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'Loving my job doesn't pay bills': Nurses and caregivers protest against poor working conditions

20:34 14/06/2023

Belgium's non-profit health and caregiving sector is protesting against poor working conditions and low wages, two issues which have only been compounded by staff shortages.

The sector – which includes hospitals, residential care centres, nursing homes, childcare and youth assistance programmes – organised a march through Brussels this week that drew between 18,000 and 22,000 demonstrators.

Workers are asking for swift measures to address staff shortages and working conditions, saying that while politicians showed understanding, “they also made it clear to us that there was no willingness to release funds” until after elections in mid-2024, according to trade union BBTK.

“We cannot wait until after the elections,” said Olivier Remy of the ACV Puls union. “We are asking the different governments to take additional measures in the shorter term. After the elections, we need to work on a longer-term future plan.”

Gert Van Hees of ACLV said that waiting is “unacceptable – the staffing problems are huge”.

The outflow of workers is increasing and the inflow cannot keep up, the unions say, citing absence rates of up to 15% that further increase the workload for employees. Some hospitals have even had to close wards in recent weeks due to understaffing.

“The supply is insufficient, waiting lists are long,” ACV Puls said. “Employees work hard and flexibly and cannot always provide the quality they want. Many are leaving the sector exhausted or frustrated, when more hands are just needed.”

One survey of more than 1,600 workers from various sectors of care and welfare recently showed that almost three quarters of participants experience the workload as “structurally too high”, and only four in 10 feel they can systematically provide the care or assistance needed.

Unions are calling for more staff, with continued investment in lateral entry, better pay and working conditions, more attention to workers' welfare and workload, and elimination of patient waiting lists.

They are also calling for a collective reduction in working hours to a 32-hour week, with the hope that additional measures can still be consulted with governments.

The protest in Brussels included shouted slogans such as: “Help, we’re drowning”, “No more applause, rather action this time”, “Caregivers in short supply, risking your lives”, and “The love of my job doesn't pay my bills.”

The cabinet of federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit) announced that it will meet union representatives next week.

Photo: Laurie Dieffemacq/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons