In September 2022, the EU Commission presented the European Care Strategy, whose contribution should help improving the situation of caregivers and the quality of long-term care and early childhood education. Against this background, AK EUROPA, together with the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the Social Employers, took the opportunity to organise an event to discuss the significance of the Care Strategy and the question, which additional possible solutions and measures are required to improve the situation in the care sector.
Taking part in the panel discussion were AK President Renate Anderl, Vice-President of the European Parliament Evelyn Regner, EPSU General Secretary Jan Willem Goudriaan and the President of Social Employers Gregor Tomschizek. The Austrian ombudsman Bernhard Achitz started the event with a kick-off speech.
In his address, ombudsman Bernhard Achitz focused in particular on the rights of care recipients, which, due to staff shortages in the care sector, are being increasingly restricted. Under the current conditions, care, which is both dignified and complying with human rights, could no longer be universally guaranteed. Hence, it is a matter of urgency to improve the working conditions of care workers to increase the appeal of this occupational group, thereby counteracting the current staff shortages. In this context, the public sector – apart from its role as supervisory body – must, in its role as the main source of funding, provide support.
AK President Renate Anderl welcomed the proposal of the EU Commission, as the subject of “care” is attracting attention in a European context at last. The well-known problems of the care sector already existed before the pandemic, however, since then the public has become more aware of them. Top priority has to be given to improving the working conditions of care workers and to paying fair wages. With regard to funding the necessary care sector reforms, there are – apart from establishing a European Care Fund along the lines of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) – also numerous options at national level. In this context, one should highlight the introduction of an inheritance and wealth tax in Austria, which is crucial in view of the increasing inequalities. Any revenue generated could be immediately invested in the care sector, thereby providing financial relief.
MEP Evelyn Regner emphasised the significance of the Care Strategy, however, criticised the lack of binding elements at the same time. Apart from that, long-term care and early childhood education would only cover individual sections of care work. Within the scope of the discussion on the Care Strategy, particular attention has to paid to the role of women, who represent the major part of employees in both care sector and early childhood education. Hence, they are the most affected by the current situation and in particularly suffer under poor working conditions and low pay. A similar imbalance emerges in the informal care sector, where relevant work is disproportionately provided by women, who are often compelled to work part-time or prevented from joining the labour market altogether. Hence, this imbalance plays a significant part in the gender pay gap.
Within the scope of the discussion on the importance of care services, Jan Willem Goudriaan (EPSU), was decisively in favour of classifying care as a public service. The current working conditions and wages of care workers were not satisfactory and had to be greatly improved. This would require a comprehensive network of collective agreements in Europe, which could only be achieved in combination with strong trade unions and by expanding the social dialogue. In the light of the ORPEA scandal in France and the failings at Senecura in Austria, Goudriaan was once again critical of privatising and commercialising the care sector. In respect of the financial hurdles it had to be pointed out that sufficient funds were available in principle. Any profits generated by the care sector had to be consequently invested in the care system.
Gregor Tomschizek (Social Employers) is confident that the Care Strategy can make an important contribution to improve the situation in the care sector. What was required now were Member States taking concrete measures, as in many areas the strategy only contained general requirements. The urgent staff shortages and the search for employees in the care sector associated with it should be regarded as a great opportunity to attract people to work in this sector by providing targeted training and further education. As higher wage for care workers would lead to higher costs for care services, the public sector would have to provide subsidies to compensate for this effect.