Human Lives Human Rights: Healthcare workers in Italy were subjected to unfair disciplinary proceedings and feared retribution from their employers after they raised concerns about poor and unsafe working conditions in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic, new research says.
Instead of addressing their health and safety concerns over issues such as the use of personal protective equipment and the true number of Covid cases in care homes, employers silenced these workers, often through unfair dismissal, and targeted them with anti-union measures.
Health and care workers were on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19. They were feted by the Italian government for their hard work in horrendous circumstances. Yet those same workers were silenced by their employers when they tried to raise concerns about their patients’, and their own, safety.
Researchers spoke to 34 health and care professionals between February and August 2021 who worked in care homes during the pandemic, as well as trade unionists, lawyers and legal experts. The interviews paint a picture of a highly-feminized sector under strain from understaffing, low wages and precarious working conditions compounded by the worst pandemic in a century.
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on staff in Italy’s care homes, 85% of whom are women. According to official statistics, 65.6% of the overall number of workers who contracted Covid-19 in the workplace in Italy were health and care workers. Nearly a quarter of the workers who died after contracting the virus in the workplace were health workers and care home staff.
Disciplinary and anti-union measures
A third of the workers raised concerns about a climate of fear and retaliation in their workplace. Lawyers reported more than a dozen cases of disciplinary proceedings and dismissals targeting workers, including union representatives who raised concerns regarding the lack of adequate health and safety measures in different care homes.
In December 2020, the Milan Employment Tribunal found that Piero, a trade unionist and a nurse, had been unfairly dismissed by a large care home in Milan that employed him because of his union-related activities. Piero had raised concerns regarding the high mortality rate among the older people who lived in the care home. After receiving seven disciplinary warnings for having spoken out, in November 2020, he was suspended from work for a month. “Cooperatives and public care homes have put a muzzle on people who have reported or talked to the press,” said ‘Marco’, an outsourced nurse who works in a private care home in Lombardy.
Italy’s 2017 whistleblower law protects people who reveal wrongdoing in the workplace. However, it does not guarantee adequate protection of workers, for example in terms of confidentiality and independence, in the private sector, which covers 73% of the care homes in Italy. Italian authorities must protect the rights of all care workers from abuse by the private sector.
Care sector shaken by deaths
More than 130,200 people had died of Covid-19 in Italy before 29 September 2021, more than 95% of them older than 60 years of age. Some estimates suggest that 8.5% of all the older people living in care homes in Italy died in the first months of the pandemic.
In December 2020, Amnesty International highlighted the failure of the Italian authorities to put in place adequate policies to protect older people living in care homes, including their rights to life, to health and to be free from discrimination.
While the vaccination campaign, which prioritized care home residents as well as health and care workers, resulted in a decrease in morbidity and mortality among both older people and workers in care homes, long-standing concerns in the sector, including low wages, the over-representation of women in a sector with poor working conditions, remain unaddressed.
Independent inquiry urgently needed
The Italian authorities must ensure that these workers’ voices are heard.
Amnesty International is calling on the Italian parliament to set up an independent committee of inquiry to investigate the authorities’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic with a specific focus on care homes. While some proposals are in initial stages, no inquiry has yet been approved.
Any such committee must also consider the serious concerns raised by workers and unions regarding health, safety and poor working conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic and preceding it.
“It is vital that the Italian parliament approves an independent inquiry so that lessons can be learned, similar mistakes can be prevented and justice can be provided to those people who died unnecessarily and those who were wrongly dismissed,” said Debora Del Pistoia, researcher at Amnesty International Italy.
A global trend of repression
The silencing of care and health workers in Italy is part of an alarming global trend as we have seen authorities violating freedom of expression worldwide during the pandemic. Health and care workers have been targeted for speaking out in countries such as Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.