After the right-wing majority failed Left Bloc and Communist Party’s proposals in Parliament to integrate these workers with a legal work contract, last Friday more than half of the 400 workers of the telemedicine service “Saúde 24” (Health 24) went on strike against false autonomous workers, against the layoff of over 100 of their colleagues and demanding the resignation of the company’s administration.
The struggle of over 400 nurses against precarious labour and wage cuts is in the spotlight in Portugal, as the private company which runs the telemedicine public service has fired over 100 precarious workers who refused the imposition of 40 to 45% wage cuts and demanded to be legally employed by the company after years working there as false green receipts (false independent workers).
The workers 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 centers of Lisbon and Porto together to a halt, something which hadn’t ever been tried as successfuly with precarious workers in Portugal.
The workers were able to get the Labour Inspectors to run an inspection in both call centers, to determine whether or not the workers were being falsely hired. This struggle gained important public and political relevance, as both left-wing parties confronted the government and the Health Minister with the false contracts, the wage cuts and the dismissals. Even the center Socialist Party enquired the ministry about the situation. In the meanwhile some solidarity campaigns, specially in social media, gave a boost to the workers’ claims, and a small march walked the streets of Lisbon, heading to the Ministry of Health. The counterstrike by the company was XIX century style: first they fired 16 workers, basically all the most proeminent spokespersons which had led the struggle publicly, and a few days later they went on to fire 100 more people, all of which had absolutely refused to sign a paper in which they would accept the wage cuts, after many ultimatums and cohersive tactics run by the companies’ administration and its foremen. The workers had a fierce response, claiming the company’s administration should be sacked, not only for attacking basic democratic rights as the right to organise and the right to express their position, but for jeopardising the public interest of the persons who use this service to avoid going to an already overcrowded health emergency system (which in the last few days have seen many deaths due to long times in waiting and overcrowed emergencies).
Last week parliament voted against the regularisation of the workers’ labour condition, with the right-wing Troika majority of Social-Democrat Party and Popular Party failed the left-wing proposals, and the workers went on strike once again.
In the meantime the situation has also evolved into a claim by the left-wing parties to recover this system to public control, as the service has been delivered to a consortium of the french call center giant Teleperformance and portuguese Optimus (communication services), which have expressed they want the wages dropped to as low as 4€ an hour (they now earn 8,75€/hr). The public-private partnership status of the line has been the perfect excuse made by the government and the ministry to refuse to intervene, although the working conditions are clearly illegal (this has been rebuted by saying that was the private company’s problem).
This struggle is an important sign of change and hope for precarious workers. Workers who could virtually do nothing due to their ilegal hiring and precarious work relations have proven they could and would do whatever was at their grasp to right the wrongs they had been exposed to. The pressure is unsurmountable, but even after the massive retaliation and firings by the company, the strike is calculated to see more than half the workers failing their shifts and concentrating in front of the call centers in Lisbon and Porto. The workers that have been fired are in close connection with the ones which are still working and are currently on strike. Today a letter signed by important personalities in Portugal’s Health, Labour and Constitutional Rights’ sector was published, supporting the workers and condemning their illegal and persecutory firings.
The situation will continue to unravel, as the results of the labour inspection have not been presented yet, and as the Parliament’s Health Commission will receive the workers’ informal commission next wednesday. Things will not fade away, as the workers maintain their will to fight for the claim of their rights to a contract, respect, and to restore the service in which they work as an important tool to support the portuguese national health service.
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