemics made it perfectly obvious. One of the groups leading the fight is D.R.E.P.T. pentru îngrijire, which brings together 24h care workers in their fight against exploitation. They put pressure on government agencies to regulate the 24h care sector in order to improve the working conditions and protection of these essential workers. They also make public the several ways in which placement agencies profit from the situation, both during normal times and during the pandemics, and how they abuse the rights of workers in order to make money. Last but not least, they offer a platform for actual 24h care workers in Austria to have their own voices heard, via testimonials on social networks, articles in the press, or interviews on TV. Another big part of their activity is participating in street protests. Recently, they were represented during the International Women’s Strike demonstration on 8 March in Vienna, where they read their manifesto and reminded the world of their demands. Their intervention was welcomed with roaring applause and many declarations of solidarity.
There is no question that the COVID crisis has shown which industries in our society are truly essential, and which can disappear without ever being missed. We have the people who provide care, we have the people who harvest and make food, we have the people who care the children, we have the people who clean, we have the people who deliver and we have the people who collect garbage. In other words, exactly those categories who were not allowed to stop work, stay at home and socially distance themselves because society would collapse without them. They continued to work, to risk their lives, and perhaps lose their lives, so the rest of us can isolate ourselves and stay safe. They rarely received proper protective equipment and they were rarely paid more for the risks they are incurring. This is incredibly unfair, but also typical for capitalism, which wants to be reproduced at the expense of vulnerable people, without paying for their regeneration. If they die, they are simply replaced, as you would do with a broken fridge.
A truly just society would simply forget about accumulation and making profit. It would focus on making life instead. A society concerned about making life would also deal entirely differently with the work needed for its reproduction. It would no longer divide people into producers and reproducers, as happens now. As a consequence, during a pandemic, we would all take turns doing essential work, giving each other breaks and taking over from each other. We would all, in turns, provide care, harvest and make food, mind the children, clean, deliver and collect garbage. It may sound scary, but it is actually the only society worth looking forward to.