Six years ago, when N. V. (50) made the decision to take on a post of a care worker, she exchanged her role in a predominantly female work collective in Serbia for one abroad. Taking care of elderly and ill people in the EU countries is largely entrusted to women, according to gender roles and stereotypes. Questioning the relationship between female care workers and their female intermediaries is, therefore, both a crucial workers’ and feminist issue.
When American publishing house VERSO decided to publish the seminal work of Meredith Tax, ‘Female Uprising: Female Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880–1917’ in 2022, their editors had to answer to why this four-decades-old book was still relevant today. It seemed that re-publishing a book on the relationship between female unions and feminist circles – or female workers and intellectuals from the time before the universal vote – required a justification. However, anyone with an interest in problems of female labour today is keenly aware of the importance of the ties between different female and feminist workers. Using the example of female care workers and their female intermediaries in the EU countries we can hone in on this issue of interclass solidarity between women – or its potential.
Care workers’ labour is precarious to the extent that they are forced to pay for their informal employment: the fee that women with EU passports pay to (questionably) official intermediary agencies, women without EU passports give to mostly female intermediaries. Paying a fee for a precarious, insecure, and unstable jobs could be the peak of an unpublished neoliberal manifesto. Female workers from the former Yugoslavia still pay this fee, whether to official agencies or informal intermediaries. These labour conditions give a full picture of the lack of options for women in former Yugoslav republics, but also open the window to questions not only about labour conditions, but also about female solidarity.
“I found my own way through it all!”
Conflicts within a society come through moments of great tension. It is difficult to forget the provocative, inappropriate, and inhuman newspaper titles aimed at people who returned to their home countries at the beginning of covid-19 pandemic. Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were all of a sudden ‘good enough’ for their citizens who work abroad– as these titles mockingly claimed.
Among those returnees were many workers without social and health insurance. Still, a minority was forced to stay in the countries where they perform informal work – mostly female care workers who are dependent on organised transport but also additionally felt morally obliged to stay and look after elderly and disabled people. This was the situation of N. V. when Germany closed borders in April 2020, just before she was bound to return home to Serbia. These drastic conditions were also revelatory of the complex relationship between women who perform this demanding and unrecognised labour and their intermediaries.
The drastic and unforeseeable border control rules gave way to unstable working conditions. Circumstances in the family where N. V. worked were adverse, to say the least: contrary to unwritten but well-established custom for care workers to have full board at their posts and not pay for their food, the family did not provide enough food for her, and she often stayed hungry. This came as a shock for her: ‘In an organised society, in the twenty-first century’, as she underlines.
When she turned to her intermediary, she was hoping for representation with her employers. N. V. had already heard that her intermediary did not have a good reputation among workers. However, since she had paid her fee of more than ten percent before taking her post, N.V. thought that the least she could expect was mediation with employers, considering the gravity of her problem. When the family did not change their attitude, N. V. realised that her intermediary did not stand up for her. After a while, she took things into her own hands, negotiated firmly with employers, and secured enough food.
This is an extreme example of a female worker’s experience where she faced not only a complete lack of support but also a lack of female solidarity. Questions that naturally emerge from this: who are these intermediaries and what is their role in this pyramid of power in the care business between the countries of EU and the Balkans?
In her book “Peripheral Labour Mobilities”, which deals with female care workers, the author Tanja Višić showcases how intermediaries developed this business themselves at the beginning of 2000s. Intermediaries from Hungary were the pioneers. Through their personal connections, they came obtained information and made contact with families who needed care workers. They developed similar networks to identify women ready to take on this type of labour. Finally, this illegal intermediary service grew to a small-scale family business: intermediaries started to take fees and insisted on organising and charging for transport to work posts under the pretence of good connections with border police. They have a total monopoly in this and the price of transport they charge is usually up to three times higher than public transport.
One of us?
How do you become an intermediary? The road to this position starts with becoming a care worker. The only path from this precarious position to that of intermediaries’ relative security is by luck and good communication skills. This was the way how N. V.’s intermediary developed her network: she started as a care worker and had a good relationship with the family which employed her. Her employer worked for a local hospital. Since anyone who applies for a care allowance must go through medical assessment in Germany, hospital workers come into direct contact with those with need for extra care. They then contact intermediaries with information about potential posts in families. Višić also cites a similar case; one intermediary was in direct contact with a doctor employed in a German hospital.
Care work is precarious, illegal, and insecure. There are no formal paths of promotion, therefore the position of intermediaries is unregulated and depends on their personal relationship with the women for whom they organise employment, transport, and from whose work they profit. In this unregulated network of working relations, intermediaries sit between the class of workers and the class of employers, the users of their services. This dynamic makes it an ideal case for questioning female solidarity.
The solidarity between intermediaries and care workers can so far only be examined the base of individual cases. These cases, seemingly, cast a shadow on relationship of women in the cruel world of informal work. Another of N. V.’s experiences from the time of the pandemic in spring 2020 testifies to this. N. V. stayed in Germany, overstaying the limit for non-EU citizens, without health insurance and without a word from her intermediary. Until she was about to start another ‘rotation’, as they refer to normally six-week shifts of care work. Only then did her intermediary contact her with very detailed instructions for delivering her fee. N. V. was stung that this message came without a question and that the intermediary clearly did not care how did these women stranded in the EU without health insurance felt.
This was a step out of line and N. V. led a rebellion. She was in touch with other care workers, and organised them through social media, resulting in a number of them refusing to pay their fee. N. V. says that she did not care about money so much as she was appalled by the shameless request and lack of interest in the women who found themselves in this vulnerable situation. She managed to convince around ten women to withhold the fee, which was, she estimates, around thirty percent of this intermediary’s workers. Upon my remark that she successfully organised a strike, N. V. laughed and answered: ‘Well, yes!’ The only thing that the intermediary could do was to block all strikers on socia media. When Germany reopened its borders, the care workers returned home without paying the fee.
“Women are a wonder!”
The question of female solidarity in care work is not merely a matter of relations between care workers and intermediaries but also includes employers, who are also predominantly women. Višić tells of a few situations which show that care workers feel in competition with one another precisely due to the pressure of intermediaries. They compete in their employers’ eyes for a better position, higher salaries, to take on their friend as their rotation partner, or finally, to secure a stable post. N. V. comments on this with a short: ‘Women are a wonder!’, alluding on the nonsense of competition between women in the same position.
However, it seems banal to question female solidarity solely through the complex relationship between women who already are in the undignified position of care workers. Female solidarity is rather an issue directly connected with women who are not in a precarious, informal, and insufficiently paid working conditions towards the women who are. The example of intermediaries shows how a small step up on social ladder drastically influences behaviour in situations when female solidarity could stand against exploitative labour conditions. How we turn around these conditions is the key question of feminism today. We work on making ‘Women are a wonder!’ a chant of unbreakable female solidarity.