A connected world relies on quality public services – and public money to boost our economies and safeguard jobs

Thursday, 12 March, 2020

The outbreak of the Corona virus pandemic is hitting workers and our communities hard. For now EPSU has cancelled its meetings until mid-April. This is necessary for many reasons, not least the protection of the health of staff and participants. European meetings can be a risk factor and it is clear that we do not want to contribute to overburdening our health care systems.

The stories of the doctors and nurses in the overwhelmed hospitals in cities and towns of North Italy are harrowing. Acute care beds are full while medicines, personal protective equipment and staff are in short supply. But it is also so much broader, affecting many public service workers. Prison staff, police and ambulance workers, childcarers and teachers, refuse collectors, border guards, drivers in urban and regional transport, and elderly and home care workers, are all doing jobs that bring them into contact with the public, making them vulnerable to catch the virus. And for many it is simply not an option to stay at home as they are keeping our societies going and literally keeping people alive. 

This is what it means to be a public service worker. It is much appreciated when Members of the European Parliament praise health workers and recognise their difficult and dangerous jobs, and by extension the work of many other public service employees. But MEPs should underline that it is precisely due to our public health and social protection systems that decisive measures can be taken. We now need long-term planning for our health systems to get them back into shape after years of underfunding.

The lack of a strong coordinated European economic and social response is therefore upsetting. A boost to public finance and investment is required to safeguard jobs and social safety nets must function for all, including those on precarious contracts. Also those workers affected must be given paid sick leave to help ensure they do not go to work and infect others. And as governments take (temporary?) measures to ease the burden on companies through tax reductions, cheap loans and other measures, the longer term consequences of the impact on public finance will hit home. And it disgusts me to reflect that the same people who now praise health and other care workers will, in a few months’ time, be swinging the axe of austerity, undermining collective bargaining and blocking pay increases. These politicians will be blocking the tax measures, like public country-by- country reporting, that are needed in our interconnected world to help improve public finances. We will remind them who keeps our societies going.

For EPSU the health and safety of public service workers must be a priority for governments and the European authorities. They put themselves at risk every day and most cannot work from home. We expect employers to be in constant dialogue with the trade unions and we will fight those that find excuses to use the crisis to renounce trade union rights. No, now is the moment to strengthen information and consultation rights so that workers know what is going on. We need to bargain over the measures that are expected so that negotiated solutions can be found.

This Corona virus shows us again how interconnected our world has become and how that world needs quality public services to make it go round. And while some will demand border controls and use it to stoke hatred against migrants and refugees, it does show that Europe and the world need multilateral solutions, not splendid isolation and scapegoating. I wish all good health and much strength these coming weeks.