Journeys of Care

The following dialogues took place while walking to spots chosen by the interviewed persons.


It’s 7 am, next to the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) entrance. I linger a little before calling my contact, enjoying the cool morning breeze. Dawn happened just some minutes ago. The days are getting shorter. Again. “Wait, you can’t just walk in. Can I help you?” asks an official-looking person. Do I look out of place? Out of time? “I am just meeting someone,” I explain, not mentioning that I am an officially inscribed student at ZHdK and would have access anyway. It seems that public buildings are walked by certain people at this hour of the day. And the official-looking person does not count me as part of those people. Why this distinction? Are there wrong times? Wrong places? I have never entered ZHdK as early as today. But I am working part-time and start some days early as well. I myself experience being part of a working body in uniform. In another part of the city, in another public building where you can’t just walk in early in the morning. Are there other hours? Is this another hour? Is this the hour of the people who take care of maintenance work of public buildings and buildings where nine to five jobs were invented? Even if buildings are not owned by the working body, so at least the hour. The hours. From 6 am to 8.30 am, Let’s call them the hours of Bejaze Imeri and colleagues. Who is Bejaze Imeri? 

Bea, as Bejaze is called by family and colleagues, has no problems starting the day early. Usually at home with her husband, drinking the first cup of coffee together. Later she drives to ZHdK by car. “I know, it is a luxury,” she whispers, “but I am more flexible; I can take some extra material with me or go shopping for groceries for lunch on the way back.” Because after the two-and-a-half-hours-shift at ZHdK, she will go home. Her home is not a castle. But her family calls it a “five-star-establishment” because of the provided excellent services. She and her husband have three grown-up children. The youngest son still lives at home. He suggested lately that he would take care of the cleaning work at home by outsourcing it to a cleaning
service for private homes. But Bea was against it. She loves a clean home, and she loves cleaning. Not only as a professional and paid maintenance worker. Care work is often undervalued. “It is important and honest work.” Later in the day, Bea will be working some other paid hours. Altogether up to fifty percent. She was working more hours only some years ago. Sometimes fulltime. Besides running the “five-star-establishment,” giving birth to and raising three children. Her tasks at ZHdK include taking care of seven dance studios and some connected spaces like passages or one physiotherapy practice. “I am frequently stopping students from walking into the studio while I am still at work,” explains Bea. Usually, they show some sympathy and sometimes even apologise. During all her explanatory work, her hands are busy. This woman can multitask. And organise. She planned in advance which part of her work was interesting to be shown and started this day extra early, just to have a little more time for the interview. After her manual labour, everything is shiny. The floor, the mirrors, and the piano. The disinfectant flask is full, and the wastebasket empty. While she gives the last finishing touches in the last studio in line – still on time – an early student sneaks past us into the studio. No word of greetings. Bea casts a last professional glance back into the studio and packs up her trolley while the student starts to occupy the space through movements of appropriation. First in a lonely corner and then slowly filling up the whole dance floor, constantly gazing at the self in the shiny mirror.


The walking dialogue with Servete Schneider leads us with crackling steps on a graveled path to a little park. The laughter and ecstatic sound bits from joyfully playing children sometimes blend with our dialogue and builds the background of our topic. Servete used to work as a teacher and, after this experience, decided to change her profession to therapeutic pedagogy. Her aim was to commit herself to the aspects of care within the school context, addressing the needs and problems of children and adolescents as well as assisting and valorizing specific social, physical, or emotional capacities. During our conversation, Servete offered us an evaluation of her experiences and observations within this domain and beyond it, on a broader societal level.

Difficulties of children at school are based on complex settings, it is often not easy to make the specific contribution and influence of the therapeutic pedagogy visible or manifest. The expectations of the child’s surroundings are often high, and schooling success counts as a central element. However, for the well-being of the child, that will lead to accomplishments in school and also to individual freedom, many other elements come into account. Because Servete’s work is not always measurable within the parameters of the school rating system, it is sometimes not acknowledged, even if it leads to an improvement in the situation. This brings up the question of how care work could be valued within a system that is aligned with results that are quantitatively measurable. Servete calls for more awareness, empathy, and a more holistic understanding of all the micro-contributions that have an intrinsic efficiency to a positive development of the child beyond a quantifiable recognition. 

In a meritocracy in which society is achievement-oriented and uses the given parameters that are derived from an economic system based on growth, it is difficult for parents to find other mappings than the ones set by school grades in major subjects. The high expectations and the need for participation coming from the parent’s side don’t make it easier to establish alternative evaluation criteria. Although, the processes and the system have changed in the last years and parents appreciate the involvement of care work effectuated by social and therapeutic pedagogy, the classification of major subjects is predominant for parents, because these are the ones more linked to a promise of success in an adult life within a normativity of economic performance orientation. 

In relation to these thoughts, Servete expresses the wish to develop a more diverse system of values and orientations in which the individual capacities, talents, and characteristics of a child can be acknowledged and fostered even if they are not in accordance with established major subjects. It is a way to avoid the perspective of the child as an implicit “project.” There are different knowledge productions and epistemologies along with factual, propositional knowledge and to evaluate them equally is for the benefit of the child.

Referring to the situation in Kosovo within this context Servete mentions the general lack of governmental support and financial resources, the difficulties with private initiatives, as well as system-related problems. Efforts to integrate also social and therapeutical aspects are happening, but a general facilitation is needed before individual assistance can be established as part of the educational system. Servete often reflects on how she could actively participate in the development in this domain, and she is looking for the right frame to get from the idea to a realization. The strong desire to give something back, to somehow share the privileges, and to contribute to a sense of equality is palpable in her statements and expressions. 

“If I’m preoccupied with an issue, I start to reflect, think and talk about it as long as it takes until an action results out of it. It’s always a process of collectivity,” says Servete about her personal strategy to deal with troubling or difficult circumstances. Asked about what she would like to point out concerning the general situation in Prishtina, she mentions the heartiness, the creativity, the collective self-organization, and this spirit of optimism against all odds. Impressed by this strength, she wishes: “I hope they can hold on to this attitude and find ways and support to realize this potential.” Collective commitment as resistance against resignation is also a great act of care. 


On a sunny summer day, we walk slowly along a lakeside in a nature reserve. The reeds beside the path sway gently by the wind. The water shows a rippling diffraction pattern. An idyllic landscape where there seems to be no need for change. “Because of the pandemic, we discovered this spot and came often here as a family to recover from work-related stress,” explains Suzana Mersini, a part-time employee in a hospital. She speaks of women with an Albanian background as slightly workaholics, always juggling different tasks simultaneously: “It might look as if men were in charge. But in a relationship or a family, it is mostly the woman who takes care, who is the heart and the soul of the institution, keeping it together and gently steering and directing”. Suzana speaks with a friendly smile. Her tender warmth would surely cause the tired wanderer to get rid of the heavy coat, an act that the high wind did not achieve according to the medieval fable. If Suzana detects a decrease in passion in one of her many labours she tries to change herself or her ways. She started working in healthcare as a trainee, slowly climbing the ladder. She didn’t choose a position in the health sector in the first place, but she got pregnant with twin sons rather young and has been looking for a paid job where she could work on weekends while her husband worked weekdays. She just started to continue her education while helping her teenage sons find an apprentice position. 

How is professional care work within the Swiss health system acknowledged? The increasing workload and constant shortage of professionals lead to more and more difficult decisions and ethical dilemmata. Professional care work is becoming increasingly inhuman for caretakers as well as for caregivers. And there is no functioning feedback culture. The working individual is excluded from relevant management decisions that influence the daily business but is later confronted with the impact itself. Despite the bad working conditions, Suzana still remains on the job. Maybe because she is a child of survivors: “I see these difficulties. But I can’t quit. Not yet. Caring still remains a passion of mine.” 

Caring has multifaceted aspects and is relevant in all forms of social interdependencies. Parents might often help their children to find a path into another future. “My parents and we children have different life stories. Remembering the past and knowing where we came from is important. Talking of past conflicts openly might help a future generation not to make similar mistakes.” 

Maybe not all accomplishments of women of Albanian origins are sparkling on a public stage today. Some might twinkle in a little corner. And how do we detect these small twinkles? “Appreciation begins by myself,” explains Suzana referring to the humbleness of Albanian women in particular but also woman in general. 

And even if the women of the diaspora have accomplished many goals and are working hard, they often care for places and people connected to their origin. They might have become doctors and solicitors but still remember the language and teach their daughters how to bake Fli. And maybe their sons. And therefore, in a further future, fathers might teach their daughters (and their other children) the secrets of the traditional kitchen. And the secrets of cleaning. And how to appreciate and care and share equally all tasks of unpaid and paid labours of love. And we would not mind if the off-springs of Albanian origins were teaching the off-springs of Swiss origins their accomplishments.

Alternative Economic Model and Valuation of Cleaning Work

Working conditions in cleaning services and maintenance are particularly precarious, and they are even more for elderly women and women with migration experience. Recently alternative economic counter models in this care domain are occurring, developed to foster empowerment for the work holder. One of these innovative counter models to established cleaning service companies is the Autonomia, die Plattformkooperative, which was founded this year through the initiative of the non-profit organization Frauen50Plus, located in Zurich and dedicated to the empowerment of women. The underlying vision is that all women, independent of age, gender, and origin, have access to fair-paid work. It’s a center of enablement for women with migration experience where they are, for example, enabled to learn German or coached concerning all the rights as job holders and as women. During a conversation with the lead of the executive board of Frauen50Plus, Jael Bueno, we got insights into the main subject matters and objectives.

Autonomia, die Plattformkooperative is a coalition of cleaning workforces with its own online platform and very specific criteria and rules constituting the enterprise philosophy, the management, and the working conditions. The strongest distinction to conventional cleaning service providers is that it is organized as a cooperative, which means that everyone involved is owner of the enterprise and, following the notion of self-determination, contributes to the management and the decision-making processes. Another main difference to conventional cleaning companies is the notion of self-administration. The members of the cooperative and jobholders are taking on more responsibility and are administrating their work activity on their own. A part that in profit-driven companies is taken over by an administration apparatus representing a huge cost factor and eventually an important margin of the company profit. Jael Bueno emphasizes the fact that this entrepreneurial setting can only work in practice if the members can take on the responsibility. To assure this, Jael Bueno and her colleague Sabri Baumann accompany the cooperative until the learnings are accomplished. This sense of collective responsibility is also a basic principle that leads to self-empowerment. 

Central elements of the mission statement of Autonomia, die Plattformkooperative are the working conditions with a dignified remuneration of the work and the guarantee of social and health insurance coverage to not only assure the quality of the work but fair living conditions for the cleaning workforces.

The urgency and the need for self-determined enterprises in the cleaning and maintenance domain come from the high poverty risk for cleaning workforces. Often, the social and accident insurance coverage is insufficient or even completely missed. Isolation through the frame conditions, on-call availability, and long ways to the working place are other factors that complicate the situation as they are not considered. As the most aggravating factor, the statutory minimum wage is not respected and is being undercut. To ensure the value of the work through better working conditions and fair remuneration, the Autonomia, die Plattformkooperative guarantees a minimum gross wage per hour. The fact that through the means of collectivity, solidarity, and profit-share, a business setting that enables the raise of the salary by more than 30% per hour for the same work is a strong indicator and illustrates how potentials for equated conditions are being suffocated by profit driven structures.

It becomes apparent that self-government is one of the key issues in conceptualizing alternative modes of entrepreneurship. Those are transforming and even avoiding the most exploitive rules and constraints of neoliberal capitalistic excrescences and gender inequality. The success of this setting can contribute to a democratization of this economy, at least from the perspective of the job holder. 

The unlearning referring the approach by Gayatri Spivak,
might be how, as a consumer, new comprehensions and valuations of a care service can be established and spark another understanding of what this work is worth. It would represent a step into alternative ways to reform a market and build a specific resistance through a consumer awareness that contains other main criteria as the price to evaluate and value work.

Another main objective is to develop the recognition and value of the cleaning work as well as the acknowledgement of this work within a more considerable societal understanding and appreciation. According to Jael Bueno, the process of formation of a public opinion is complex and communication efforts on social media, which is an integral part of Autonomia, die Plattformkooperative are not enough. To substantiate an argument, it also needs an institutional frame and representation through the labor union as well as activist work in the streets.  

Asked about her main concern, Jael Bueno points out the wish for women to get into self-organization, trust themselves, and have the courage to realize ideas to change the settings. She closes with an analogy to an artistic process where it takes the same kind of courage to get from the idea into the concrete.

By Fréderic Bron and Judith Weidman

Leave a Reply