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8 September 2022

Overlooked key workers: policy narratives in migrant live-in care

Michael Leiblfinger , Independent Researcher and PhD student

Veronika Prieler
Department of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam

Abstract

Over the last few decades, live-in care has become an important pillar of long-term care regimes of familialistic countries like Austria. Commuting live-in care workers, typically women from Central and Eastern Europe, help fill emerging care gaps. Closed borders and other pandemic-related travel restrictions brought the transnational circulation of care workers, whose rotas typically range from two to four weeks, to a sudden halt and put the care model under pressure.

Governments like in Austria scrambled and narratives of an endangered live-in care model and of the "systematic importance' of its carers brought upon a variety of policy responses in the country: to foster care workers' extension of rotas during the first months of the pandemic, a federally funded, tax-free bonus was implemented for live-in carers prolonging their stays for at least four weeks. Additionally, the government initiated negotiations with neighbouring countries in hopes of creating "care corridors' which the suddenly essential live-in care workers could use to cross borders. Similar to agricultural labourers during the spring harvest, charter flights and special trains were organised to ensure the supply of live-in care workers until borders re-opened. These exemplary measures along with the government's announcement to provide 100 million euros to the social care sector - including live-in care, which received considerable media attention from the beginning - show the pressure policy actors faced.

The paper analyses how narratives such as of the "systematic importance' of migrant care workers or the endangered live-in care model shaped the policy responses. It asks how different policy actors including local and federal governments, interest groups, and grassroots organisations interpreted the pandemic-related challenges for live-in care, what problems they defined and how they proposed to solve them, and whose demands and pleas they addressed. Preliminary results indicate that some policy actors were lauded as "saviours' of the live-in care model and received (national) media attention while care workers, whose interests remained secondary, were not recognised in a similar way. This links to the structural inequalities and power imbalances that mark live-in care in general.

Empirically, the paper draws on a media analysis of live-in care in Austria. This dataset of over 500 media reports from March 2020 to February 2021 is supplemented by governmental documents, relevant laws, and official guidelines as well as a small number of interviews with policy actors in the field. The analyses will shed insights into the narrative of the "systematic importance' of live-in care and its workers and how policy choices were argued and / or defended, focusing on the roles various actors took on in their own or other's narration.


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