Carers and work-life balance: where are we?

On April 9, 2014 the European Parliament Interest Group on carers met for the last time during this parliamentary term. It again called on the European Commission to develop and implement an EU-level strategy to support informal carers as a matter of urgency. The proposed strategy is a direct response to a variety of current policy challenges relating to the provision and sustainability of long term care in Europe. Carers are an inherent as well as an indispensable part of the provision, organisation and sustainability of health and social care systems. They will become even more important in view of the changing health and care needs, due to the ageing of society and the increasing prevalence of frailty and chronic disease. You can read the strategy on Eurocarers' web site.

Marian Harkin MEP, co-chair and co-founder of the Interest Group, urged the Commission to take action now, stating that ‘across the EU informal carers provide 80% of the care to dependent people of all ages and this is provided free of charge. Without this invaluable resource health and social security systems would simply be unsustainable”.

Speaking in the meeting, Health Commissioner Tonio Borg underlined that "the European Commission recognises the crucial role that informal carers play and has launched a number of initiatives to support carers, for example in the context of its action on active and healthy ageing, on dementia, on health workforce and on long term care. While the EU has limited powers for legislative action in this area, the Commission is keen to help raise awareness on the important role and needs of informal carers". You can read the full speech.

Valentina Caimi, Policy and Advocacy Adviser at Social Platform, informed participants of the fact that in 2010 and 2011 Social Platform developed a number of concrete policy recommendations to EU institutions and member states to ensure that care policies and practices are developed with a comprehensive approach.

Now it is time to assess progress on where we are. One chapter of the recommendations focused on how to ensure that informal and family carers have an adequate balance between care, work and private life. Social Platform considers that an EU strategy on carers should be developed. It is true that in this field member states bear the main responsibility, but the EU has a very important role to play in pushing member states towards the adoption of better reconciliation policies.

Progress has indeed been made: the contribution of informal carers has been recognised in the Social Investment Package. The Employment Package was adopted and it included the Communication on Personal and Household Services that foresees measures to support care services and other comfort services provided at home (such as cleaning, ironing, gardening, repairing etc.). However, there are many initiatives where this recognition could also become a reality such as while using the EU Health Programme and the European Social Fund.

In many countries health and social services are still viewed as a cost rather than an investment. This needs to be changed as a matter of urgency; we need to continue raising awareness on the costs of non-investment in these areas. Financial, social and health ministers are all crucial in this respect.

However, there are still a number of initiatives that should be put in place. The maternity leave directive as adopted by the European Parliament has been blocked since 2010: this directive aims to ensure that women enjoy legal protection against dismissal and are paid during maternity leave, as well as to guarantee their right to go back to work.

The Platform also calls for a Carers leave Directive, which would address all types of care leave. The EU should also develop recommendations on legislative recognition and minimum standards of support to informal carers, including varying systems providing financial rewards, pension and recognition of skills acquired informally or non-formally, to avoid social exclusion and poverty among informal and family carers who are very much at risk of this. Carers do not always have the choice; there should be a legislative recognition of standards for informal carers. Lastly, carers should be involved with the development of community based care services and help develop synergies between informal and formal care provision.