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Essential workers, but terribly underpaid. Call for more social justice

What do school and kindergarten teachers, sales assistants, bus drivers, refuse collectors and hospital nurses and cleaning staff have in common? The answer is that they are essential workers who are terribly underpaid. That, in the view of Klára Dobrev, Vice-President of the European Parliament and a member of its Committee on Jobs and Social Rights, is something we have learned from the Covid-19 crisis. “These people”, she said, “are bearing the biggest burden” in the pandemic, often “working 24 hours, and we did not even notice them”. Taking her cue from the adage that every crisis is an opportunity, Ms Dobrev, addressing the Conference of Chairpersons of committees on employment and social affairs, as well as on economic cooperation and development, from national parliaments and the European Parliament on Monday, 9 November 2020, referred to the need to rethink which work was really important to society. The next step, she said, must be to examine whether that work was sufficiently valued, in other words remunerated. That was not the case at the present time, said the Vice-President of the European Parliament at the first conference session, which was hosted by Dr Matthias Bartke (SPD), chair of the Bundestag Committee on Labour and Social Affairs.

Vice-President Dobrev: We could not help those who were most in need

Ms Dobrev also drew a scathing conclusion regarding the social dimension of the management of the financial crisis of 2008/09. “We could not help those who were most in need”, she said. Banks had been rescued, and the European economy had been kept operational. Yet while Europe had enjoyed uninterrupted GDP growth after the crisis, poverty had also grown; the gap between rich and poor had widened.  That trend, said Ms Dobrev, now had to be reversed. A strong, competitive Europe also meant “strong, competitive people” – “clever people, healthy people, people who have a decent wage to live from”. For this reason, a sharper focus on social concerns had to be adopted, and more investment was needed in education and health systems, said Ms Dobrev, who emphatically welcomed the European Commission’s proposal for a European minimum wage. 

European Commission has no plans for a uniform minimum wage

A uniform EU-wide minimum wage, however, is not planned, as the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, explained. “We do not want to decide one minimum wage for all Europe”, he said. That would be unrealistic and was therefore not an aim of the Commission, which very clearly recognised the concept of subsidiarity and hence the responsibility of national parliaments for this matter. The idea that had recently been put forward time and again was that of an indicator, such as 50% of the average gross wage in each member state. It was also the aim of the European Commission, he added, to reinforce the instrument of collective bargaining.

The Commissioner urged parliaments not to miss the opportunities offered by the Covid-19 crisis to reshape social welfare systems in Europe. He stressed that nobody must be left behind. The crisis, he said, had also shown how important efficient health systems were for an efficient economy.

Federal Employment Agency Chairman Detlef Scheele on Germany’s good experience with the minimum wage

Detlef Scheele, Chairman of the Federal Employment Agency, sought to allay any fears of minimum wages among the Members of Parliament. “The minimum wage, which was bitterly contested for a long time in Germany, has proved to be a decidedly good thing”, said Mr Scheele. “In a phase of cyclical upturn,” he said, the minimum wage had neither cost jobs nor been an obstacle to  continued  growth.  On the contrary, “mini-jobs” had been converted into employment requiring social security contributions. It was important, said the Agency Chairman, to “depoliticise and degovernmentalise” minimum wages. A Minimum Wage Commission, which Germany had established on the basis of the UK model, would be good for other member states too, he said.

Gaps in the social security system

Turning to the management of the present crisis, Mr Scheele praised the short-time working allowance that had brought the German labour market “safely and successfully through the crisis”. Nevertheless, the Agency Chairman conceded that there were still gaps in the social security system. People whose jobs did not require social security contributions and who could not benefit from the short-time working allowance were in a difficult situation. “The self-employed, especially sole traders, and creative artists slip through almost all of the nets in our country, because no special programmes that might be established can ever protect people’s livelihoods like the short-time working allowance does”, said Mr Scheele. 

Taking children out of poverty

During the discussion, members of several parliaments suggested that the short-time working allowance was not a panacea. If economies could not be stabilised, it was said, all those who were receiving short-time working allowances today would soon end up unemployed. The desire that children be taken out of poverty emerged very clearly. One proposed means to this end was a European benefit for child-related expenditure.

Plea for more digitialisation, retraining options and lifelong learning

There were diverse views as to whether and how the European Commission should prescribe a uniform minimum wage in order to avoid an uneven playing field. One point of discussion was whether member states should tailor the minimum wage to their respective economic capacities so as not to overburden their own businesses. All participants in the discussion made a clear plea for more digitalisation, retraining options for workers and the right to lifelong learning.

Matthias Bartke: Europe has shown character in the crisis

Winding up the first part of the conference, Dr Matthias Bartke said that Europe had shown character in the crisis. Social cohesion had been strengthened, but at the same time the crisis had acted like a burning lens on existing problems. The EU, said Dr Bartke, faced formidable challenges. “My wish is that today’s conference can be the prelude to other regular forms of interparliamentary exchange  on these topics”, he said, adding that EU cooperation in matters of employment and social policy, which still lay primarily within the member states’ sphere of competence, must always include the national parliaments. (hau/10 November 2020)


The report on the second session of the video conference "For a social and fair Europe" of the Chairpersons of committees on employment and social affairs, as well as on economic cooperation and development, from national parliaments and the European Parliament can be read here.

Videos relating to the Conference of Chairpersons “For a social and fair Europe” on 9 November 2020

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Film of the Conference of Chairpersons of committees on "For a social and fair Europe"

Here you can get a brief insight into the topics discussed at the Conference of Chairpersons of committees on employment and social affairs, as well as on economic cooperation and development, from national parliaments and the European Parliament on "For a social and fair Europe" on 9 November 2020 in Berlin.

More information can be found here.

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Conference films

00:03:38

Film of the Conference of Chairpersons of committees on "For a social and fair Europe"

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Matthias Bartke at the video conference: "For a social and fair Europe"

00:01:09

Annette Niederfranke at the video conference: "For a social and fair Europe"

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