There can be no return to ‘business as usual’ after the crisis: the ‘new normal’ must entail a profound political and social transformation.
The coronavirus has created an unprecedented health emergency in Europe, threatening the very foundation of European unity. While saving lives is rightly the priority, an economic whirlwind is coming down the tracks.
Across the European Union, trade unions have had to step in to do their utmost to protect workers and their families. As EU governments start to reopen their economies, workers must know they are safe in their places of work. Economic recovery is crucial, but there can be no reckless rush back to work (for those who have work to return to), putting the lives of working people and their loved ones at risk.
Many people are talking about a ‘new normal’ after the pandemic, circumscribed by social distancing and long-term protective measures. But this new normal must take the form of a profound transformation of political and social priorities. There can be no return to ‘business as usual’, in a Europe where millions of workers are jobless.
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The latest research by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions reveals that 28 per cent of Europeans have lost their jobs permanently or temporarily since the crisis, almost 50 per cent say their working hours have decreased and 15 per cent believe they are likely to lose their jobs within the next three months. Over one in five is finding it difficult to make ends meet, and 27 per cent say they have no savings to rely on.
If people cannot get back to work in the near future, unemployment will soar above the peak occasioned by the 2008 financial crisis, sparking a worse depression than in the 1930s. The new normal must be the moment for governments to prioritise social wellbeing and, finally, to take seriously the threat to our planet—to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, to invest in green technologies, to find new, less-polluting means of transport and to provide clean air.
We need the biggest recovery plan since the end of World War II. It must deliver a fair deal for all working people. It must ensure that multinational companies and rich individuals pay their fair share of taxation, to fund public services and public-service workers. It must help to deliver the United Nations’ Paris agreement as well as the Sustainable Development Goals.
It has to mobilise massive investment of fresh public money in the renewal of industry and environmentally and socially sustainable economic activities, as well as strengthening welfare systems and social protection. All this cannot happen by putting the burden once more on national public budgets, through loans with tough conditions attached, but on the contrary by finally building a real economic and fiscal capacity for the EU to invest in a future where nobody is left behind.
Covid-19 has revealed who are the really important workers in society: nurses and carers, transport staff, teachers, cleaners, agricultural labourers and many others who have been undervalued and underpaid for so long. One outcome of this crisis should be that such essential workers (who have risked their lives working through the pandemic) finally get the recognition and reward—better pay and working conditions—they deserve.
The virus has highlighted the vulnerability of Europe’s growing precarious workforce: platform and temporary workers, freelances and self-employed. It should not take a global pandemic to confirm that these workers must have the same protection as others. Self-isolation is an unrealistic demand for workers on digital-labour platforms, including drivers and delivery riders, and they cannot afford to take sick leave for fear of losing their incomes.
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As governments and employers adapt to the lessons the pandemic has taught, these workers should in future have social protection and support in case of illness. The EU and its member states must guarantee that atypical workers will keep their jobs, their incomes and their labour rights. We see this crisis as a much-needed opportunity to achieve better conditions for non-standard workers.
Europe needs to reform its supply chains, which have been unable to respond adequately to the demands of the pandemic. Making our supply chains more sustainable, economically, environmentally and socially—seeing how we can relocate some essential production to the EU single market and building a level playing-field of tax and social justice—is a priority for the future. Covid-19 must not be an excuse to attack human and social rights, as has been the case in some member states.
Across Europe, at local, national and EU levels, unions have accelerated their efforts to support all workers—employed or unemployed, redundant, self-employed, migrant or in precarious jobs. Everyone needs to get to work safely: those who have lost their jobs, those who have been suspended from work and those who were jobless before the pandemic struck.
No one should face sanctions for refusing to work in a risky environment. Workers have the right to withdraw from or refuse to return to an unsafe workplace, with guaranteed legal protection from dismissal or any other penalty.
Already working people are suffering because very little money has been paid out by national governments’ emergency measures aimed at enabling workers to sustain their families and keep their jobs. In Italy, for example, out of 10 million workers eligible for income benefits, only 1.5 million have received payment. Banking systems are blocking the support triggered by the European Central Bank, denying credit to companies and households in need.
People are going without food, and companies are going bankrupt, destroying millions of jobs. This situation will deteriorate if Europe enters a deep and long recession.
So emergency measures must be implemented urgently, in co-operation with the social partners, while ambitious recovery strategies are put in place by the EU and member states. Tens of millions of workers await support from the SURE short-time-work support scheme. Aid is needed now and must be available beyond the emergency to protect employment during the recovery.
Raising the EU budget up to 2 per cent of European gross domestic product goes in the right direction. But If European support is required beyond 2022, this will need securely funded EU tools. Political leaders have to set their national interests aside and design permanent instruments to stabilise the EU’s capacity to invest and to protect its citizens from unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.
Europe has suffered from a decade of austerity and cuts, with business interests and profits coming before protection of people and environmental and social justice. It is high time to change this short-sighted approach and build a future of prosperity and solidarity for all.
European democracy was put at risk by the financial crisis and austerity—and it may be destroyed altogether if the EU does not respond differently to the pandemic. The battle is not yet won, and today’s decisions will determine the Europe we live in for many years to come.