Saturday, May 03, 2008

Danish nurses' strike

by Callum Laggan

THE DANISH claim to be one of the world’s leading models of a welfare society is coming under severe strain as the Danish FOA (Care Workers Union) and Danish Nurses Union (Dansk Sygepleje Råd) (DSR) enters its second week of an official strike. They had an unofficial strike in June 2007 following which all leading politicians in the November 2007 general election promised nurses, care workers, and child care workers, equal pay but they have all gone back on their promises.
Social Democrat Helle Thorning Schmidt (married to Neil Kinnock’s son), Villy Søvndal of the Socialist People’s Party and Pia Kjærsgaard from the chauvinistic Danish Peoples Party (DFP) all promised that they would dramatically increase wages in these traditional women’s care areas, and even promised an “Equal Rights Commission”, which they have gone back on since the general election. .
The Danish Liberal / Conservative government, with the support of the DFP has since taken a particularly hard line, saying that the women’s place is to care for the sick and aged. Karen Jespersen, a former Social Democrat who joined the Liberals, and became straight away Social Minister in the present Danish government, says: “In future families and particularly women need to take greater responsibility in caring for sick members of their family, and the care and nursing of older family members.
Jespersen was questioned by the Danish Age Concern about the inability to care 24 hours per day seven days per week, as well as the fact women are now having to work outside the home for unequal pay with men, to keep the strained family budget on track, to cook, do housework and rear children. Jespersen replied that as Welfare and Social Minister, “I am not trying to save money; I am trying to make those with responsibility, namely the closest relatives, take away this burden from society and take responsibility for the society they live in.”
Danish Age Concern (Ældre Sagen) is reporting an increase in the number of elderly people living out their older years on a small pension in cramped unsanitary conditions. The April Edition 2008 of Danish Age Concern Magazine Nu (Now) reports on Solveig Pedersen living in wretchedly miserable small room, 9.5 square metres without a kitchen, bath or toilet in one of Denmark’s richest district council areas of Hamlet’s Ellsinore,
These are increasingly the sorts of conditions over the whole country that social welfare departments of Danish district councils expect elderly people to live in. In Solveig Pedersen’s case Danish Age Concern are trying to press the Danish Health and Safety Executive to take action, due to the unsanitary conditions which are a public health hazard. Sadly this is becoming commonplace in Denmark which claims to be one of the world’s most prosperous countries.
Every time a man in Denmark in the private sector, with the same education earns 100 Danish crowns, a woman in the caring professions earns only 81 crowns. Most Danish women in caring professions report they love their work, but that as no one wants to do the work it is becoming increasingly hard. Danish nursing union (DSR) leader Connie Kruckow says “We need equal pay for men and women in care work, this is a great problem for our members and is a problem for society and the government needs to take responsibility, as it becomes more and more difficult to recruit and retain care workers. We want The Danish Parliament and politicians to demand a ‘Women’s Equal Rights Commission’, which has just happened in Norway and other European countries like the UK to show the need for women to have equal pay with men.”
The nurses and care workers with their present official strike are in the strange position of having to work to provide emergency cover.
As Connie Kruckow says: “Because of the legal guarantee that all have the right to treatment, this conflict which looks as if it will be a long and costly affair for the government, as they are having to send patients to private hospitals, who see a major advantage for their shareholders in the strike being as long as possible as it will increase their balance sheet and bottom line profits.”
The Danish Care Workers’ Union (FOA) is the third largest trade union in Denmark, organising approximately 211,000 members, primarily in the public sector. But they also organise privatised employees in the public sector.
Their members are engaged in a variety of public sector services, from fire, public transport and childcare, to nursing and caring services for the elderly, including food preparation and cleaning work.
Kirsten Norman Andersen, chairperson of the Århus FOA branch, says: “The government is hoping for an economic crisis which will create large numbers of unemployed, forcing women to seek underpaid jobs in care work: for the elderly, children and chronically ill, who will then receive care on a low cost basis. But for our members in the public sector the fight is for equal pay, more hands, better care of the elderly, children and chronically ill, and a better welfare state. Unless we win in this area it is going to become increasingly more difficult to attract the necessary qualified caring personnel, mostly women, to this sector as we need a wage we can live on.
One of the optimistic aspects of this strike is the way women have mobilised to defend their rights. The Welfare Minister says that women’s place is to care for the sick and aged because they tend to lack self esteem and self confidence!
But women on strike supporting one another are suddenly starting to blossom and bloom in self esteem and confidence; lobbying politicians, writing press releases, talking to the media, being interviewed on local, national, and international TV, making banners, thinking of publicity ideas – which the women in Holstebro did, handing out a recipe for baking home made bread, with a lump of yeast and talked to members of the public face to face.
“We need a rise in our pay in the same way that yeast rises bread, to the level of men’s wages so we can afford to eat bread, and care for and look after your elderly, children and chronically ill family, relatives and friends,” one of them said. One thing is certain whatever the outcome of this national strike the Danish women care workers will have gained in self-confidence and optimism from the lessons they are learning from this strike.

If you wish to send them letters of support or emails here are the two addresses :
1) FOA (Care Workers) Frede Gydesen, International AdviserE-mail:
Dennis Kristensen, FOA, Trade Union Chair Person, Staunings Plads 1 - 3, 1607 Copenhagen V Denmark Telephone 0045 46 97 26 26
2) Connie Kruckow Danish Nurses Union, Chair Person, (Dansk Sygeplejeråd) - Sankt Annæ Plads 30 - 1250 Copenhagen, Denmark.K- Postboks 1084 - 1008 København K – email: dsr@dsr.dkTel: 0045 3315 1555