Europe, we need to talk about care

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Member of the public applaud during the 'Clap For Our Carers' campaign in support of the National Health Service (NHS) outside the Chelsea and Westminster hospital in London, Britain, 7 May 2020. [Will Oliver/EPA/EFE]

Carers have been at the front-line of the coronavirus pandemic. A European Carers Strategy to address their needs, and ensure that their work is recognised and valued within our societies, argue Frances Fitzgerald and Dennis Radtke.

Frances Fitzgerald MEP, is the EPP Group Coordinator in the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee; Dennis Radtke MEP, is the EPP Group Coordinator in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee

For the past ten weeks, every evening at 20:00 Europeans have come to their doors and windows and applauded. We have applauded the healthcare workers, their perseverance in fighting the COVID-19 virus, their commitment to their work, and most importantly, the care they have given to the sick and to the dying. We recognise all that they have done and continue to do in this fight against COVID-19.

However, it is the provision of care in other areas, in elderly care homes, in crèches, and in the home that has sharply come into focus throughout this crisis, after having gone largely unnoticed and indeed unrecognised for decades. But the harsh reality of COVID-19 has put the continuum of care, from childcare to afterschool care, from care for persons with disabilities to care for older persons into the spotlight. That care that has long gone unnoticed and undervalued must now be recognised and valued appropriately.

Care is of course, and should remain, a national competence. As caregiving happens within the home and within the community, it should be tailored to the needs of individuals and communities. However, commonalities exist across Europe, and there is an undoubted benefit to complementing the national approach with an EU one.

The first of these commonalities is that the vast majority of those who deliver care, whether in a professional environment or within the family, are women. In fact, 75% of informal care is provided by women, with women accounting for 93% of childcare workers, 86% of personal care workers in health services, and 4.5 million of the 5.5 million workers who provide long-term care in people’s homes. This indicates the existence of a gender care gap, with women taking breaks from the labour market or working on a part time basis to provide care. This has a knock on effect in creating gender pay and pension gaps that currently stand, staggeringly, at 16% and 40% respectively in the EU.

What is also true is that more than 50% of carers that are under 65 combine care with employment. This leads to a difficult balancing act, combining caring needs with the demands of a full time job. As a result, many opt for low skilled and low paid jobs that can be adapted to their caregiving schedule, progressively reduce their working hours or leave paid work entirely as the demands of providing care grow. In addition, many informal carers do not have formal employment contracts, leaving them without social protection and towards the end of their working life, pensions.

Europe, we need to talk about care. We need to address these commonalities, and as such, we call for the establishment of a European Carers Strategy to adequately address the needs of carers, ultimately ensuring that their work is recognised and valued within our societies.

However, to produce a comprehensive and actionable strategy that is fit for purpose, we first need quality data as to the situation of carers across Europe. Currently we have clear picture of how many people are providing care, what kind of care they are providing, where they are providing care, how they are combining caring responsibilities with work and what reliance they have on social security systems, with existing data fragmented and incomplete. Therefore, we are calling on the European Commission and Eurostat, in cooperation with the European Institute for Gender Equality, to launch a wide-ranging and ambitious examination of care within the EU.

Based on this data, a Strategy addressing employment, best practice sharing and the efficient and targeted use of EU funds for long-term care infrastructure should be developed. Crucially, a European Carers Strategy would only be the continuation of a project that has been started through the introduction of the European Pillar of Social Rights and the subsequent adoption of the Work-Life Balance Directive.

In terms of employment, the Work-Life Balance Directive allows for five days of leave for each worker to provide personal care or support to a relative or someone in the same household. While full implementation in each Member State is ongoing, a European Carers Strategy could allow for a more coordinated approach, by tackling the labour market participation of women related to pay, pensions and caring responsibilities overall, with a significant potential boost to the European economy.

The development of quality care services can also be assisted through targeted use of EU funds. We propose a minimum of 2% of European Structural and Investment Funds to be invested in care, thereby contributing to the goal of enhancing equality between women and men. In addition, exploiting resources from the European Investment Bank and InvestEU could be another way to invest in long-term care infrastructure.

Finally, Member States have many differing traditions as to the provision of care. Harnessing and utilising these experiences through best practice sharing can be a valuable source of knowledge, encouraging innovative methods and strategic targeting of areas that are in need of improvement. In addition, setting new targets and priorities to advance caring even further, such as a revision of the Barcelona targets for childcare, can ensure that Europe takes the next step in advancing the provision of care. A European Carers Strategy has the potential to facilitate this best practice sharing and target setting, coordinated by the European Commission.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed many truths about European society and the way we work, live and care for the most vulnerable in our societies. Care is primarily a societal benefit that is undoubtedly best delivered at regional and local level, but it is our view that the European Union has a role to play in best practice sharing, data collection and strategic investment in care. For us as public representatives, supporting the millions of carers across Europe is an essential element of the post-COVID recovery.

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