Europe’s health and care workers in action – different countries, same demands

Friday, 15 November, 2019

Ten thousands of health and care workers are taking part in actions and strikes across Europe. And the demands, despite the diversity of countries, are similar. More public funding is needed to provide quality services delivered by workers on decent pay. Years of austerity have left public health care systems in crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged as much in his offer of increased funding, including for wages, following the protests in public care on 14 November. After months of strikes across the country, a large mobilisation of EPSU’s French affiliates and many other professional organisations and trade unions saw tens of thousands join in actions that day. Let us wait and see what Macron delivers.

The Latvia government also made commitments on funding and pay for health care. But the unions and other organisations were out in force in Riga on 7 November as the promises were not kept. Similar demands were voiced by Spanish workers on the same day. They fight against precarious work in the care sector which affects women disproportionately. Employers keep wages low and exploit the hard work of the female workforce. Strikes and actions also continue in the same sector in Germany where the ver.di trade union is demanding more staff and better pay. Following regional strikes, employers are now reaching agreements like the one in Baden-Wurttemberg which will be covered in our next collective bargaining newsletter.

Workers are not just protesting about the lack of funding but also against the idea that more market, more competition and privatization will improve services. The reality is that quality of work and quality of care suffer. The unions (Unison, UNITE and GMB) at three hospitals in Berkshire and Surrey in South East England have announced strike action against plans to outsource up to 1,000 NHS cleaners, caterers, porters, security and estates staff. They know that the result would be more precarious jobs and lower pay. The three-day will end on 20 November, the day when Dutch hospital workers will be involved in their first ever national strike. Their demands echo those of their colleagues across Europe. The work they do deserves a good collective agreement, with decent pay and measures to address workloads and stress, with more staff and investment in hospitals.   

EPSU supports all these workers and their unions. The effects of years of austerity are clear as even President Macron now recognises. Research shows that health inequalities are getting worse and workers are paying a heavy price. A study by Kommunal, one of our Swedish affiliates, revealed how elderly care workers have higher levels of illness that workers in sectors like construction.

The new European Commission, Council and Parliament have a challenge here. People are demanding quality care but know that the staff delivering that care are underpaid and overworked while the services are underfunded.  New Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen wants to deliver an action plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights but for people to enjoy their human right to care, this needs to be accompanied by increased funding for public services. And that means the Commission needs to abandon austerity and promote alternative economic policies. For the EPSU Executive Committee this is a key pillar of the work plan we adopted. We put people and our planet before profits so the future is for all, not for the privileged few.