Portugal: Telemedicine workers strike against layoffs

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(picture from Apoio S24)

Portuguese workers in a health call centre have gone on strike for the second time in a month, reports João Camargo 

On Friday more than half of the 400 workers of the telephone medical service Saúde 24 (Health 24) went on strike against the layoff of over 100 of their colleagues. They also demand the resignations of the company’s management.

The strikers are nurses who give advice to patients over the phone. The struggle of over 400 nurses against precarious labour and wage cuts is national news in Portugal.

The private company which runs the telemedicine public service has fired over 100 precarious workers who refused the imposition of 40% wage cuts. They also demanded to be legally employed by the company after years working there with false “green receipts” as “independent workers”.

The workers first went on strike on 4 January, forcing the company to call all its supervisors to minimise call losses. The company hired a communication company to run a smear campaign against the workers, accusing them of making false phone calls.

The strike was an important moment of the struggle, uniting the call centres of Lisbon and Porto together, something never done successfully with precarious workers in Portugal. The workers were able to get the labour inspectors to run an inspection in both call centres, to determine whether or not the workers were being falsely hired.

Both left-wing parties confronted the government and the health minister with the false contracts, the wage cuts and the dismissals. Even the centre Socialist Party enquired of the ministry about the situation.

Strike and counterstrike

Solidarity campaigns, especially in social media, gave a boost to the workers. A small march walked the streets of Lisbon, heading to the ministry of health.

The company counterstrike was 19th century in style. First they fired 16 workers, basically all the public leaders of the struggle. A few days later they fired 100 more who had refused to sign a paper accepting the wage cuts.

The workers had a fierce response. They claimed the management should be sacked for attacking their basic democratic right to organise and express their positions.

The workers also wanted management sacked for jeopardising the patients who use this service to avoid going to an already overcrowded health emergency system. In the last few days Portugal has seen many deaths deaths due to long waiting times and overcrowded accident and emergency departments.

Friday parliament voted against the regularisation of the workers’ labour conditions, and the workers went on strike once again.

Hope for precarious workers

In the meantime the situation has also evolved into a claim by the left wing parties to bring back this system into public control. Currently it is run by a consortium of the French call centre giant Teleperformance and Portuguese Optimus. They say they want the wages cut from €8.75 an hour to as low as €4.00. The public-private partnership status of the line has been the perfect excuse for the government and the ministry to refuse to intervene, although the working conditions are clearly illegal.

This struggle is an important sign of change and hope for precarious workers. Workers who could virtually do nothing because of their illegal hiring and precarious work relations have done whatever is in their grasp to right the wrongs done to them.

Even after the massive retaliation and firings by the company, the strike will see more than half the workers missing their shifts and concentrating in front of the call centres in Lisbon and Porto. The sacked workers are in close contact with the strikers.

The situation will continue to unravel, as the results of the labour inspection have not been presented yet. The Parliamentary Health Commission will receive the workers’ informal commission next Wednesday. And yesterday a letter was published supporting the workers and signed by important personalities in health, labour, and constitutional rights.

Things will not fade away. The workers maintain their will to fight for a contract, respect, and useful jobs supporting their national health service.

  Facebook page for solidarity with Saúde 24 workers

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