Improving working conditions in care is critical to the human rights of older people

Monday 22 October 2018

Mark Bergfeld, European Director of UNICARE, tells us about the two inter-connected challenges brought to us by Europe’s ageing demographics. On the one hand, there is an ever-growing section of the population with more complex care needs. On the other hand, we find a labour shortage in care. 

Some would like us to believe that the labour shortage in care is the sole product of the demographic change. This omits the fact that nurses and care workers are among the most respected and trustworthy occupations, yet care work remains underpaid and under-valued.

At the same time, neoliberal social policies have presented care as a consumer choice. This consumer choice externalises the responsibility of care from the public onto families. Consequently, the public debate on what quality care would look like is de-politicized and privatised.

If the increasingly complex care needs of elderly people are not scrutiny to public debate and determined by consumer choice, price considerations will prevail. This trend has resulted in dire consequences for older people in need of quality care and care workers themselves. Moreover, it has created a market for care which is increasingly dominated by multinational companies.

For that reason, UNICARE – a trade union coalition organising and representing workers in private care and social services – started a dialogue with civil society organisations and coalition-building efforts about how to bring older persons’ human rights and workers’ rights together.

For us, improving working conditions in care is an essential element of fully enforcing and respecting the human rights of older people. To ensure workers’ and human rights such cooperation with older people as users of services is essential. In doing so, we hope to develop a public debate on quality care beyond consumer choice, increase care workers’ wages, and improve quality in care. Sectoral collective bargaining meanwhile can contribute to alleviating the labour shortage and increase the social recognition of the occupation.

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