The one-day conference was the result of UNI Care Europa Conference’s decision in Warsaw to address the rise of private equity-owned nursing homes across the European Union. This growing trend has also been observed by numerous leveraged buyouts in the Industrial Cleaning and Private Security sectors.
In his opening speech, UNI Europa Regional Secretary Oliver Roethig told participants: “Workers in critical services however continue to be some of the lowest paid workers within our economies. In the last few decades, sectoral and multi-employer bargaining have been under attack. Companies have either exited existing agreements or used legal loopholes to apply a worse collective agreement. The decline in sectoral or multi-employer bargaining opens the door for Private Equity-owned Groups (PEGs) to set their own terms and conditions. Only sectoral collective bargaining and strong social dialogue can protect workers rights and services users.”
In the first session, documentary film maker Andres Acevedo, Finanzwende’s Aurora Li and UNI Global Union’s Lisa Nathan discussed how private equity operates through saddling the acquired company with debts and charging them fees to recoup the purchasing costs. All three speakers paid particular attention to how private equity-owned groups undermined quality service provision and workers’ rights. Moreover, trade unions’ capacity to collectively bargain for higher wages, better staffing levels and improved working conditions is rendered difficult as management has less room to navigate. While the entry of Private Equity can present difficulties for trade unions, participants emphasised that these practices offer unions new opportunities for coalition-building with services user groups and other stakeholders.
Economic researcher Hans Volmary, who co-authored a study on the financialisation of social-critical infrastructure for the Arbeiterkammer in Austria, made the case that the growth of Private Equity needs to be analysed against the background of the financialisation of social infrastructure. This financialisation includes the emergence of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) owning care homes as well as real estate that cleaners and security guards clean and protect. Whisteblower Andrea Würtz meanwhile told a story of how a private equity-owned care home systematically neglected its care users. Both speakers came to the conclusion that unions need to understand how the financialisation of care and critical services undermines quality services and care users’ rights.
In her keynote address, Guardian journalist Hettie O’Brien provided an overview of how private equity has embedded itself in critical services across the United Kingdom, while Professor Nick Bacon from City University of London presented evidence on the effects of private equity on collective bargaining, training levels, job satisfaction, pay and management. His provocative argument that private equity does not necessarily undermine workers’ rights spurred an important discussion what the tasks of unions are going forward.
In the final roundtable discussion, UNI Care and Property Services affiliates from FISASCAT Italy, GMB UK, and COZZ in Czech Republic discussed their experiences with organizing in private equity-owned companies, and bargaining with them. The discussion drew out sectoral differences and showed that different private equity groups use different strategies vis-à-vis unions depending on the national industrial relations system. All speakers stressed the importance of strengthening union power and collective agreements so that private equity could not exert downward pressure on workers’ rights, working conditions and the quality of services.
The conference ‘The Impact of Private Equity on Workers‘ Rights and Critical Services’ will be followed up with a publication in the coming weeks.
For more information, please contact Mark Bergfeld Director Property Services & UNI Care: email@example.com