They Don’t Call It Work

On the job at home. The care worker revolution strives to elevate the significance of caring work wherever it’s done.


Charité Hospital staff flashmobbing on at Alexanderplatz, Berlin (10.08.2013). Photo:verdi@Charité-Blog

More hospitals are being privatized in Germany nowadays than in any other country. For a long time hospitals were places where people were treated for illnesses and injuries and the costs were publicly financed. But the introduction of the “patient flat rate” in 2004 has turned hospitals into businesses. Profit is generated by undercutting the costs of these flat rates, that is, by treating the highest number of patients with profitable diagnoses at the lowest possible cost. The number of patients has increased by 5.8% since 2000, while hospital staffs are now 10% smaller. The large trade union ver.di claims that German clinics have a staff shortage of 162,000 employees.

Nurses, nurses aides and orderlies at the Charité hospital in Berlin have been fighting for a minimum staff level for months. They use flash mobbing tactics during each round of negotiations, collapsing exhausted on the grass of the interior courtyard of the clinic. Their signs read: “I’m sick, because I have to care for too many patients.”

The message was the same at the Blockupy protests this past May in Frankfurt, where protesters unfurled a new approach intended to place the neglected care work sector at the center of a social movement. A purple banner bearing the slogan “Care Revolution” was carried through the streets. Other signs read, “When was the last time you had an hour for yourself?” and, “Care deserves a fair share.” The message is that cutbacks in essential public services have wider implications beyond staff reductions in clinics.


Charité Hospital staff flashmobbing at Alexanderplatz, Berlin (10.08.2013). Photo:verdi@Charité-Blog

Discriminatory system

A look at the family also makes this evident. The capitalist approach has never really addressed the basic care people need beyond what they receive in hospitals and senior homes, other than by ensuring that care is accomplished through a gender-marked division of labor. Under Fordism, men manned the machines while women worked at home, cooking, cleaning, looking after children and taking care of the elderly. This care work does not yield profits and thus has no value in the system, nor do the people doing it.

The discrimination against women resulting from this division of labor is embedded deeply in our economic system. Undervaluing female-encoded work hasn’t changed much in past decades. The Federal Statistical Office’s most recent figures reveal that in Germany 1.7 times more unpaid “reproduction work” work is done than wage work. Women do 31 hours of unpaid work per week. If tasks like cutting the grass and washing the car are included, then men do 19 hours of unpaid work, but women still do 80% of the care work.

The second women’s movement drew attention to the importance of care work. “They call it love. We call it unpaid work,” wrote the Italian feminist Silvia Federici in 1975. She has been touring the world again in recent years, calling on the next generation to stage a “revolt from the kitchen,” to quote the title of a book of her most important essays that was republished in German.

In the meantime, an increasing number of publications and conferences are addressing the issues of the second women’s movement, issues fundamental to our economy. In the end, care work is what ensures well-being and provides the market with a labor force. And is supported by an ideology that has always glorified the family as a refuge insulated from market forces.

More women pursue careers these days (estimated between 15% and 20%) and largely enjoy the same opportunities afforded their male counterparts. Women can get the same jobs and the same salary but successfully negotiating the work world doesn’t automatically translate into more independence. On the contrary, it means a longer work day. Female workers make up over 60% of those employed in low-wage jobs. And after work there are chores and kids at home to take care of, if not a mother-in-law. Burn out is not the plight of the over ambitious manager. Low earners are three times more likely to suffer from the effects of over work. And there are twice as many women in this group as men.

Separating work and family

Both the conservative Christian Democrats and their center-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats, would like to ignore this problem. The introduction to their coalition agreement makes this clear, clearly separating “people’s accomplishments” into the spheres of “at work” and “for the family.” It is precisely during this crisis that the family is asked to compensate in areas where the community is lacking resources. And thus there is an almost systematic effort in the coalition agreement to further reduce the visibility of the family, which appears only as a sub-item under “Social cohesion”. Under “Nursing”, however, the floridly described intention is to support minimum standards for hospital staff and to elevate the perception of the nursing professions. Yet how they are going to do that is not mentioned.

Since parties are reluctant to speak about care work, others have stepped in to fill the vacuum. Occupational scientist Gabriele Winker coined the term “Care Revolution”, taking her inspiration from a newspaper article by Georg Fülberth. The latter, a political scientist, demands increased wages as well as high investment in the “youngest ones” and “golden agers.”

Winker is pleased that care work is now being talked about more openly by left-leaning men. What she says is missing is “unpaid work,” an issue that doesn’t come up in discussions about daycare centers or senior homes. Hence the Care Revolution. Winker’s point is that increasing wages and investment in education and daycare does not go far enough. She wants financial security for individual members of society. This could be moving in the direction of setting a minimum income in order to relieve the economic pressures on those doing care work privately. At the same time, social work professions must be held in greater esteem. Why should a daycare professional responsible for caring for children only receive a fraction of an engineer’s salary?

These ideas are at odds with the logic of the system. But they are resonating with more and more people. 50 groups registered for the Care Revolution Action Conference in Berlin last March, including Attac, ver.di, nursing networks, women centers and even the Grandmother Revolution of Switzerland. Paid and unpaid care workers want to draw attention to an issue that has been continually ignored despite its fundamental role in society.

By Sebastian Dörfler, published in Der Freitag (50/13) on December 12, 2013.

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