Challenges facing Hungarian care workers when trying to act for themselves in the United Kingdom and in Hungary
Written by: Kinga Milánkovics


The so-called ‘care drain’ in western Europe – the employment of cheap migrant labour in care work – has been widely discussed in the academic and public discourses (see also Uhde and Ezzeddine in this volume). As explained in the Introduction to this volume, the marketization of care has resulted in the increased employment of central and eastern European women in western European households. This reflects an unequal exchange between eastern and western European countries. While I agree that working conditions and regulations in care work are defined by demographic and socioeconomic developments, in this chapter I will focus on carers’ perspectives and their capacity to cope and to act for themselves within larger political and socioeconomic contexts.

As a Hungarian carer working in the United Kingdom, I draw on my own experiences and on discourses and dialogues among and with carers and families. Over the past decade I trained and have been employed as a carer. I have also talked to numerous Hungarian carers who have been employed abroad to find out what they think and feel about the prospect of ‘Brexit’ – whatever that turns out to mean – and what their intentions are in terms of work in the future. I am still in constant dialogue with them and often brainstorm about what kind of social structures we might be able to build in order to improve working conditions in Hungary. There is also a kind of self-supervision or self-help network within a small community of carers, who are in regular touch. Although many of them express a wish to return to Hungary and work in the care sector there, most of them do not plan to return. This is because of the huge differences between working in the United Kingdom and in Hungary when it comes to legal regulations, wages and working conditions. While these are strongly influenced by the socioeconomic differences between the two countries, I believe that nevertheless there are many things policymakers and the carers themselves could do to achieve better working conditions in Hungary.

While I present the United Kingdom as a positive example in contrast to Hungary, care work is undervalued and underpaid there as well, in common with other forms of reproductive work. From Hungarian carers’ point of view, working in the United Kingdom has various advantages compared with working in Hungary. I will highlight how carers experience the formal legal structures and the informal networks and relations they work within, reflecting on their ability to cope with or change their working conditions. Formal and informal networks, information channels, unions, laws and customs, the quality of social dialogue in the larger society, media attention, as well as business solutions all have an impact on carers’ capacity to act. In my analysis I will show carers’ experiences in the United Kingdom and in Hungary, and what helps or hinders them, with the purpose of advocating for more rights and better working conditions. I will show that the legal frameworks and economic circumstances of care work have to be changed in Hungary in order to confer more dignity on both the elderly and care workers. I will also argue that care culture, customs, and social awareness must improve for the same reasons. This chapter is not a thorough sociological analysis of care work in these countries. Instead, I will show what care workers experience and what improvements I, as an activist, suggest in terms of civic participation.

First, I will present the UK care system from a care worker’s perspective and highlight what institutions and legal circumstances make care work in the United Kingdom better for Hungarian workers. I then explain what care workers find most problematic in Hungary. Finally, I will give an example of what solutions are available to activists and grassroots initiatives in order to improve carers’ working conditions. Although systemic change is needed to improve carers’ overall situation, for example, addressing the social value of care work in society, I would like to show the aims and possible achievements of local initiatives. I believe that, despite all difficulties resulting from various systemic factors, carers can and should act for themselves in order to improve their situation by cooperating with each other.

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