Workers keeping public services going – elderly and home care staff under pressure

Wednesday, 1 April, 2020

News from EPSU affiliates reveals how so many of our members are continuing to work. They are keeping the lights on, paying pensions and benefits, delivering new support schemes for workers hit by the crisis and maintaining water and waste services. Unions are negotiating agreements at national and workplace level to deal with the many new challenges in the response to the COVID-19 crisis. The EPSU leadership has sent a message of solidarity to all of them.

Long working hours, lack of protective equipment, lack of training and years of underfunding….

We are getting reports of the extreme pressure that workers are under, especially the demanding (and excessive) working hours for hospital staff, from cleaners to doctors, and the mental stress of the decisions that have to be taken. Unions report about prison riots in prisons, the imminent danger to staff and even incidents where police have been spat on and so face immediate quarantine and more. It is extremely worrying to hear about the grueling situation in social services  and in particular in elderly and home care in Italy, France and Belgium. While in Spain the military have even been called in to provide assistance as workers in elderly homes, already understaffed, cannot cope.

Many workers in these services have been infected and in some cases their employers have simply abandoned the homes. In other countries elderly and home care workers are in daily and very close contact with infected people who are no longer being hospitalized. These workers have often been ill-prepared, lacking both personal protective equipment and proper training for this situation. It is a warning to those countries who are not yet in the same situation: prepare this sector and group of workers. And these are workers, the vast majority women, who have long seen their work undervalued and underpaid. One of the lessons of this crisis is that we can not go back to normal. Structural change is needed to revalue our public services, and the work of those who deliver them. EPSU will be supporting an action to demand public and universal health and care on the 7th of April, World Health Day.

Solidarity – Corona-bonds, Marshall plan, European Central Bank

That structural change requires new solutions built on solidarity. We support the ETUC’s call for companies not to pay dividends but retain that money for investment. A tax on dividends and wealth should be part of the answer and several countries and the ETUC are supporting Corona (Euro-) bonds in the Eurozone. It is shameful that the advocates of austerity are blocking this kind of solidarity. But will these bonds be enough? Is there enough money on the financial markets to buy them on the required massive scale?

A Marshall plan of investments like the ETUC proposed after the 2008 crisis is another option. And should the European Central Bank not step in and pump money into the economy? Its resources are unlimited. We have to consider solutions that require thinking “outside of the box.” If we cannot find the mechanisms of solidarity that are needed to prevent growing economic and social inequalities, our politicians will be failing Europe’s workers and our communities. And we know who’ll pick up the pieces.

Authoritarian leaders take advantage

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is exploiting the crisis to demand emergency powers, unlimited in time and hence no checks and balances. Trade unions, journalists and others are warning about the consequences for open and critical debate and democracy. Will trade unionists and workplace representatives still be able to question the way the government has handled the pandemic and its failure to prepare health and elder care workers for the consequences?

An initiative by the Croatian government to use emergency powers to seek changes to labour law and collective agreements has been blocked by the Croatian unions with support of the European union movement. Similar proposals that would limit the role of the unions and challenge collective agreements are being discussed in Poland and Lithuania. It is an absolute disgrace that these governments (and employers!) want to block dialogue and negotiations with the unions. In contrast there are many examples of unions, employers and governments that have reached solutions. EPSU supports the unions fighting these attacks on workers’ and trade union rights.

The pandemic shows how interconnected our world is, in a real and direct way. It will cause further harm in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The “My country first” approach, the refusal of solidarity by the supporters of austerity, and the profit-focus of private companies and their political backers don’t provide a vision for that interconnected world. Together in the union movement, we contribute to Another World. We need to prepare for the struggle that is coming to prevent the return to the past.