A Conversation with Sónia Melo and Flavia Matei, conducted by Ana Hoffner ex-Prvulovic*
Ana Hoffner ex-Prvulovic*: Since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, it is often said that food production and care work have finally made it into the media. This gives the impression that these areas of work were not there before. In fact, the current system of employing harvest workers and 24-hour caregivers has a structure of exploitation, which has not just come into being recently. The two initiatives Sezonieri – Campaign for the Rights of Harvest Workers and DREPT – Representation of the Interests of 24-Hour Caretakers strive for better working conditions for these workers, while analyzing and making visible the economic, social, and cultural relations that create them at the same time. What exactly do Sezonieri and DREPT do?
Sónia Melo: Sezonieri has two target groups: the first, our main target group, are people who work in Austria as harvest workers – i.e., in the harvesting of fruit, vegetables, and wine. These people are mainly migrants. The core work of Sezonieri is to explain them their rights: through multilingual information folders, telephone hotlines, information videos, and work schedules. In addition, we offer to support them in enforcing their rights, and to represent them in court if they wish so. We offer this information and legal support anonymously and free of charge. The second target group is the public, the local population. We want to make them aware of the exploitation of migrant harvest workers through educational work and sensitize them for this issue.
We have been going to the agricultural fields with our information material since 2014, trying to speak with the workers, to learn about their problems and concerns, to present our services. At the same time, we inform the local population about the (lousy) living and working conditions of harvest workers in this country – through lectures, events, publications, video clips, media work, etc. That this exploitation is happening on their doorstep and not only in southern Spain or Italy, far away, still shocks many people.
Flavia Matei: The organization DREPT is a self-organized group of Romanian 24-hour caretakers and activists who fight for better working conditions. The word DREPT means “right” – because rights and justice are what is missing in this industry and what we are fighting for. DREPT was established as a non-profit organization in August 2020. However, the core team as well as the 24-hour caregivers and activists have been demanding better working conditions and fair labor laws for many years.
The group emerged directly from the 24-hour care community, out of need and desperation, and to create structural conditions that better protect against exploitation. The caregivers in this industry could no longer turn away from the abuse their colleagues were subjected to. And so they began to organize themselves: at the beginning informally, within their community, when colleagues were put on the street, when they were exploited by recruiting companies, or when they were accommodated in inhuman conditions. Donations were collected, emergency trips were organized, and appeals were launched. But at a certain point this was no longer enough; a formal and courageous representation was highly necessary. This is how DREPT was founded.
Our main services consist of educational work about the rights of caregivers, but also individual counseling and support, crisis intervention, press work, and political lobbying. We demand, first and foremost, a form of employment for all migrant 24-hour caregivers and see this as the only solution to break through the currently predominant pseudo self-employment. This year the solidarity of the caregivers has expanded beyond national borders: we have joined forces with our Slovakian colleagues from the organization Initiative24, and together we are about to found an umbrella organization to represent the interests of all migrant caregivers – the IG24. Our struggle is in Austria, but our solidarity is international.
AH: Flavia, you are confronting many authorities and politicians in Austria, could you tell us more about the demands that you make?
FM: The 24-hour caregivers must work as independent one-person companies, so they are not employed. In reality, however, this is a clear case of false self-employment because the caregivers are usually completely dependent on recruiting agencies or on the persons cared for and their relatives. They tell them when and where they have to work. The location of their business is the address of the persons they care for. That is why their employment can also be cancelled when they are currently without work. The organizational contracts with the recruitment agencies contain obligatory powers of attorney for debt collection for the caregivers. In this way, the agencies take over the entire accounting for the caregivers – often including the payment of social security contributions. All this has nothing to do with self-employment.
But because they are officially independent one-person companies, the protective standards of labor law do not apply to them either: there is no trade union representation, no minimum wage under collective agreements, no paid vacation, and no paid sick leave. Pensions are low and the caregivers are at risk of poverty in old age: after ten years in the sector of 24-hour personal care, the caregivers receive a pension of about 100 euros per month. The caregivers are theoretically represented by the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKO) as independent one-person companies. However, the WKO also represents all other companies – such as recruitment agencies. So if there are conflicts between caregivers and recruitment agencies, as is often the case, an obvious conflict of interest arises.
The bottom line is that there are no state institutions in Austria that represent the interests of the caregivers. As this situation entails that no government agency is looking after the 24-hour caregivers, they are easily exploited. And it is in the interest of the recruitment agencies, the state, and Austrian society that the 24-hour caregivers remain exploitable. If the caregivers would receive due justice under labor law, the care of senior citizens would no longer be affordable. It is only affordable if migrant caregivers receive two to four euros per hour and have no social security.
AH: Sónia, what kind of employment circumstances are there for harvest workers? Sezonieri also works together with the trade union. What does this cooperation mean?
SM: Sezonieri is a social policy campaign run by the PRO-GE trade union for non-members – PRO-GE is the production union in the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) and the responsible trade union for agriculture. In 2014, when the campaign was founded by PRO-GE, NGOs and activists were brought on board because seasonal workers are not potential members and are a group that is difficult for the union to reach. The traditional strategies of an Austrian trade union do not work there. Harvesters work very long hours, cannot speak German, and are very skeptical about trade unions (bad experiences in the countries of origin, lack of knowledge about interest groups in Austria).
That is why it needs another, active approach: going to the fields, multilingual knowledge, political work. This is what the Sezonieri Campaign is all about: different skills come together. The trade union has the legal knowledge, the infrastructure, the activists the commitment and other means to reach the people; the NGOs – UNDOK (contact point for trade union support for undocumented workers), LEFÖ (counseling, education and accompaniment for women), and MEN VIA (victim protection and support for men affected by human trafficking) – in turn, the specialized knowledge.
In general, employment in the harvest sector is regulated. Wages are too low, but in themselves the legal minimum standards are relatively good (compared to other countries). The problem is that they are not followed. Only a few people fight against these conditions because they are under a lot of pressure, they are afraid of losing their job, and, incidentally, have little time to think about it (300 hours of work in a month is not unusual). Here, too, there are two “classes”: harvesters from Romania and Bulgaria, for example, who have a European passport and thus free access to the labor market in Austria, are not under as much pressure as non-EU citizens, who receive an employment permit for a maximum of six months and are tied to the farm, which means they are not allowed to do any other job.
AH: In the field of care, there is a lot of talk about a “collapse” or “emergency”; in the food industry it is said that Austria is dependent on foreign workers. These narratives are part of a population policy that must always first declare its own, national state of emergency in order to subsequently enforce racist measures on the labor market. In addition, the ideology of physical care through nutrition and services has been part of the self-image of Austrians for many decades, and many demands for care are based on a self-image that is racist.
If the well-being of the body and the soul is in the foreground, hierarchy is created at the same time. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that in Austria there has never been mention of whether there is a need for care in Romania or how the harvest is going in Eastern European countries. It is always assumed that the national, Austrian body must be cared for. However, Austria is not the needy side of the global economy; on the contrary, it is responsible for the unjust distribution of work and wealth along national borders. For example, quite a few of the large corporations which have become new landowners in Eastern Europe and dominate the agricultural industry as a result of the benefits of EU policy are Austrian. I have often wished that this reversal of the discourse would be questioned, that the global connection between work and production with all its consequences would be analyzed, but this has not happened, at least not in the Austrian media. Can you speak about power relations in harvest and care work from your experience?
SM: The power relations in harvesting work are best illustrated with an example: Alina (name changed) was a small farmer in Romania. Her family had to give up farming when European products – including Austrian ones – were introduced into the Romanian market at low prices. She sold her fields to a major investor from Austria. As an EU citizen, she has free access to the labor market in Austria and does not need a work permit. Nevertheless, she cannot live on the low wages from the harvest in Austria (about six euros per hour), so she still has to live in Romania. How crazy is that: in Austria she harvests the exact products that destroyed her livelihood in her home country!
The argumentation of the producers and their interest groups is simple: the harvest workers earn good money in this country; in their home country they would earn much less. But in this way the workers in agriculture are perceived as pure “workers” – and not as human beings. As a counter-argument, I often raise a question: is it okay if Austrians working in Switzerland (which is common in the west of Austria) earn less than Swiss people just because they would earn much less here in Austria than in Switzerland?
Migration policy in Austria is so restrictive that power is granted through the passport. Which passport people have determines what rights people have or not, which things they have access to or not. It is even more difficult for non-EU citizens than for people like Alina: they get an employment permit that is bound to a company; they are not allowed to change companies/industries. This means that they are even more precarious and under even more pressure.
This pathological nationalism, this racism is not only felt in the harvest industry. When I speak publicly about the lousy working conditions of harvest workers in Austria, I often realize that as a migrant it is not my right to criticize Austria, to speak badly about Austria. I notice this in lectures, in the reactions of many “locals”. Migrants have to behave well and be grateful; they should not be critical and certainly not political. And I am one of the “good” migrants from a Western European country, so I feel much less discrimination than Eastern European migrants. And that’s only because I was born inside Fortress Europe, because I have a Portuguese passport, which is a coincidence.
What’s more, a small farmer is not equal with a large farmer. The market concentration in Austria is so big (three retail chains dominate 85% of the market) that producers are very dependent on their customers, the retail trade. Only the big ones are competitive and can sell their products so “cheaply”. Since many years, some farms have become bigger and bigger, and the small ones are under pressure and make losses until they have to give up and close the farm. So the trend is: grow or leave. The idealized notion that there is no industrial agriculture in Austria is a myth, it is simply not true. The image of family farms, that is what vegetable farmers like to advertise. But in reality, there are often farms equipped with the most modern machinery, which export and have wage laborers – namely harvest workers exclusively from abroad.
FM: You are absolutely right. Capitalism is based on racism and hierarchies based on racism. And on defining the others as somehow inferior, less valuable, less relevant – or ignoring them completely. This has been the case since the beginning of this particular, extremely destructive mode of production, and it will remain so until we finally replace it with something more human. This is also currently taking on a particularly damaging form in the employment relations of 24-hour caregivers. On the one hand, caregivers are seen as mere commodities, as carriers of work to be bought and sold, and not as people with needs, feelings, kinship networks, which need them and depend on them.
We saw this very clearly during the pandemic: while everyone else was told to stay at home, keep their distance, and protect themselves from infection, 24-hour caregivers were transported across several borders like goods on charter flights or corridor trains. They were responsible for the costs associated with the risks. The situation was particularly difficult for the colleagues who travelled via the train corridor between Romania and Austria. After they had earned nothing for months because of the lockdown, they had to spend a day in a hotel and get tested when they returned to work in Austria. They usually had to pay the costs themselves. But if someone had been tested positive, then the caregivers would have had to pay the quarantine costs themselves according to the legal regulations. They would have had to spend a whole salary on it, at a time when their situation was highly precarious anyway.
Sure, these “key workers” were applauded by the media and society – but de facto abandoned. If those who use their services were forced to see caregivers as human beings, the entire questionable moral order of this institution would collapse. On the other hand, the Romanian caregivers, in particular, are portrayed as well suited for the care profession. They are expected to be resilient, always ready to do hard work, and, worst of all, ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of others – with all the costs involved, mostly their own. This is the typical mechanism that hides the fact that caring and care work is work. It is reinterpreted as love. But love is also work. Maybe the hardest work. And it needs justice!
AH: “Love is also work,” what do you mean by that?
FM: We focus on reproductive work, e.g. raising children, caring for grandparents and seniors, domestic work, domestic help, all this is highly feminized work and a work that is mostly done by women – of course, without payment. This is work that is connected with love and closeness and family. From this work arise relationships and feelings. But it is work, and it should definitely be recognized as work.
This topic is especially important in the nursing work and personal care of seniors. It is often expected of colleagues in this sector to take on a maternal role toward their clients. But this important and close relationship with the clients is often exploited in order to push colleagues into precarious employment and force them to do additional, unpaid work. For example, at the beginning of the lockdown, the recruitment companies exerted emotional pressure to keep the caregivers longer in their jobs. But they all wanted to go home to their families, who they were very worried about. They were also at the end of their strength. They were often accused of being “inhuman” or “insensitive” because they wanted to abandon their clients when they needed them most. This has shown us how reproductive work can be exploited for economic interests. And how defenseless women are against such strategies. That is why the topic of reproductive work is central for us. If we acknowledge love, or rather reproductive work, as real work, then we also acknowledge that mothers, caregivers, and all women in these domains deserve fair labor conditions, fair wages, and protection from abuse!
AH: Situations of abuse and exploitation are produced both in food production and in the care sector. I attribute this to the fact that areas in which affective work is done have always been understood as the basis of capitalist production and not as value-adding, productive, or independent. The current state also indicates that the working conditions are actually not accidental, but serve to generate an unconditional, unrestricted availability of people as labor force. 24-hour caregivers were flown in, but also harvest workers – they too were simply exposed to the risk of infection with COVID-19. This indifference to the spread among 24-hour caregivers and harvest workers has shown who is classified as needy and who must do without their own protection, i.e. distance. How did you experience the politics of proximity and distance?
SM: When it came to flying people in for harvest work, we were ambivalent: on the one hand, people without income in their countries of origin were happy to be flown in and to be able to get work and income, otherwise they would not have had any. For although they come to Austria every year, as seasonal workers, they have a new employment contract every year, meaning many were stuck in their countries of origin, with employment permits in hand, but could not come to work and were not entitled to unemployment benefits or compensation for loss of earnings. On the other hand, according to very many reports, the hygiene regulations were not observed on the farms, and many were not paid for the time in quarantine.
Suddenly, there was talk of “qualified workers”, of “key workers”, who had previously always been considered unqualified in order to justify the low wages. A hypocrisy. So they were not treated better because they were so much needed – sometimes even worse. Some “locals” who worked as harvesters, students in particular, told us that they were more likely to work in the camp, so in the good jobs washing and packing vegetables, while the colleagues who had been flown in from Romania and Ukraine stayed in the fields and had to do the hard work. They, the students, earned more than the migrants. We have heard this from several people, in several federal states. They also reported about corona protection measures that were not followed, neither in the camps nor in the field; we received photos that prove this: no distance, no protective masks.
Corona has not made harvesters visible. In contrast to the 24-hour caregivers, harvesters are very well exposed to the public, they were even before corona. They work in greenhouses (many in Vienna) but especially in open fields. They were already visible: in fields next to highways, or next to train tracks … Many did not want to see them or still do not want to see them. This egoistic, nationalistic view (Kurz also always said “Thank you, Austrians”) goes hand in hand with the hype about regional products. True to the motto: it is about one’s own health and not about that of “others”, i.e. the “foreigners”. The main thing about food is whether it’s organic and regional; whether it is also fair, whether the corona prevention measures have been observed, that does not play an important role.
FM: During the corona crisis, the situation of the 24-hour caregivers has once again deteriorated significantly. At the beginning of the crisis, some of the caregivers in Romania got stuck because the borders were closed. Because the 24-hour caregivers have to work as one-person companies, they had no income during this time. This was an economic catastrophe for them. They also did not have access to the hardship fund as the conditions excluded migrant workers: forms were only available in German language, an Austrian bank account and tax number were required. And this in an industry in which people are paid so badly that most of them do not reach the tax limit and are therefore not liable to pay taxes. On the other hand, there were the caregivers who were in Austria and who were under enormous pressure to stay longer and often work for ten weeks at a time – every single day, without a single day off. And around the clock. They had no choice but to continue doing their work. Depending on the exact illness situation of the client, 24-hour caregivers often have to get up several times a night to care for the client. This extremely long period of work was grueling for the caregivers.
This time was also particularly difficult for us at DREPT: we were contacted daily by colleagues via telephone calls or messages who had reached the limits of their resilience, who had collapsed. They were completely exhausted from their work; they were far away from their families, and the corona cases were increasing dramatically all over the world. The fear, loneliness, and insecurity were very great for all of them. We quickly mobilized and organized psycho-social counseling in Romanian language for them in partnership with other Austrian associations.
Very little came from the state. The Stay-There bonus, the 500 euro (gross!) offered to this group of caregivers in all federal states, came with the same structural problems: the forms could only be filled out together with the persons cared for or with their relatives. These structural procedures created further dependencies for the caregivers on their employers or on the recruitment agencies as intermediaries. Many of these caregivers still write to us today that they have not yet received the bonuses. All these problems were already there before corona, but the corona crisis has made them even more visible. Austria did not appreciate its “key workers” and in no case did it provide sufficient support.
AH: It seems to me that the situation has become worse since the Eastern European expansion of the EU. Today’s caregivers are mostly women who have lost their professional positions due to post-socialist privatization. These are women who had much higher qualifications, and countries like Austria profit massively from their social and professional degradation. Hence, a similar phenomenon can be observed as in the agricultural industry, which has made people landless and unemployed. Are there parallels to the history of guest workers in Austria, all of whom came from impoverished countries, were employed in so-called “unskilled work,” and were subject to racist legislation (see the Foreigners Employment Act of the 1970s)?
SM: Seasonal work is the new guest work – it’s exactly the same, only much more restrictive than it was back then. At that time, companies put pressure to end the rotation principle (hence the word “guest worker,” the labor was regulated in such a way that after one year the companies would employ new “guest workers”). Now it is much more restrictive: a harvest worker from Ukraine, who has been coming to Austria for 20 years for six months to work, even to the same company, signs a new employment contract each year, each season. Even though she has been working at the same farm for 20 years! The EU pumps 60 billion euros in agricultural subsidies into agriculture, that is the largest funding pot in the EU. Social criteria are not taken into account at all in the CAP, the EU’s common agricultural policy; they are not an issue in the CAP whatsoever. And the agricultural policy is outdated. In the 1950s, it made sense to allocate subsidies according to area; there was a food shortage, and a lot had to be produced. Today, the trend is intensifying: grow or leave.
AH: But I also wonder to what extent contemporary colonial politics draws on the inner-European colonialism of the Habsburg Monarchy, for the division of labor was a racist and gender-specific one, too. While the West was industrialized, raw materials and agriculture were exploited in the so-called “crown lands.” To this day, it is believed that the Monarchy was not a colonial power, although the exploitation of its immediate surroundings bears many of the characteristics of colonization. In the centers – in Vienna and to a lesser extent in Budapest – women from the eastern part of the Monarchy had to work in the middle-class households or in the first factories. There were restrictions on access to education, limited property rights, and no prospects for life change for the vast majority of the non-German-speaking population.
The discourses of the East-West relationship have apparently long since fallen, but the geography of the new colonial forms constructs and solidifies according to the old model: for example, when the plight of the harvest workers is justified with the right of the farmers to servitude, which existed de facto in rural regions until the twentieth century. These and similar “memories” of the colonial times of the Habsburg Monarchy are by no means accidental; they form the symbolic attitude toward the uncontrolled and arbitrary production conditions of a neoliberal society.
In Austria, pressure from right-wing governments has also weakened labor inspections and production controls, so that compliance with labor regulations and thus the protection of workers no longer exists. This conveys the view that work is no longer a matter for society, rather a purely private arrangement. Accordingly, we are currently experiencing a renewed glorification of the colonial way of life with everything that goes with it: the ennobled family, life in the palace, and the servant relationship fit almost seamlessly into the reality of gentrification and delivery life. Such a society also applauds instead of increasing the pay …
SM: Right. Applause doesn’t get people anything, it’s so cynical. A round of applause from the balconies while the people on the field work hard for a few euros in any weather, in the blazing sun or under the rain – that’s so cynical. There are clearly new colonial conditions. In Romania, entire forests, including nature reserves, are being massively and in part illegally cleared; huge areas are being bought up by major investors from rich European countries for industrial cultivation, while people have to emigrate because their livelihoods are being destroyed there. And the Austrian large-scale farmers become very rich at the expense of cheap “labor” from these countries, as can be seen in the example of Romania. At a court hearing a few years ago in Tyrol, a large-scale farmer, who cheated two Romanian harvest workers of their wages in a major way for years, paid a lousy three euros an hour, far below the collective agreement, deducted a great deal of money for room and board, even treated them inhumanely (insults were the order of the day), said after the verdict in court, as a closing word: “I am very disappointed. They were like a family to me.” We observe this serf mentality in many farmers in Austria. Not even after a court decision, in which they have to pay several thousand euros extra, do they show insight for the fact that they treated workers like “serfs.” I think they really don’t see that, it is simply self-evident for them. Such conditions are possible because the labor inspectorate and the financial police are understaffed in all federal states, there is too little control, and if, the controls of the labor inspection are often announced in advance, that is allowed. In Tyrol, there is one single labor inspector for forestry and agriculture, one single employee for about 1,200 companies – that is 4,000 employees!
FM: Indeed, except that the legitimacy of oppression is no longer based on noble blood or some kind of mission from God, as in the past, but on money. Those who have money are among those who can buy the work of others. To ensure that we in Austria are also willing to sell our labor cheaply enough, capital ensures that the services that keep us productive become even cheaper. That is why the care work needed by our family members is very, very poorly paid. We can afford a 24-hour caregiver. And so the capital can make a nice profit with our work – we don’t ask for a pay rise either. We have many colleagues who have not received a pay rise for three, five, or seven years. Instead, we offer the caregivers a round of applause, and everything is set right again. Which is basically another way of denying that care is real work, that the caregivers are people who need to regenerate and feed and clothe their families, not just servants who support our privileged lifestyle. What I mean is that we must all act together against capital. It is the economic interests that create the primary oppression and the enmity between different types of work. But if we come together, across industries and across borders, regardless of our common history of empire and periphery, or perhaps just despite this history, then perhaps something very good can happen soon.
Ana Hoffner ex-Prvulovic* is an artist, researcher and writer. She* works within and about contemporary art, arts-based research and critical theory. She* has finished the PhD in Practice Program at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 2014. Her book The Queerness of Memory was published 2018 by b_books Berlin.
Sónia Melo is a journalist and co-founder of the Sezonieri campaign. Since 2016, she has been a project collaborator at the Center for Migrants in Tyrol – ZeMiT, responsible for communication and public relations as well as the handling of projects (events, exhibitions, city walks) on migration. She was co-curator of the exhibition Hier Zuhause – Migrationsgeschichten aus Tirol (Here at Home – Migration Stories from Tyrol) at the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum 2017.
Flavia Matei graduated in architecture at the Vienna University of Technology. She is assistent professor at the University of Art in Linz. For four years she has been supporting the self-organization of Romanian 24-hour caretakers working in Austria. Together with them, she founded the association DREPT – Representation of the Interests of 24-Hour Caretakers and the umbrella organization IG24 – Representation of the Interests of migrant 24-Hour Caretakers.