Europe’s trade union and Christian business leaders appeal jointly for a new economic and social order after the pandemic.
The pandemic has taught us many lessons—one of the most important being the benefits of working together: co-operation has been crucial to the protection of workers and their jobs, the survival of enterprises and the welfare of people and society. We must consider the person before economics. Yet as we look towards a recovery after the pandemic, how can we ensure that workplaces will improve the quality of life of their workers—that they will be fairly rewarded with a decent standard of living and motivated in the future?
In the past, this has not always been the case. Over recent decades, low wages, insecure jobs, poor working conditions and fake self-employment contracts have become a growth model for some parts of the European Union’s economy. Wages have stagnated and a growing number of families have been unable to afford to put food on the table, to heat their homes or pay basic utility bills.
The number of ‘working poor’—workers at risk of poverty—increased in most EU member states between 2010 and 2019, despite the improving economy, leaving around one in ten European workers below the at-risk-of-poverty threshold.
Unacceptable state of affairs
This state of affairs is unacceptable, not only to the European Trade Union Confederation and its affiliates, which represent the interests of workers, but also to the many clear-sighted employers in UNIAPAC—Christian entrepreneurs who understand that fair wages are social, just and good for growth, demand, productivity and society in general. Twenty-one EU countries have set national statutory minimum wages, but in most cases these are very low, below a threshold of poverty.
The EU must support effective action to ensure that where statutory minimum wages exist they do not leave workers and their families in poverty. If someone works full-time, they should not have to choose between paying bills or eating—everybody deserves to live a dignified life.
Across Europe, the pandemic has forced people to reassess the value of work and the vital contribution of carers, health professionals, transport and retail workers, as well as many others who have put their safety on the line in recent months. Fair wages should recognise the dignity of work, the dignity of working people and the right of every worker to a life free from want.
Rethinking Europe’s economy
A recovery from the pandemic should mean rethinking Europe’s economy—not just a return to ‘normal’. Back in May 2019, Pope Francis called for change and challenged people to imagine a different kind of economy, which ‘includes and does not exclude, humanises and does not dehumanise, takes care of creation and does not devastate it’.
The unfairness of the existing system is undermining the stability of society and generating dangerous, populist movements. Pope Francis proposed a revolutionary transformation towards a more humane society, with people’s well-being and happiness at its heart.
Over the last year, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated has also been a commitment to protecting other people. People have accepted limits on their freedom to benefit the common good. Now we must act on what we have learned.
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If everyone lives better, society will be more productive and generate both wealth and wellbeing. Such wealth must be fairly distributed, in a just and dignified manner. Now would be a good time for business leaders and politicians to rethink the route to high-quality jobs, good products and successful companies.
It takes courage to lead, courage to co-operate. And courage is what will be needed to ensure the EU does what is necessary to become a more just and civilised place, where all wages respect a threshold of decency.
Trade unions and employers coming together to negotiate wages and working conditions is one of the most effective ways to ensure working people get a fair share of the wealth they create. Countries with high collective bargaining coverage also have smaller proportions of low-paid workers and yet in many EU member states negotiating structures have declined in recent years.
Employers with vision to work with their workers will recover more quickly from the pandemic, and stronger. A level playing-field which prevents competition on wages that do not afford dignity will prevent rogue companies exploiting the demand for jobs and creating a downward spiral of poverty pay. No one should be excluded from the right to a decent wage; fair wages create a more loyal and productive workforce.
In the same way, trade union engagement is key to guarantee the long-term sustainability and success of companies. Trade unions will have to be involved in creating systems that ensure workers are fairly remunerated and growth in productivity is shared. Companies should manifest a team spirit, with common interests and shared benefits defined through effective negotiation—indeed, recgnition of ocommon interests should help facilitate negotiation.
Seizing the opportunity
European governments and employers must seize the opportunity to act responsibly to improve lives, so that all workers can make ends meet, pay rent and put food on the table, for themselves and their families. Adequate minimum wages are very important to ensure a dignified work and life for all workers but they are not enough.
A dignified wage can be understood as providing for the cost of living, the education of children, full participation in society and personal development. Wages need to provide a fair share and reflect the contribution of the workers to the profits of the company.