Note of the LeftEast editors: The present text, which we co-publish together with TSS is part of a series of publications and webinars on the topics of social reproduction, (women’s) labour and migration in East-Central Europe and beyond. The video from the second webinar (Post)pandemic struggles on social reproduction, where this text was first presented can be seen here. The aim of the series is to raise awareness about struggles for labour, reproduction and migrant rights, as well as of the condition of women in society and how these have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. The publications and webinars are coordinated in cooperation between the Bulgarian Left feminist collective LevFem and the platform Transnational Social Strike, and sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – Bulgaria. Most of the participants in the series are part of the newly emergent network EAST (Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational), which unites activists and workers in/from East-Central Europe. For more information about the network you can contact them at essentialstruggles [at] gmail.com. Reposting articles from this series is allowed with the condition of referring to the original publication source.
The pandemic caught us all unprepared, but also showed that many current issues are rooted in long-term systemic problems. This article looks at some of the issues in the social services and care sector in the Czech Republic. It argues that many of them have already been affecting social services for the long term and they require systemic changes. The article suggests that sectoral unions might be part of these changes and looks closely at how.
The impact of covid-19 on the care sector in the Czech Republic
The pandemic has revealed two important aspects of the care sector in the Czech Republic. First, how important it is, and how often it is neglected and underestimated. Second, that there are long-standing problems affecting social services, care, and social workers, and finally also the clients. Some of the problems which emerged during the pandemic are indeed new, as is the context, but many are in fact problems that have been affecting the care sector for a long time.
The fact that the Czech government was unprepared to manage the pandemic was also visible in the care sector. Especially at the beginning of the first state of emergency , there was a serious lack of personal protective equipment. Many social and care workers, but also volunteers or the families of clients dealt with this situation proactively, sewing home-made masks that were then distributed to social service workers, clients, or anyone in need. Even if protective equipment gradually became available, it is however important to highlight that performing all the tasks of a social or care worker for twelve hours wearing a mask and other protective equipment is very physically demanding. In addition to the lack of protective equipment, clear and consistent information was also missing during the first state of emergency. It was unclear how social services should change their procedures in order to protect both clients and care workers while maintaining at least the minimum standard of provided services.
The risk of infection is higher in the social services: often, care workers and social workers cannot maintain the safety distance; they work with target groups that are not regularly tested for COVID-19; or they have to take care of clients who are infected, being locked up together in the facilities where they live. At the same time, many social workers in fact changed their routines and after-work life in order to reduce the risk of bringing the infection to their facility, which shows a great deal of responsibility towards their clients.
Many facilities faced their clients’ needs change due to COVID-19 or had to change the way they provided services because of preventive measures. This increased requirements on the staff: some facilities had to go almost fully online, others were locked down or had to provide extra services, either in response to changing needs or to systemic solutions (e.g., for people without homes). This resulted in increased stress, the pressure to increase efficiency, the pressure to learn new digital skills, but way too often no satisfactory solution for unpaid overtime and increased expectations.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced a grant call for bonuses for social and care workers, especially those working in infected facilities. In practice, as with any other grant for social services, it was the organizations or facilities that had to apply for the grant. Therefore, not all social service providers received the funds automatically, but only those who decided to apply, or who had the capacity or knowledge to submit the proposal. Ultimately, it was again the leadership of the organization, not workers themselves, who decided whether to pay this extra money and to whom, even though the original purpose of the government grant was to compensate social and care workers for their efforts and the risks to which they exposed themselves. Moreover, this compensation was a short-term and symbolic solution, whereas the underfunding and overstretching of the care sector is a problem that must be addressed systematically. Only then this sector might be better prepared to react to crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long term problems affecting the care sector
The acute problems the pandemic caused for the care sector are largely connected to long-term issues of inadequate financing. To justify this, politicians and economists rely on the very weak argument that the care sector does not produce an economic profit. Yet this perception is also reproduced by many within the sector. Social work students, for example, are prepared by their professors to think of social work as a mission and not expect to be earning a decent salary from it.
Current discussions about state expenditures for fighting COVID-19 also reinforce the division between welfare and profit by focusing on the impact of the crisis on the state budget. As with any crisis impacting the economy, during and after the pandemic the social welfare system and the care system might be the first to see budget cuts. Some politicians, especially on the right of the political spectrum, already describe these cuts as efforts “to save money from the non-profit sector and use it to fight COVID-19.” Whether they mean the budget should go to the industry of the healthcare sectors, such statements reflect a lack of understanding of how the non-profit and care sectors work. Specifically, there is little acknowledgment of the fact that these sectors mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and help minimize the negative effects for the most vulnerable individuals and communities.
In fact, the financial prestige and overload issues in the social services and care sector are intertwined. There are not enough funds to recruit more qualified and experienced staff, there is a high fluctuation of workers due to poor working conditions and low salaries, and this in turn negatively affects the remaining workers who have to make up for understaffed facilities. Because the grants and subsidies from the state and municipalities are insufficient, most nongovernmental organizations have to supplement the budgets for social services from other sources and extra activities. This increases the demands of fundraising and project management for each facility without alleviating financial uncertainty since most grants are awarded only for one or a maximum of two years. This situation also has structural roots in patriarchy: social work and care, in general, are perceived stereotypically as women’s natural activities, and consequently are not valued either financially or symbolically, and have low prestige.
Sectoral unions as a possible solution
The problems in the care sector outlined so far inspired the creation of a sectoral union of social and care workers from different facilities. The union’s main goal is to ensure adequate salaries and work safety, as well as increase the prestige of social and care work. This entails both systemic changes and changes at the level of individual facilities. Not all social and care workers are or will be union members, but all of them deserve fair working conditions. Addressing the problems rooted in patriarchy also requires systemic solutions. We must fight to redefine social work and care as important sectors that benefit the entire society, even if the work of preventing and alleviating social problems is often invisible. And it is especially important to stress out that, as a society, we cannot afford to acknowledge the true value of social services only when they are missing. This also ties in with promoting an anti-individualistic perception of social work. Some campaigns that aim to increase the prestige of social and care work build on the argument that each person might need care at some point. However impactful this argument can be sometimes, we should rather fight for a community-based understanding of care: focus on how it benefits all of us as communities and as a society, how social services are part of an entire structure of social welfare, and how much care relies on solidarity, support, and participation.
Sectoral unions can also affect broader changes, by supporting workers gain self-confidence and push back against the argument used as a scare tactic by employers that they are easily replaceable and expendable. In reality, it is not easy to find qualified, experienced, and empathetic care workers. My colleagues in the care sector must learn to stand their ground based on their qualification, experience, and worth: we do have specialized training, continue to educate ourselves, and apply new methods in social work adapted to changing social realities, and the work we do comes with a great deal of responsibility.
Unions should also work to raise awareness about labor laws and workers’ rights. The non-governmental and non-profit sector is sadly no different when it comes to pressuring employees, exploiting their lack of knowledge, or even using illegal procedures. Every care worker should be aware of their rights and should not be afraid to point out when they are being violated.
Organizing and unionizing are important especially considering the workers in the most precarious positions in the sector – workers with irregular contracts, migrant workers, workers in the lowest-paid positions, older workers, or workers with small children. For them, speaking up or challenging the employer might seriously jeopardize their job, income, or immigration status. Sectoral unions are a way to support and protect these workers, providing the important option to express their opinion and fight for better working conditions together.
Social work and care work is hard, demanding, and responsible work. The demands on it increased during the pandemic due to the higher risk of infection, clients’ changing needs, and the inadequate solutions provided by the state and municipalities. Aware of the demands, social workers and care workers are driven by a sense of meaning and accept that their job requires certain flexibility, especially during a crisis. However, this cannot mean that care and social workers do not deserve fair and safe working conditions, adequate salaries, and compensation for the risks and strain to which they are exposed. At the same time, we cannot wait for somebody else to fight for us. We have to raise our voices and be heard, we have to start pointing out the long-term issues in the care sector, and perhaps setting up the sectoral union can be a way for care workers to argue things cannot go on like this.
Eva Michálková is a feminist, project manager, and head of the sectoral unions of social and care workers in the Czech republic. She currently works as a project manager in a non-governmental organization providing services for victims/survivors of domestic and sexual violence and has experience also from the sector of social services for migrants. She focuses on topics of intersectional feminism, social justice, and gender-based violence.
 The first state of emergency lasted from the 12th of March to the 17th of May. During the time of finishing this article, the government decided to declare another state of emergency, which will take effect from 5th October and should last 30 days.
 The union of employees in social services is registered under the Union of employees in trade, logistics, and services.