The mobile precariat

by Verena Mermer

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

The maids and servants in Austria in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were mobile. They often switched where they worked because of conflict or drudgery, or because they hoped for better meals and more tolerable dormitories. They worked for board and lodging, and also received small sums of money and goods in kind. Part of a maid's wages, for example, could consist of a pair of shoes which she took with her to her next employer, another part was being allowed to borrow a cart for one day in order to take her chest of belongings with her.

These living and working conditions are still to be found today, although the distances have changed. Almost all those who work in agriculture in Austria come from abroad, most of them from Eastern or South Eastern Europe. At present it is transport companies such as Atlassib, Tarsin or Flixbus that transport people with their trolly suitcases, plastic bags, rucksacks or cardboard boxes cheaply and seasonally to their next place of residence and work, turning a blind-eye to caution and traffic rules. The growing network of bus companies and train connections means different things to different people. For an investor, they are a worthwhile branch of industry, for an unemployed person with a driving licence, they are a potential employer. For an agricultural worker, they are a means to an end: their length of stay is measured in months, because agriculture can generally do without a year-round workforce.

N. always travels by train, in a sleeper car - so his slumber is only disturbed briefly by passport control. I meet N. in his Transylvanian village of origin; he carries out gardening work when I approach him from the other side of the fence. N. left for the first time when his son and daughter had both grown up. When the parents of younger children are absent, grandparents or older siblings have to take responsibility for them. Mothers hundreds of miles away use Skype to check if homework has been done, or chat on WhatsApp when there are difficulties at school. In most cases, only one parent lives abroad; many leave for a limited period of time, but frequently, repeatedly returning to Romania while they are away. Travelling home is a bit of an ordeal, but one that they put up with. Hours are spent in cold buses or overheated train compartments, with snoring passengers and music chiming out of other people's headphones.

N. travels back and forth five or six times a year to and from his place of work which lies to the south of Vienna. He, and a woman from the village were given the job as a favour from a friend. Other middlemen or women would have demanded a commission. In the beginning N. was responsible for tending the vineyard and harvesting the grapes. These days he spends most of his time in the kitchen, 14 hours a day, earning 6 euros an hour. There he hammers schnitzel, which he prepares in the classic way, using a deep fryer or in the pan. He peels potatoes which stand in bags in the yard and makes sure that the cigarette he has in the corner of his mouth does not get wet. In the garden of the house in Transylvania, which N. rents with his wife and would like to buy at some point, there are two vines that he took from Austria: Pinot Blanc and Zweigelt. He doesn't know whether they will thrive here, the earth is blacker than in the Vienna Basin. On the slopes beyond the village, artificial terraces are visible, but they lie fallow. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, wine was also cultivated here. But the steep hillside location, means it is impossible to work with machines, which currently is the only profitable form of producing wine.

Romania is dependent on imports of food, its supermarket shelves are full of meat from Germany, vegetables from Italy and fruits from Spain. Often enough it has been slaughtered, cultivated or harvested by Romanian workers. Capsunari – or strawberry picker - was the common and pejorative term for early labour migrants who left their country of origin to harvest strawberries on Spain's plantations. Today, everyone who goes abroad to earn a wage is called Capsunari. A few years ago they were exclusively undocumented or part of the annual quota for seasonal work. Since 2014 they have been subject to the free movement of EU workers, after being EU citizens since 2007. Every year, the Sezonieri campaign for the rights of harvest workers in Austria affixes posters to heavily trafficked commuter routes: One of them reads in German "Lohndumping ist strafbar!" (wage dumping is punishable), the other in various languages "Willkommen" (welcome) - including information in large letters on the minimum wage agreed in the collective agreement, between 6.05 and 7.29 euros depending on the federal state. I learn at a meeting with activists that these conditions are practically never met. Meanwhile, it turns out that the contact telephone number on the flyers is often only dialed at the end of the season, when the decision has been made to leave a company and to claim outstanding overtime pay or the difference between the hourly wage and the statutory minimum wage.

Temperature extremes contribute to agricultural work being a back-breaking job. Drought is a big issue, says a farmer's wife whom I visit on the market in Vienna's Weinviertel. Potatoes are attacked by worms or get deformed, other vegetables dry up. A farmer says that among his colleagues, no one pays less than the minimum wage. In other cases, farmers pass on the pressure that is mounting on them.

Someone tells me the story of a man who was hired to harvest cucumbers. In the early hours of the morning the fields were still covered in dew. He layered six sweaters on top of each other to protect his skin from the water. His hands were completely ripped open, as the company didn’t provide gloves. Another man, who worked as a truck driver in Germany, tells me about a harvest helper who died of thirst during the peak of summer. The employer should have provided something to drink in the field, he says.

R. takes me from the bus station to a second, more remote village and back again. The unpaved country road is lined with trees, in whose crowns mistletoes grow. R. skillfully steers around potholes to protect the car. After graduating from high school he became a chauffeur at a Romanian company, but his wages were neither enough to help his family renovate their house nor cover the rent for his younger brother who went to school in the city. R. was hired as a road builder in Portugal, earning 35 euros a day for eight hours, his official working time. Unofficially his days sometimes lasted 14 hours. His return flights by plane cost him 350 euros, he notes bitterly. Then R. picked cauliflower near Hamburg. The harvest was better paid, but the work was harder than day-to-day life on the construction site. He had to constantly bend over, which gave him back pain and the cold sometimes caused him problems. He said he had never had a boss that showed him any respect, whether in Romania or elsewhere.

It's quiet in the village, not as crowded as in the cities. The food is organic - "But otherwise?" asks R., although he knows the answer better than I do. There's a bar where you can drink away the money you've earned elsewhere to compensate for the frustration that built up over months. In summer, the town with its lovingly renovated houses attracts groups of tourists, and handicrafts and gastronomy are slowly becoming new sources of income. There is a blue minibus that brings old clothes to the village; a white van with loudspeakers that sells pears, mandarins and apples. And there are several pawn shops. Locals know, soon enough a family member will go abroad, earn some money and settle the debts.

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