Care workers cross Europe’s east-west divide

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Slovakian care taker Alena Konecna helps a 89-year-old bedridden woman in Leoben, Austria on March 20, 2019. (AFP)
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Slovakian care taker Alena Konecna helps a 89-year-old bedridden woman in Leoben, Austria on March 20, 2019. (AFP)
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Slovakian care taker Alena Konecna sends a good-bye kiss to her friend as she leaves her home for another two-weeks long work trip (in Austria), in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia on April 10, 2019. (AFP)
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Slovakian care taker Alena Konecna, accompanied by her friend Michal, leaves her home for another two-weeks long work trip (in Austria), in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia on April 10, 2019. (AFP)
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Slovakian care taker Maria Gelienova poses for a picture with her boss Klaus Katzianka, owner of the care taker agency EUROPFLEGE, in Leoben, Austria on March 20, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 22 April 2019

Care workers cross Europe’s east-west divide

  • Up to 300,000 caregivers are estimated to work in private homes in Germany, mostly illegally
  • Care workers can earn roughly double as much in Austria than in Slovakia, although Konecna says it’s hard to leave behind her daughter, now 19

LEOBEN, Austria: Every two weeks, Alena Konecna packs her bags to leave her own mother and daughter at home in Slovakia and travel some 400 kilometers (250 miles) across the border into Austria to take care of someone else’s mother.
As citizens across the continent prepare to vote in May’s European Parliament elections, 40-year-old Konecna is an example of those who regularly take advantage of one of the EU’s most important pillars: the free movement of labor.
She’s one of more than 65,000 people — mostly women from Slovakia and Romania — who form the backbone of Austria’s domestic care sector.
For two weeks at a time, Konecna stays with the 89-year-old bedridden woman to cook and care for her.
“Without care workers from abroad, the 24-hour care system would break down... No one (in Austria) wants to do it,” says Klaus Katzianka, who runs the agency that found Konecna her current job and who himself needs round-the-clock care due to a disability.
But the arrangement may be coming under strain.

Austria — along with other countries such as Germany, Greece and Italy — looked to poorer neighboring states after the fall of communism to meet the need for carers generated by an aging population and changing family structures.
But it is “problematic to build a system on this,” says Kai Leichsenring, executive director of the European Center for Social Welfare Policy and Research.
As eastern European nations become richer and their own populations age, workers there may increasingly choose to stay put, he warns.
Western European nations would then have to look further afield — to Ukraine or China, for example — to meet the ever-growing demand.
In Konecna’s case, she started to work as a caregiver more than two years ago in the town of Leoben, nestled amid mountains in the Austrian countryside, which reminds her of her home in Banska Bystrica in Slovakia.
Previously the single mother worked in a factory in the car industry.
Fed up with the long shifts and inspired by her mother’s erstwhile career as a nurse, in 2015 she took a three-month course in first aid and care skills, including some practical experience in nursing homes.
She also took a one-month German course, allowing her to watch TV with her employer and read newspapers to her.
Care workers can earn roughly double as much in Austria than in Slovakia, although Konecna says it’s hard to leave behind her daughter, now 19.
“My daughter was often sick when I was away. And I have missed things like my daughter’s birthday,” she says, adding she would prefer working in Slovakia if wages were better there.

Besides being separated from their families, there are other problems in how the sector works across Europe.
A study by the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz found inadequate training, extreme working hours and salaries below the legal minimum wage.
Up to 300,000 caregivers are estimated to work in private homes in Germany, mostly illegally. They previously hailed mostly from Poland but now increasingly come from poorer EU states such as Romania and Slovakia.
Konecna was put off going to Germany by the more gruelling cycle which is common there, with workers staying three months at a time.
For many of those from poorer EU member states working in the West, workplace conditions can leave lasting effects.
In Romania, more than 150 women were hospitalized at Socola Psychiatric Hospital in the country’s northeast last year alone, their mental health having suffered after caring for the elderly abroad — what has become known as the “Italy syndrome.”
“I had the misfortune to work all the time for elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s so I spent most of my time between four walls, under constant pressure,” says one former hospital patient, a 58-year-old mother of two who worked in Italy from 2002 until 2014.
“I devoted the most beautiful years of my life to elderly Italians.”

Added to the stress of such jobs, there are signs that EU migrant workers like Konecna may come under fire from their host governments.
Last year in Austria for example, the right-wing government decided to cut the amount of child benefit paid to foreigners who work in Austria but whose children live abroad in lower income countries.
With a monthly salary of about 1,200 euros ($1,400), Konecna says the changes have meant an effective pay cut of 80 euros, a “big minus” for her.
Katzianka, who fears difficulties to find carers from Slovakia now, has hired a lawyer for Konecna to contest the change.
Romania has also protested to the European Commission over the change, saying it violates EU principles of equal treatment.


Man eats $120,000 piece of art — a banana taped to wall

Updated 08 December 2019

Man eats $120,000 piece of art — a banana taped to wall

MIAMI: The move was bananas ... or maybe the work was just too appealing.
A performance artist shook up the crowd at the Art Basel show in Miami Beach on Saturday when he grabbed a banana that had been duct-taped to a gallery wall and ate it.
The banana was, in fact, a work of art by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan titled “Comedian” and sold to a French collector for $120,000.
In a video posted on his Instagram account, David Datuna, who describes himself as a Georgian-born American artist living in New York, walks up to the banana and pulls it off the wall with the duct tape attached.
“Art performance ... hungry artist,” he said, as he peeled the fruit and took a bite. “Thank you, very good.”
A few bystanders could be heard giggling before a flustered gallery official whisked him to an adjoining space for questioning.
But the kerfuffle was resolved without a food fight.
“He did not destroy the art work. The banana is the idea,” Lucien Terras, director of museum relations for Galerie Perrotin, told the Miami Herald.
As it turns out, the value of the work is in the certificate of authenticity, the newspaper said. The banana is meant to be replaced.
A replacement banana was taped to the wall about 15 minutes after Datuna’s stunt.
“This has brought a lot of tension and attention to the booth and we’re not into spectacles,” Terras said. “But the response has been great. It brings a smile to a lot of people’s faces.”
Cattelan is perhaps best known for his 18-carat, fully functioning gold toilet called “America” that he had once offered on loan to US President Donald Trump.
The toilet, valued at around $5 to $6 million, was in the news again in September when it was stolen from Britain’s Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of wartime leader Winston Churchill, where it had been on display.