8M AUSTRIA: Care workers on the rise
Updated: Mar 3
Sonja Grusch, SLP Austria
It’s not a new information that women do the largest scale of house and care work. Different figures are given ranging from just over 10% of world GDP up to one third of it being added to it by the unpaid labour of women. In addition to this women make up the main part of the staff in health, social work and education. Worldwide 27,9 Million are professional care workers, 90 % of those are female. In Austria up to 400.000 work in the health and social sector, some employed, others (often involuntarily) self employed making it the 3rd biggest sector.
This development reflects some general trends of capitalist development of the recent decades: while science and an increasing living standard (at least in parts of the world) increased life expectations this is not met by the time and possibilities for a decent life in dignity for the elderly. After a life of working hard the mind and especially body is worn out but the pensions are often too low. Even where families want to take care of their elderly - and this is nothing that can be asked for automatically but depends on the relationship in the family - they hardly have the time to do it properly nor do they have the necessary education for it. Professional care is expensive and often private. The capitalist logic that everything is a commodity leads to a cruel contradiction between the low income of those who need help and the rights and needs of those doing the job of helping.
The neoliberal dogma that the state has to pull out as much as possible met the needs of over accumulated capital since the 1980ies and led to massive privatisation in health, the social sector and education. This was accompanied by the “need” to cut public fundings and the principle of not running a deficit was also implemented in public health into a field that can only be profitable if it increasingly exploits its workforce and acts inhumane. In capitalist logic hospitals can not be profitable if it is open to the needs of ordinary people.
So while profit-orientated companies, national and international, invested in these sectors, buying up, fusing, “optimizing” the de-industrialisation in the advanced capitalist countries led to a situation, where a growing part of the workforce works in hospitals and health centers, as social workers and in various day centers and in education. This further added to the proportion of women in the workforce while at the same time increasing the burden of unpaid work at home. With shrinking rates of profit this increased exploitation of unpaid labour became even more important for capitalism and so it was no accident that neoliberalism went hand in hand with the return of a more conservative view on women, family and “roles''. In Austria's capital Vienna the health and social sector will soon be the number one when it comes to employment.
The absolute majority of the staff is female, trained as well as untrained, often precarious, often part time - in Austria 3 out of 4 are women. They are workers who for some time already spoke out against the contradiction of what should be done and what they are limited to due the massive lack of resources. Trained stuff learns a lot about how to support patients, how to re-activate and how to support their independence and dignity. Once they start to work, all this has to be pushed aside to treat patients like at an assembly line.
This situation has led to several protests in the last decade. Health workers have demanded more stuff, better pay and better working conditions. Several initiatives naming themselves “CaRevolution”, “Social not stupid”, “Resilienz” and many more have developed all over Austria. They learn from similar initiatives in other countries, they are young, female, angry and often independent from the official trade union structures. They have organised on the ground and pushed the unions into action. For the first time ever in 2019 they organised in Vienna a public “workplace meeting” bringing together social workers from various workplaces. The union could only “support” this. It was the pressure from below that forced the union into calling for strike action - but the bureaucratic structures were more than happy when Corona started and they “had to” call off the strike at the beginning of 2020 and signed rotten deals.
2020 was an extremely exhausting year especially for health workers. Corona put a ton of extra burden on the shoulders of a workforce that was already overworked, understaffed and underpaid before. This made workers tired for sure - but especially it made them angry. There is hardly any country in the world where health workers did not raise their voices in protest, including demonstrations and strikes: from South Africa to Britain, from the US to Pakistan, from France to Argentina. While they were praised as “heroes of the pandemic” they were silenced when speaking out against the mistakes and lack of resources the ruling elites are responsible for. This not only happens in the semi-dictatorial circumstances in Russia but in Austria as well.
But at the same time this last year has increased the self-confidence of all, especially women, working in these jobs. It became publicly understood, how essential the work of cleaning women is, of nurses, of teachers and many others. This self confidence meets the beginnings of rank-and-file organisations that already started before Corona and meets with the growing anger over the hollow praysings of the governments. Health and social workers are under special difficult situations when they turn to action. They feel responsible for those they take care of. So they need to look for specific ways to protest, involving their clients and organising basic treatment. But they can struggle, they have struggled and they will struggle: just at the time of writing we see new steps towards organising from nursing students in Austria. And this is just the beginning….