Fed up workers call on policymakers to transform applause into action

It’s been a year of action for health and care workers. They’ve had enough of being undervalued, underpaid and being unable to provide quality care. Staff shortages, psychosocial risks and poor working conditions are pushing Europe’s health and social care systems to the brink.

Fed up workers call on policymakers to transform applause into action

As Europe’s health ministers came together for a key Council meeting in Brussels on December 9, the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) also planned on the same day to bring workers to the streets to share a clear message - applause is not enough.

Around 500 health care workers from France, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Croatia and Romania marched on Friday morning from Place Madou to the Schuman roundabout.

The marchers denounced, in particular, what they see as the “commercialisation” of the sector and an ever-increasing workload. “Applause is not enough,” read one banner.

The Federation deplored the fact that salaries are at half mast, working hours have increased, staffing levels are low and stress levels have remained unchanged since the Coronavirus pandemic.

It called for measures to make healthcare jobs more attractive. “Europe cannot wait for the system to collapse. Politicians must free up the necessary resources and stop making savings on the back of health care," EPSU recommended. "It is time to show that lessons have been learned from the health crisis and to listen to the workers".

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic may feel like a different life, but it was only two years ago that we were encouraged to show our appreciation for ‘frontline workers’ from balconies and front doors by clapping, singing and banging on pots and pans. It became a social event – an opportunity to come together in a very disconnected time. It was our way of showing appreciation for the workers facing danger and exhaustion every day, knowing there was no other choice than to care for people.

As 2022 comes to a close, the applause feels like a distant memory for health and social care workers. Promised pay rises have not materialised. Instead, the cost-of-living crisis has meant that many health and social care workers have experienced real term pay cuts. Staff shortages are becoming urgent, with those remaining experiencing poor working conditions, increased stress, long working hours and lack of essential resources. Health and social care workers say that these working conditions are affecting their ability to provide the levels of care that recipients deserve – and they’ve had enough.

Unions across Europe have been negotiating, campaigning and mobilising for increased funding, safe staffing and better pay and working conditions. From Ireland to Georgia, France to Finland and everywhere in between, workers across Europe are calling on governments and employers to address the issues that are undermining the provision of health and social care services.

The wave of mobilisation is becoming historic. Last week we saw strikes of nurses in Portugal while next week workers will strike in Italy. Several health unions in the United Kingdom have announced ballot results and dates for action. For the first time in the union’s 106-year history, Royal College of Nurses (RCN) workers in England and Wales voted to take strike action over pay and patient safety concerns. They will be joined by unions representing ambulance and other health workers on 15 and 20 December while actions have already started in Northern Ireland.

In Finland, the TEHY and SuPer health and social care unions engaged in substantial action through 2022, with their rights coming under attack – eventually leading to significant pay rises. Tehy and SuPer ran a campaign of industrial action after the rejecting a proposal from municipal employers on a five-year strategy to increase pay and tackle the staffing shortage in the sector. Rather than intervene and discuss with employers and trade unions how to resolve the dispute, the government instead passed legislation imposing tougher requirements on industrial action in the care sector. Despite the attack, the industrial action led to a deal that will deliver pay rises worth 15.3% over three years and 17.3% over five years.

Gathered unions are calling on ministers to take action to deal with the critical staffing and pay issues faced by workers across Europe. The pandemic made it clear that these workers are essential – and without these workers, Europe is not prepared for another health crisis.

Across Europe, it is clear that health and social care sectors are reaching a breaking point. It’s time for policymakers to transform applause into meaningful change. Europe cannot wait for another pandemic. If Europe’s policymakers want to show that they’ve learned from the pandemic, they must listen to the workers.

Opinion by Dr Adam Rogalewski, Policy Officer for Health and Social Services, EPSU and Kirsi Sillanpää, President, EPSU Standing Committee on Health and Social Services (Tehy).

Content provided by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU)

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