Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund

24-hour care with an 8-hour employment contract?

"The problem," says Magdalena Kossakowska, "is dependence." Palliative caregivers almost automatically become dependent when they come from Poland to work in Germany. Their dependence results from the fact that these caregivers live in the homes of the people they are supposed to care for; that they are with the individuals in need of care nearly 24 hours a day, and that the condition of the people they care for often makes it impossible for them to avoid working overtime.

Magdalena Kossakowska works for the Organizacija Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, the General Polish Trade Union Confederation (OPZZ). Within the context of the EU Fair Working Conditions project of the German Trade Union Confederation DGB and in cooperation with the German Fair Mobility Advisory Centre of the DGB, she advises people who have come to Germany from Poland to work. Many of them are care providers like Mala R. (name changed by the editorial staff). R. had been assigned by a company as a nurse in Germany. She was to care for her patient 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, according to her contract. But when she arrived at the home of the person in need of care, it turned out that the man needed far more care than could be provided in eight hours. He was suffering from bone cancer and his health was poor. Mala R. cooked soup because the man could not eat anything else; she changed his nappies when necessary, lit cigarettes for him and turned the TV on and off. She had to call the palliative nursing team repeatedly during the night due to a defect in the man's pain medication pump. Instead of 8 hours a day, she worked day and night.

After only a few days Mala R. contacted the company that had assigned her. She asked to be allowed to change to a different workplace. Her request was denied. The company simply told her to perform her duties. Mala R. worked for the man until he died some time later. Her employer paid her no compensation for overtime hours, night-time work or her permanent availability. Although the terms of her contract had been meaningless to all parties concerned during her work assignment, her agency insisted on enforcing them. Eight hours of work per day had been agreed upon, and eight hours would be paid for – no more.

Mala R. did not take action against the agency, even after Magdalena Kossakowska advised her to do so. "Unfortunately, this is something we experience very often," says Kossakowska. The reason: the online profiles used by the placement agencies to assign care workers to people in need of care. "R. was afraid that a negative evaluation would appear in this profile if she asserted her rights through legal action," explains Kossakowska. "She was afraid that she would never find employment again."

The problem, the counsellor explains, lies in the law: many of the caregivers are placed with families as "self-employed persons", which deprives them of any entitlement to hold the assigning agency responsible for poor working conditions. The supposed "self-employed" status is usually nothing more than an attempt by the assigning agency to escape responsibility.

Mala R.'s situation is one that Kossakowska experiences regularly – as in the following recent case. She was approached by a woman who had also been sent to Germany from Poland as a caregiver. The woman had had surgery shortly before taking up her new job. Her doctors had then instructed her to refrain from lifting heavy objects. The woman, who we shall call Milena F., had told the agency that assigned her to Germany about her doctors' instructions. But when she started her new job, it soon became clear that the patient she was supposed to look after could hardly move on his own. So F. had to lift him – into and out of bed – despite his 80 kilos, about 12 times a day. F.'s health deteriorated severely within only a few days. She contacted the responsible agency again and again, called, sent messages and asked for a transfer. She received no response, however. F.'s health deteriorated progressively, so she finally contacted her patient's family and terminated her employment.

The damage to her health remained, however, and she had to undergo a second operation due to the heavy strain. And the placement agency? It refused to pay her the salary to which she would have been entitled for the time she had spent looking after the patient.

Kossakowska hopes that Milena F. will join her in taking legal action against the agency. "We are currently discussing how to proceed together," she says. If F. agrees, the two will file a joint claim for the unpaid wages.

"These are not isolated cases," says Kossakowska. "Caregivers are simply expected to submit to these conditions.”

In order to change this situation in the long run, lawmakers will have to take action. And so will the families of those in need of care. "They must realize that caregivers have workers’ rights as well”, says Kossakowska. "Because that is ignored all too often today."