By Elena Zacharenko
In April 2022, the European Commission (EC) declared that it plans to attract more labour migrants to the European Union (EU). This is a response to the challenges posed by the demographic ageing of the EU, as people are living longer and having fewer children. Those who had traditionally taken care of the elderly – their female relatives – are increasingly unable to do so due to employment obligations. Labour migration is thus seen as a solution to address the care needs of the growing numbers of elderly people – one which is already heavily relied upon by several Western European states. Countries such as Germany, Austria and Italy are popular destinations for female migrant care workers, benefitting from migrants’ willingness to work in this demanding and often underpaid sector due to the relative weakness of the economy in their countries of origin (usually to the East and South of the EU or outside of it). While the European Care Strategy, launched in September 2022, makes high level declarations on the importance of care, dedicated and adequate funding for its greater provision and the decent remuneration of care workers is still missing. As such, the solution proposed by the EC risks deepening existing patterns of care drain from poorer to richer countries in the EU and in its neighbourhood.
From personal issue to policy concern
In September 2022, the European Commission released the European Care Strategy, which for the first time contains direct policy provisions on long-term care, the type of care required by many elderly or disabled individuals. Until then, the most explicit mentions to the right to receive and provide care were made under the 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights and the 2019 Work-Life Balance Directive. The adoption of the European Care Strategy and the prominence of long-term care within it is the result of a rapidly rising awareness among EU policy makers on the policy implications of the aging of European societies, the shrinking of the workforce, and the rising numbers of individuals in need of care. The demographic ageing of the EU’s population, coupled with the deepening crisis of care as more women are joining the labour market and unable to look after their elderly relatives as they once had, have become impossible to ignore in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ageing and demographic change emerged on the EU policy agenda as a standalone topic in 1999, when the European Commission published a Communication ‘Towards a Europe for all ages’. At that point, providing care to the elderly was seen as the responsibility of families, with the state expected to step in only as a last resort. With the introduction of the Social Investment Package (2013) came the recognition that care provision, including that which is unpaid or performed by family members, comes at a cost to state budgets in the shape of lost tax revenue and social security payments. EU policy began to call on states to support individuals in taking up caring obligations and waged work simultaneously. Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic prompted the release of the European Care Strategy which presents care as important to the economy and urges states to make it available to all who need it. However, this increased attention has not translated into binding policy or financial commitments.
Women responsibility, migrants’ work?
The increased attention to demographic ageing on the EU policy agenda does not unequivocally resolve one of the central challenges related to the socially necessary labour of care: who should provide it? As mentioned above, initially, this was not considered an issue for debate by EU policy makers but rather a personal or family decision. In practice, this meant that the responsibility for care of elderly family members usually fell to women. However, as EU employment policy increasingly encouraged women to enter the labour market, their care responsibilities began to be seen as an obstacle to labour market participation. To on the one hand ‘liberate’ women from care and domestic tasks and thus facilitate their take up of waged work, and on the other, to provide employment to low-skilled women and other under-employed groups, EU policy began to promote the development of a personal and household services sector.
This policy promoted the commercialisation of care provision. As women were expected to take up waged work, often moving away from their elderly relatives to do so, and as state services were curtailed as a result of austerity measures, markets became increasingly relied upon for elder care. The resulting competition in the field led to demands for cost reduction which in turn drove up a demand for migrant care workers. Many of these labour migrants came from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and became indispensable to the operations of elder care systems in Western Europe. This was possible due to the CEE region’s geographic proximity, the lower wages, worse working and living conditions present within it as well as its inclusion into the EU’s single market, with its central principle of the freedom of movement. While migrant care labour plugs the gap in care present in wealthier countries, with cheap labour effectively subsidising underfunded social systems, it creates a care, youth and brain drain in the migrants’ countries of origin and can amount to social dumping.
Awareness of a growing dependence on the labour of CEE and other migrants existed in policy-making circles in Brussels thanks to the work of trade unions and activists. This resulted in a debate within EU policy-making circles in the 2000s and 2010s. Initially, the European Commission portrayed using migrant care labour to meet the growing demand for long-term care as a cost-efficient way to address care needs, while the European Parliament stressed the inherent inequalities in wealth between origin and destination countries and highlighted the risks of social dumping. As time went on, however, and the gap between the needs of care recipients and availability of care grew wider, the European Parliament aligned its position with that of the Commission. This has led to the current utilitarian approach to migrant care labour in EU policy, which presents labour migration as simply one of a repertoire of measures to boost the EU’s elder care workforce. Indeed, the European Commission’s 2022 communication on migration, ‘Attracting skills and talent to the EU’ states that increasing labour migration from outside of the EU will be crucial to meeting labour demands within the long-term care sector. Effectively, the discussion on the negative consequences of relying on migrant care labour has been silenced in EU policy.
What does the future hold for elder care in the EU?
Concerns over demographic ageing and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have turned EU policy makers’ attention towards the growing demand for long-term care. However, overarching concerns focusing on productivity and GDP growth continue to prevail. In view of demographic ageing, increasing elder care needs, the continuing push for women to enter the formal labour market, as well as the forward-looking nature of both the European Care Strategy and the communication on migration, it seems likely that the reliance on migrant care labour in the EU will steadily increase. The outcome of this utilitarian approach to migrant care labour is likely to be the displacement of the Western European care deficit to poorer EU member states, as well as beyond the bloc’s borders.
Elena Zacharenko is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Gender Studies of Tampere University, Finland. Her research focuses on the framing of care and social reproduction in EU economic, social and gender equality policy, and how this shapes the political economy of and core-periphery relations within the EU.