We do care: Europe should take better care of the people who care for us

Dominik Lange
We do care: Europe should take better care of the people who care for us

"Taking care of young children is like planting a seed and watching a flower grow".

This is what early childhood education and care means for Alicia Ruiz Portella from Spain, who works with kids of primary school age for more than six years now.

"It's very important to start very early, as it lays the foundation for their future. The work in the care sphere is crucial for society," she says. "But there are so many things to improve".

It's true, the importance of care work is indisputable. From the first days of life to the vulnerable old age. But unfortunately the current nursing and care system in the European Union is extremely vulnerable. And it was the Covid-19 pandemic that has proven that.

High-quality services are not always available and the working conditions of care personnel call for an urgent gearing up in this sector.

Imagine: one out of three Europeans is estimated to have caring responsibilities and over 9,1 million people, mostly women, work in the care sector.

The number of all people potentially in need of long-term care across the European Union stands at 30,8 million people and is projected to reach 38 million people by 2050.

And these are women who are disproportionately affected by the lack of care services, as they still carry out the lion's share of additional or informal care responsibilities, affecting their ability to balance work and private life and take up paid work.

Women make up 90% of formal care workers, with jobs still all too often poorly paid and insecure.

In the EU, 92% of women carry out unpaid care work regularly, more than one day a week, and 81% do so daily.

Moreover, 7.7 million women in Europe cannot take up employment because of care responsibilities.

Care is also a ticking social bomb: 1/3 of households with long-term care needs do not use home care services because they cannot afford them.

And finally, many Member States already face labour shortages in the sector with over 1 in 6 job advertisements being related to long-term care.

Owen Brown worked in the childcare sector for almost three years, and had to quit because of bad working conditions that didn’t allow the staff to carry the work properly.

The ratio of children allowed per childcare worker in Brussels, Belgium, is 9 to 1, he says.

"It is absolutely unreasonable and does not allow adequate care to be given," he says.

"The early-years education is far more important to development than school. Please, stop focusing on higher education designed for those already doing well enough in society, and focus resources instead on the most underrated forms of education: preschool childcare and vocational education," Brown adds. "But when the conditions allow you to do your job well, it is extremely loving and rewarding".

So what can Europe do?

Our member Heinrich Dorner, the European Committee of the Regions' rapporteur on the European care strategy, wants to address these challenges with "a joint strategy shared by all EU local and regional authorities responsible for health, care and education, and Member States, as well as the EU institutions, to make care more accessible, affordable and of better quality".

He also stresses that "the creation of affordable, more accessible, available and high-quality care services to be an important step towards ensuring women's participation in the labour market and thus gender equality".

Considering that much of social care is in crisis due to underfunding, staff shortages and an overreliance on EU mobile and migrant care workers, underinvestment in the training and qualifications of care workers, unfair working conditions, the Minister of the Austrian Burgenland region has the following five concrete proposals to make:

1. Increase funding dedicated to care. The care sector is still not enough prioritized. To illustrate: out of the 25 plans adopted as of 20 July 2022 under the European Union's Recovery and Resilience Facility, only 12 include reforms and investments in the area of early childhood education and care, totalling the somewhat modest sum of EUR 7.9 billion.

2. Working conditions, prestige and pay of workers in the early childhood education and care sector must be significantly improved in order to ensure that care is as good as possible and provided by qualified staff. There is also the need for a strategy on the future demand for skilled workers in the EU, particularly with a view to reducing brain drain, and laying down uniform conditions for the work of care workers and domestic workers from third countries.

3. The European Commission has to present a framework directive on long-term, formal and informal, care that would lay down fundamental principles and provide evidence-based criteria for accessible and integrated quality long-term care and support services across the EU.

4. A European care strategy should go with the setting targets and indicators similar to the Barcelona targets for child policies.  Collecting data at local and regional level is needed to provide a basis for targeted support for regions.

5. The Commission should urgently make a proposal to establish a social taxonomy. A social taxonomy would provide potential investors and enterprises with a clear guidance as to what can be understood as "social investment". The absence of a social taxonomy currently impedes possible private investments into healthcare and social services.

And it's true that we can do better in practice.

As example, Burgenland, our member's Heinrich Dorner native region, that paved the way for hiring caregivers of working age who are primarily devoted to caring for their relatives and can therefore not pursue employment.

From a political point of view, Dorner says, the regional care project pursues three objectives:

1. to bring and protect caregivers under social insurance law (accident, health, pension insurance) and to maintain their livelihood;

2. to enable persons in need of care to remain at home;

3. to attract additional staff in the care sector through the possibility of training in the medium term.

In a nutshell, if the European Union and public authorities invest better and more in the care sector, the citizens of the European Union will directly benefit from it – individually and collectively.

Image by Dominik Lange via Unsplash