Care workers: organising to protect the most vulnerable

Monday 18 May 2020

Nursing home workers and other care workers have been in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, yet they continue to face personal protective equipment shortages, testing restrictions, exclusion from government programmes and lack of safety procedures. Increasingly, they are taking proactive action to ensure they have the tools to keep people safe.

“We care for the elderly, the sick and the dependent – that is, people most exposed to the severe and fatal course of the disease. We are now exposed to the danger of infection ourselves. Many of us work for the minimum wage through unstable and difficult conditions,” reads an open letter to the government by care workers of the Konfederacja Pracy union in Poland, which is gaining support through an online petition.

Regular outbreaks of Covid-19 have been claiming the lives of many nursing home residents, many of whom are not counted in official statistics. The workers’ letter outlines six key demands to remedy the situation, including PPE, access to testing and to stop cutting workers’ pay for taking sick leave. Crucially, the letter asks that the government bring in clear procedures for dealing with outbreaks in nursing homes.

In neighbouring Czech Republic, nursing home workers were excluded from the government’s hazard pay guarantees for essential workers. Workers at UZO union rapidly generated significant public support with an online petition of their own. After submitting it to the Minister of Labour, hazard pay provisions were announce for all workers across the care sector retroactively from mid-March. Those working in workplaces that suffered a Covid-19 outbreak were further provided compensation pay.

Further south in Slovenia and Croatia, nursing home workers are also organising. The labour movement has been using online surveys to identify workplace issues and determine their priorities according to people’s needs. In Slovenia, broader organising work with personal assistants has already paid off. Similarly to their Czech colleagues, nursing home workers were only recently included in the government’s hazard pay provisions following trade union pressure.

“These examples highlight three things. Firstly, care workers do essential work but are all too often forgotten by decision-makers. Secondly, that workers can change things when they organise. And finally, that solutions very often require sector-wide measures. This is precisely why we place so much emphasis on organising for sectoral collective bargaining,” said Oliver Roethig, UNI Europa Regional Secretary.

With the Central Europe Organising Centre (COZZ), UNI Europa has been supporting trade union organising to build workers’ power.

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