In 2019, before the novel coronavirus changed our world, UNI Europa and its affiliated care unions recognized a crisis looming on the horizon in the long-term care (LTC) sector and initiated the RETAIN project, an in-depth research initiative funded by the European Commission to study the causes of worker shortages and propose solutions.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic made this potential disaster a real one, and it showed policy makers, the public and care providers the urgency of overhauling a sector that has fallen into a perilous cycle of inadequate investment, overwork, and burnout among carers, leading to high turnover and labour shortages.
These shortages are particularly acute given that the EU population over 65 projected to grow by more than 40 percent over the next 30 years.
To reverse the trend of too few care workers to meet an aging population’s needs, RETAIN identified four areas that must be addressed:
RETAIN’s research also points to broader trends that negatively impact long-term care and that can also be alleviated through increased union organizing, improved social dialogue, and enlightened national and EU policies. Those trends include the exploitation of migrant workers, gender inequality and lack of adequate funding in the LTC sector as a whole.
“Being a long-term care worker is mentally demanding, physically difficult and vitally important,” said Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa. “The pandemic exposed how broken our long-term care system is, and a worker shortage is a symptom of that dysfunction. But the RETAIN research shows we can change this failed model of care—and avoid another crisis—by elevating workers’ rights and enacting protections for resident well-being.”
RETAIN’s recommendations include:
In early implementations of these recommendations, several UNI Europa affiliates succeeded in expanding membership and winning collective bargaining agreements with improved working conditions.
This progress is a clear indication that if policy makers, private and public service providers and trade unions work together to meet workers’ and patients’ needs, they can change the current trajectory of the LTC sector. Instead of cutting costs by cutting workers out of the equation in an ongoing race to the bottom, stakeholders must take the high road by investing in workers and care systems that improve quality and accessibility of care.