On the 7th of December, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing on the new European Care Strategy to discuss its major challenges and the prospects for healthy and active ageing in the EU. The hearing, which brought together representatives from EU institutions and civil society, took place a day before the Council of the EU adopted recommendations on early childhood and long-term care, putting the ball in the court of Member States, which now have to implement the recommendations made by the European Commission earlier this year.
The care sector has been suffering for many years from a structural crisis. On one hand, it experiences chronic under-investment, and a shortage of workers, skills and structures. On the other hand, we see an increased demand in care, with the number of people in long-term care predicted to rise due to demographic change and an ageing population in the EU, said EESC president Christa Schweng, who opened the hearing.
In her keynote speech, Katarina Ivanković-Knežević, Director for Social Rights and Inclusion at the European Commission, said the EU was trying to help and reform national care systems by boosting a number of elements in them.
Care is the competence of Member States. The next step is to see how Member States will implement recommendations and different aspects of the care strategy, Reminded Mrs. Ivanković-Knežević, adding that the strategy is also aimed at revising the Barcelona targets from 2002. This includes raising the percentage of children that needed to be included in early childhood education and care (ECEC), which should improve work-life balance for families, and especially of women who bear the brunt of care duties for young children.
The current figures point to the urgent need to invest in care and to prioritise it in policymaking. By 2050 in Europe, seven million more people than today will need long-term care. Half of the people older than 60 currently have unmet care needs. Some 7.7 million women are not in employment due to caring responsibilities, and the projections say that more than 1.6 million care workers will have to be employed to assure long-term care for all in the foreseeable future.
The EESC, which has produced a number of opinions on various aspects of care, has thrown its support behind the Commission’s proposal on the care strategy.
Rapporteurs of the EESC opinion, SOC/720 – Health Workforce and Care Strategy for the future of Europe, Zoe Tzotze-Lanara and Danko Relić, stressed the importance of making access to affordable and quality care a right for all people throughout their life cycle, without leaving anybody behind. They also put the spotlight on a different set of challenges tackled in the strategy, which concern inadequate pay level and the working conditions of healthcare and care workers.
Pietro Barbieri, rapporteur of the EESC opinion SOC/730 – The role of family members caring for people with disabilities and older persons: the explosion of the phenomenon during the pandemic, spoke about the role of family carers being almost entirely filled by women, which negatively affects not only their work and social life, but also their financial status and health. Mr. Barbierri encouraged financial incentives to support carers and prevent their isolation and marginalisation.
With many care workers crossing borders for work, there are few issues that have such Europe-wide implications like care, underlined MEP Dennis Radtke. In addition, non-formal elderly care, which accounts for 80% of care in this sector, is a European question. In order to move things out of the dark and away from the black market, Mr. Radtke suggested to focus on data and sharing of best practices, and to tackle issues such as EU standards on training and qualifications of care workers.
Hans Dubois from Eurofund, stressed that improving working conditions is a prerequisite for filling workforce gaps and guaranteeing quality. Otherwise, we will limit the potential of policies such as increasing working hours for part-time care workers or facilitating work after the pension age.
Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary, European Public Service Union (EPSU) reminded that care is public good and resilient workers are the backbone of a resilient sector. He also point out that we need to value care; we need to allocate more time and resources, and more societal capacities on care. He declared that commercialisation of care is not the way to go, emphasising the crucial role of collective bargaining for the sector.
The hearing’s second panel dealt with the potential for healthy ageing and prevention. EESC member Miguel Ángel Cabra de Luna, Rapporteur for the opinion SOC/687 – Towards a New Care Model for the Elderly: learning from the Covid-19 pandemic, said that the EU should play a leading role in the area, which becomes more important every year, given that by 2050, one in three people in the EU will be considered old, compared to one in five today.
Philippe Seidel, Policy Manager, AGE Platform Europe, pointed to the need for more home care and community-based care, which would end the segregation of older people and those in need of long-term care. But to achieve this, there must be a political will at national level, he said.
Our General delegate Aude Boisseuil together with Aurélie Decker, from European Federation for Services to Individuals (EFSI), presented the recommendations for workers employed in the Private and Household Services sector (PHS). PHS workers are key players in the care economy, representing 5% of EU-27 total employment. Moreover, 91% of PHS workers are women, accounting for 7.5% of total female employment, yet their rights and status are often unrecognised.
The hearing was concluded by Zuzana Freitas Lopesová, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs of the Czech Republic, and Laurenţiu Plosceanu, President of the EESC’s Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (SOC). They insisted on the necessity to develop tools and forms of support for care workers, including suitable remuneration for their work, support for their professional development, and training.
The EESC is currently preparing an opinion on the European Care Strategy, due for adoption in January.