Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund

Fighting back is worth the effort

Her day usually began at 6.30 a.m. “Waking and dressing Mrs K, morning care, preparing breakfast" is written in the notes she submitted to the court. Her day started at 6.30 a.m. which means that she had to be finished by 12.30 p.m. After all, a 6-hour workday was stipulated in her employment contract.

But for Dobrina Alekseva, whose real name is different, the workday was actually far from over at 12.30 p.m. That was when she usually went for a walk with Mrs. K. Or cleaned her flat. After that it was time to prepare and serve dinner, tidy up the kitchen get Mrs K. ready for bed. According to her notes, she and Mrs K. went to bed at about 11 p.m. But Alekseva's workday was not really over even then. Whenever Mrs K. had to go to the toilet she had to get up to help her. She was on call even at night. A 24-hour workday – for a net monthly salary of 950 euros.

That is not unusual. Experts estimate the number of people working as "24-hour caregivers” in Germany at between 100,000 and 500,000. Endless workdays and wages far below the minimum wage are common in the industry. Often they are women from Eastern European countries who have come to Germany to work for a few months or years. Like Dobrina Alekseva, who comes from Bulgaria and was placed with Mrs. K.'s family through a German nursing care agency.

It is not often that "24-hour caregivers" decide to actively fight exploitation in their sector. Language barriers, domestic isolation and concern for their jobs and residence status make many of those concerned too afraid to take legal action to enforce their employee rights, for example.

What makes Dobrina Alekseva’s case special is the fact that she fought back – successfully. In August 2020, the Berlin Brandenburg Regional Labour Court awarded her 38,000 euros in back pay – for the year 2015. The lawsuit for 2016 is still pending, which means that the figure could increase significantly. The ruling sets an important precedent, for it has the potential to eliminate the basis for illegal exploitation in the entire industry.

Fixed working hours, a 30-hour work week, and free accommodation, plus two days off a week and 22 days of annual leave. Those were the terms of Alekseva's contract. But that document had nothing to do with reality. Alekseva worked seven days a week. She was forbidden to leave her workplace. She was not allowed to go to the cinema, spend an evening at the theatre or even take a walk alone, as she later told the court. After two years Dobrina Alekseva had suffered enough. She turned to one of the DGB (German Trade Union Confederation) Fair Mobility Advisory Centres – actually hoping only to find out if she could possibly take some time off.

"This is a phenomenon we often observe," says Justyna Oblacewicz from the Fair Mobility Advisory Centre. "Especially in cases involving 24-hour caregivers, people often come to us with questions about minor details. And it's only when they talk to us that it turns out that there are actually a lot more things wrong.

Justyna Oblacewicz and her colleagues from Fair Mobility have been dealing with Alekseva's case for almost a year and a half now. They have accompanied her to court after Alekseva finally decided to sue. They help with translation and handle communication with the German authorities. "Communicating with lawyers, in particular, is often very difficult for people whose mother tongue is not German," explains Justyna Oblacewicz. "So it is helpful to have someone present who has the time to discuss these conversations in advance and afterwards and to help out if anything is unclear."

It is important to her to emphasize that so-called 24-hour caregivers are not left alone when they decide to take action against unlawful forms of exploitation. "If people are uncertain as to whether their situation is really legal, they can always turn to us", she says. "We then provide advice and support every step of the way, right up to appearances in court.” Ms Alekseva received support for her long journey through the courts from the trade union ver.di, of which she is a member. Trade unions in Germany offer their members free legal insurance as protection in cases in which they have to fight for their rights.

"It is also worth the time and effort it takes to visit an advisory centre even before an employment relationship begins," says Justyna Oblacewicz. In Warsaw, for example, there is a centre established within the framework of the DGB’s EU "Fair Working Conditions" project, which is run in cooperation with the Polish trade union OPZZ. "Caregivers can go there and receive advice before leaving the country," says Justyna Oblacewicz. "Or they can stop by there after their return. Either way, a visit is always worthwhile.

The case of Dobrina Alekseva shows once again that fighting back is worth the effort. If the next instance upholds the ruling of the Berlin Regional Labour Court, this could change the entire industry. After all, Alekseva is far from being the only caregiver whose working hours in the so-called 24-hour care system are extended far beyond the permissible limits.

"Ultimately, the whole system of 24-hour care is a problem," says Justyna Oblacewicz . "The name alone suggests that caregivers work 24 hours a day – a contention that dumps the precarious situation of nursing care in Germany on the shoulders of private carers. "The problem is that the German nursing care insurance fund does not cover the full cost of home care,” explains Justyna Oblacewicz. This means that if people cannot get a place in a nursing home or do not want one, their care must be co-financed from private insurance. Often, the cheapest option is chosen and caregivers from Eastern Europe pay the bill. This is why agencies and placement companies are systematically extending the working hours of care workers in 24-hour care – up to the actual 24 hours. "The whole system", says Justyna Oblacewicz, "should not exist in this form.

That is why she wants to encourage those concerned to stand up for their rights. "Of course, politicians are also called upon to do something about working conditions in the care sector," she says, "but the most important thing is for those affected to start fighting back. The more people go to court to get paid for their actual working hours, the more difficult it will be for companies and agencies to maintain the precarious working conditions. And the case of Dobrina Alekseva has clearly shown that fighting back is worth the effort.