Keeping staff shortages high on the EU agenda

Health care

(12 October 2023) As the European Commission develops its economic priorities for 2024, EPSU joined an ETUC delegation to underline the need for increased public investment and spending and urgent action on staff shortages across the public services.

The meeting with the Commission on 11 October was the annual consultation over the Annual Sustainable Growth Survey, the document drafted by the Commission and due to be published next month that sets out the main economic and social priorities for the European Semester in 2024.

The Semester is the EU’s process of mainly economic policy coordination but which has slowly been adapted to engage with social policy as well. National plans and state budgets of each member state are assessed by the Commission which then produces a series of country-specific recommendations in the spring which are discussed by the Council with a view to their approval over the summer.

ETUC confederal secretary Ludovic Voet led for the trade union side and said that solidarity between countries and effective action at EU level was needed to address the rise in inequality, the impact of inflation on working people and to prevent any risk of a return to austerity. He added that it was crucial for the EU to have the fiscal capacity to respond to the challenges posed by the green and digital transitions, acknowledging that very few member states could tackle these alone.

Richard Pond of EPSU welcomed the fact that the Commission’s preparatory note for the meeting referred to staff shortages in health and social care and the importance of investing in early years education and care. However, he still urged the Commission to ensure that action to address staff shortages would be a priority within the Semester. He noted that all member states had received country-specific recommendations (CSRs) on health and social care in 2020 as the pandemic hit but that, while these issues remain unsolved, only eight countries received health and social care CSRs this year and none mentioned staff shortages.

In contrast to the employers who tended to focus on skills and training as priorities, EPSU put the spotlight on working conditions with many skilled and well-trained health and social care staff leaving their jobs because of overwork and burnout. These factors were also dissuading new workers to take up jobs in these sectors. If these problems were not addressed then, according to the Eurofound research agency, staff shortages across Europe could top four million by 2030.

The ETUC delegation underlined the importance of allowing the fiscal space for national governments to make the necessary public investment and spending to maintain and improve key public services and that the current debate over fiscal rules needed to acknowledge this. The evidence from the previous crisis was that that public investment was the first to be cut when the EU rules prioritised fiscal consolidation rather than additional spending to counteract the slump in the economy.

There has been some progress on this issue and the Belgian and Spanish governments have led efforts to identify the areas of social investment that need support and to establish a social convergence framework (SCG) that could be integrated into the European Semester. According to the Commission the SCG would be not a new process but would provide an analytical basis for a more systematic monitoring of employment and social developments in the Semester.

The ASGS consultation also involved an exchange on the role of trade unions and employers in the Semester. The ETUC and employer organisations joined in calling for more efforts to ensure that the social partners were properly consulted and had the time to provide their input into the process. They further underlined the limited consultation with social partners in the development of the national reform and resilience plans and urged the Commission to take action to remedy this.

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