(4 October 2021) The pandemic showed the crucial role of health and care workers. They were at the forefront facing the lack of personal protective equipment, infections and colleagues ending up in hospital or worse. Longstanding problems were highlighted like the lack of staff and safe staffing levels, the low-pay and poor conditions. Together with high workloads and work related stress this undermined the provision of quality care.
Recent research is confirming this. It sheds light on the fight of the predominately female workforce and their unions to address these problems. The European Trade Union Institute and EPSU organised a webinar on “Transforming care work within an era of changing priorities of care after the pandemic” 29 September 2021. We brought together the contributors to the academic journal Transfer, the European review of labour and Research and trade unionists. It addressed the transnational European health-care system and focused on the long-structural problems in the care sector. We discussed with the academics the acute challenges in the health care sector. Many health and care workers are engaged in industrial action across Europe, most recently Dutch workers in academic hospitals in the Netherlands. The moderator EPSU’s Adam Rogalewski, remembered that EPSU and the unions fought against the reduction of the EU budget on health and social services, and restored much of the funding.
The editors Valeria Pulignano and Mathew Johnson introduced their narrative to change the care delivery and care work across Europe by crosscutting the national models with a transnational analysis of care services. The studies in Transfer thus reflected both, the fights of health-care workers for decent pays at micro-level and the multiple roles of state welfare regimes at macro-level. The studies addressed the political agenda of Europe and the COVID-19 crisis crystallizing the long-structure problems of the care sector.
Sabina Stan presented the research Time for a paradigm change in understanding the emerging European health-care system, written together with Roland Erne. She developed on the transnational linkages of the European healthcare, structured around three interrelated processes. Health care privatization, the health care worker and patient mobility and together with EU-laws in previous decades led to a marketization of health care and making it a commodity. This increased unevenness, regional divisions, medical deserts, inequality of access and labour force segmentation in the EU health care space. The EU care-directives and the EU economic governance create a spiral-driven commodifying agenda of the health and care sector.
Another researcher Caroline Murphy focused on the key priorities for the Irish unions emerging during the pandemic Two decades of trade union activity in the Irish long-term care sector. The research analysed the challenges and employment conditions of the Irish health and care sectors as well as and two unions’ campaigning strategies of EPSU affiliates Forsa and SIPTU. She developed on campaign lessons to reach decent income levels, for an organized workforce and strategies of alignment between unions, civil society organisations and private sector employees on areas of overlap. Lastly, she presented the pros and cons of the impact of technology in the Irish care sector.
Next, Marie Butler of the Irish union SIPTU, presented two successful campaigns for precarious care workers. The first one resulted in the guarantee for agreed contract hours and fixed pay and the second one in the accounting of care workers’ travel time as paid work time. Today, the private sector care workers are behind the acquired standards of similar workers in the public sector. Upcoming campaigns will aim to improve the conditions of home care workers by enhancing the registration and regulation of their activity and supporting their education and training.
The seminar ended with a lively sessions in which the researchers and contributors answers questions of the large online audience. Issues included profit-centred care delivery, taxation measures, the impact of austerity on the health and care services, the efficiency of campaigning at European-level and the inclusion of individual needs in care-delivering. EPSU’s Adam Rogalweski health and social services and the EPSU General Secretary participated.