Korean nurse “guest workers” in Germany: Nursing care work as emotional labor

Nurse migration has been taking place globally and is advertised as a “portable profession” (Kingma 2006: 2). In line with the increasing significance of the role of transnational migration in health care provision especially in the West, slightly over 11,000 nurses and nurse assistants from South Korea were sent to former West Germany between the 1950s and the 1970s.

This lecture delves into the nature of nursing care work as emotional labor based on the nurses’ experiences at work, and especially the relations with their patients of the nursing institutions. Secondly, the way in which the stereotypical image of Asian femininity was shaped into care work will be examined.

Nursing care work includes the micro practices of everyday care, nursing care work ranging from the role of custodial caregiver to physician’s assistant. Tronto (1994) defines good care as a highly complex activity, requiring a vast range of tasks and skills such as attentiveness, evaluation of different alternatives to meet needs, and responsiveness. Thus, delivery of nursing care involves monitoring both physical and emotional well-being, and “care labour is embodied labour” as Anderson and Shutes (2014: 217) address. This is a labor of skill with an attendant professionalized relation or a labor of love imagined as a familial-type relation. Care work involves the development of relationships between care providers and those in need of care. The image of nurses as a caring mother figure overlaps with the stereotypical feminine image of Asian women circulated in Germany, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, which was kind, gentle, polite, smiling, and docile (Ahn 2014). This study is based on personal accounts obtained through multiple in-depth interviews in Germany between 2011 and 2016 with fifteen former Korean nurses or nurse assistants who have settled in Germany.

Yonson Ahn is a professor and chair of Korean Studies at Goethe University of Frankfurt. She received her PhD degree in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Warwick in the UK in 2000. Her research interests include gender and migration; Korean diasporas; gender-based violence in conflicts; and historical controversies in East Asia.