(19 October 2022) The EPSU working group on Social Services convened in Brussels this month for its second meeting of the year. The first meeting of the year was held online on March 23, 2022. On October 5th 2022, over 40 EPSU affiliates met in person to reflect on important challenges facing the European social services sector.
Dietmar Erdmeier (Vice President of the HSS Standing Committee) opened the conference by highlighting two crucial issues for almost all European trade unions today – to preserve purchasing power of workers in the face of energy crisis and to ensure employers take responsibility for the health and safety of their employees.
Tuscany Bell (Policy Coordinator, Social Services & Youth) updated the group on the secretariat's activities. One of the most important recent developments in the sector was the long-awaited European Care Strategy. EPSU had published a statement with Eurocarers, in anticipation of the care strategy’s release, calling on the EU and its member states to decrease their reliance on informal carers and increase investment in public social services.
Dana Carmen Bachmann from DG Employment (European Commission) was present at the meeting to discuss the care strategy. Bachmann emphasised the need to urgently scale up LTC services and reduce EU’s reliance on informal care. Almost half of people in the EU aged 65 or over with LTC needs have an unmet need currently. She underscored, in no uncertain terms, that addressing staff shortages is paramount if member states want a resilient care sector.
The EPSU Secretariat responded by thanking the Commission for incorporating in the care strategy many of the points raised by EPSU and its affiliates. The emphasis on collective bargaining and social dialogue was particularly promising. Having said that, some reservations were expressed. Several participants voiced their disappointment that the strategy is not sufficiently critical of privatisation in the social services sector, despite ample evidence that private service providers tend to be worse than public ones in terms of employment conditions, service quality and the overall costs to the public treasury. The French company, ORPEA, was recently charged with misappropriation of public funds and directed to reimburse 55.8 million Euros to the French state. Meeting participants also requested for more clarity on how the care strategy would be implemented. In response to these questions, Carmen replied that EU does not have the competence to tell member states which model – public or private to follow. As for the implementation, there are various things that the strategy proposes at the EU level – setting up of sectoral social dialogue, providing project-based funding, supporting skilling programs, encouraging legal and ethical migration of care workers etc.
Participants were also updated on ongoing projects with the Social Employers to improve social dialogue in social services, and the New European Parliament committee on COVID which was formed after EPSU campaigned extensively. Adam Rogalewski (Policy Officer, HSS) briefed the group on the planned social media action for World Day for Care Workers. The theme of this year’s action would be disappearing workers in the care sector.
One key item on the agenda was EPSUs joint request the Social Employers for a European Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee in Social Services. The response from the European Commission has been delayed yet again and is now expected in January 2023. This evoked passionate responses from the room. Dietmar Erdmeier concluded the discussion on this topic by summarising the external factors which have caused delays in the setting up of the social dialogue committee, and calling for them to be resolved quickly to avoid adverse effects on patients and the elderly people.
In the afternoon session, there was a presentation on results from a staff shortages survey sent to all affiliates. The qualitative survey received 9 responses, with almost everyone reporting that there is a lack of transparency surrounding staff ratios. Bell concluded the presentation by asking delegates for their opinion on the possibility of introducing EU level staff: user ratios for the social services sector. While colleagues from Austria and Belgium mentioned that the possibility of having EU level staff: user ratios may be worth exploring, several others were more sceptical. Kaasinen pointed out the perils of imposing rigid staffing requirements; several private care homes in Finland closed after a legislation on staffing levels because these homes just could not find enough staff to meet the requirements while maintaining profitability.
The last session of the conference focused on what EPSU’s position should be on the increasing preference for home care over residential care across the EU. Sanat Sogani, stagiaire at EPSU, started the session by providing some initial information on how homecare is publicly provided in Nordic countries, a model that is often hailed as the gold standard for community-based home care. A stimulating discussion followed as participants pointed out that many new care delivery models have come up in the last few years. For instance, the Austrian government is currently running a pilot project wherein a family member gets paid to provide care. Some delegates pointed to the shortcoming of the increasing emphasis on home care. The decreasing expenditure on institutional care at times leads to unmet needs as several patients are bed-ridden and in need of intensive care. Having said that, they accepted that the publicly provided home care model in Nordic countries is something worth defending.
Eva-Lotta Nilsson (President of the LRG Standing Committee) concluded the meeting and thanked all present for their active participation in the meeting throughout the day. The participants were invited to join for a small socializing and networking event in the evening