(12 January 2022) We enter into the New Year and 2022 with the COVID-19 still firmly ahead of, rather than behind us as we would all have wished before the holiday break. Across Europe governments are balancing further lock-downs against maintaining economic activity.
In this context the expectations placed on the French Presidency are great. Indeed much of the language of the Presidency Programme is ambitious, calling for “A new European model for growth… and to build “responsible capitalism by putting finance to work for the dual climate and digital transition while countering financial crime.“ A whole section of the Presidency programme is dedicated to ”Building a Responsible, Sustainable Capitalism”, giving the impression that by pushing the right buttons capitalism will steer itself in a more sustainable direction.
Too rosy a view? While there is a reference to the need for “fair and effective taxation” this is not so much to support the universal provision of quality public services but more to ensure that there is enough public money goes to subsidise capitalists, e.g. through even more opaque and poor value for money Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) (*). And while there is a reference to “high-quality, high-skilled and better-paying jobs” the Programme is silent on where these jobs should be - clearly the view capitalists are best placed to determine this.
This brings us back to the start of 2022. With mind-boggling daily increases in the number of persons infected with the Omicron variant, governments are rolling out contingency plans to deal with unprecedented work absences and shortages. COVID-19 brought to the fore that some goods and services – and the workers that provide them - are more essential than others. Today many countries have drawn up lists of essential services or occupations, including health and social care and emergency services, but also supermarket staff, delivery workers, workers in water, waste, energy, teachers, telecommunication workers, transport staff, and workers in law and justice. This reality however is not reflected in the French Presidency programme or yet in the policies of the European Union.
As stated by Professor Ian Gough (**), this recognition of ‘essential work’ is interesting for two reasons: “First, it questioned the dominant neo-classical value theory, where any activity is deemed valuable or productive if it is remunerated, whatever its social value or disvalue. For the first time since the Second World War governments have been forced to distinguish a subset of useful labour, and implicitly need satisfiers. Second, the evidence of low pay levels for many key workers (IFS 2020) demonstrated the dramatic gap between market valuation and social or normative valuation of different forms of labour.”
The next step is of course to translate this recognition of essential goods and services (necessities) into the policies that are necessary to make this happen. While there has been much applause for health and social care workers in the last two years, we know that EPSU unions are having to fight hard for the necessary shift in austerity policies, to strengthen welfare states and revitalise the politics around redistribution, including through more fair and balanced systems of collective bargaining that are needed in sectors like retail where huge profits do not translate into decent work.
In particular today for our public health and social care systems, surely it must be an absolute priority for the EU to strengthen the ‘public’ dimension? We cannot leave this to capitalists. In the French Presidency Programme much is said about strengthening EU public health (***), but there is nothing about strengthening the (public services) principles that underpin universal and equitable access to health and social care services at national level. EU coordination of national systems to prevent and mitigate future COVID-19 type crises is welcome, but in a context of increasing divergence over these the fundamental principles of public services, coordination will not work. Giving an increasing role to capitalists to steer the future of the public health and care system is the very opposite of what is needed.
And, for health and social care workers – but also for many other workers - decent work has to be about more than the pay and working conditions that (good) jobs provide, important that this is. Decent work is also about the purpose of work. Work that is socially useful and productive (including non-paid care work) should be highly valued in all senses of the word. It says much about our societies that caring about one’s work has been a reason for employers to try and pay workers less, not more.
A corollary of the debates around valuing more essential services and essential work – also picked up by Professor Gough in his ETUI paper - is the reflection around what constitutes non-essential or unproductive labour. Put simply, Professor Gough argues that restricting wasteful economic activity is not only necessary to tackle climate change, but it is important in order to free up resources for essential and conventional production.
Oscar Wilde is reported to have said “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” What COVID-19 has shown us is that people value having access to health and social care, to education, affordable energy, reliable public transport, good quality food and so on. This requires governments and social partners to take more responsibility for ensuring their equitable and continued supply, not leaving this to markets alone.
We expect the European Commission to publish a report (***) on the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) principle on essential services / public services towards the end of the year. This will be a crucial moment for the European Union as it will show how determined the EU is to ensure that people can enjoy their human rights, like the right to care, to education, to water and to a warm home. COVID-19 shows the stress on those services and how this impacts on the fundamental rights of people – both users and workers. The Commission’s report should cover labour market and workforce issues. The need for sufficient staffing and importance of collective bargaining and social dialogue and appropriate pay and conditions to attract qualified workers are crucial.
(*) See reference for example to supporting “Horizon Europe’s joint undertakings which further develop public-private partnerships focusing on strategic research issues to be forged, with the public contribution being funded directly from the EU’s budget.”
(**) See paper for the ETUI Ian Gough Two scenarios for sustainable welfare New ideas for an eco-social contract
(***) The French Programme does affirm that “…. it aims to draw lessons from this pandemic in order to prepare to respond in a coordinated manner to any new crisis that may arise in the future, in particular through strengthening European public health.”
(****) See also EPSU article on essential services