Twenty-two member states spent less per person on sickness benefits in the five years following the financial crisis compared to the five year prior to the crisis.
The biggest cuts came in countries hit hardest by austerity: Greece (-7.2% per year), Spain (-2.3%), Cyprus (-1.9%), Ireland (-0.9%) and Italy (0.5%).
That has led to the rate of sick pay being cut, eligibility conditions being tightened, and the duration of sick pay being shortened, according to the European Commission.
For example, reforms in Hungary led to a halving in the number of people benefiting from sick pay between 2005 and 2013, with the number of sick days taken reduced by 17 million over that period.
The cuts to sick pay across Europe means more people go to work when they are ill because they can’t afford to take lose income or risk losing their job.
That presents a risk to public health, particularly in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.
The ETUC’s executive has adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission and national governments to ensure:
- All workers, included the self-employed and those in precarious employment, can take leave without fear of losing their jobs or income
- Any workers who lose income during quarantine, are suspended or made redundant receive financial support
- Increased public investment to support universal health services and health care workers
- Fiscal rules are relaxed and EU funding is released to help the hardest hit countries including Italy
ETUC General Secretary Luca Visentini said:
“The coronavirus outbreak has shown how workers’ rights like decent sick pay is not only important to individuals but everyone around them.
“Millions of workers have lost out sick pay since the financial crisis, which is forcing them to go to work when they’re ill.
“It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to show that’s a bad idea, but the EU and member states now need to ensure that all workers have the right to paid sick leave and free health care.
“Healthcare workers on the frontline of dealing with this crisis, in Italy and elsewhere, deserve our respect and solidarity. Staff shortages urgently need to be tackled.
“Workers who lose their job or earnings must receive financial support and there is no way workers should pay twice for this crisis through more austerity.
“The EU needs to relax its fiscal rules on member states and ensure its emergency fund is made up of new money rather robbing Europe’s poorest communities by redirecting cohesion funding.”