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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Why social Europe matters

Jean gave the following speech at the European Green Party Copenhagen Summit, on Saturday 12 May 2012.

We have heard in Emilie Turunen’s excellent speech this afternoon that social Europe is not yet dead; there is vision. But we should also be aware that there are some very nasty things going on in parts of our societies which, if not challenged, could see a wider, negative shift.

Inequality is growing in this crisis; it was already an issue in the boom years.

We risk what was described in a recent conference on quality work, as a “collapsing bottom and floating top” – a hollowed-out labour market of well-paid, highly skilled “floaters” and a low-skilled, poorly-paid bottom – scrabbling for whatever they can get. Not a recipe for social cohesion.

The same conference also raised the growing issue of “social jealousy” – particularly between the public and private sector. A resentment of those seen to have a steady job and the prospect of a pension: a feeling of “Why should you have something I don’t have”? – a levelling-down, not a levelling-up. No fight. Not even an argument as to how to ensure that all have better working conditions and decent pensions.

This is a significant win for those political forces arguing for greater privatisation and a smaller state per se: it’s not a search for greater quality and better performance, although it may be cloaked in those words. This resentment makes it easier to cut back on the public sector, yet we know that strong public services are crucial for social inclusion and social progress and in many countries it is the public sector that has been at the forefront of genuinely flexible working practices (benefiting workers) and anti-discriminatory recruitment practices.

We are also seeing a return to 19th century (or even earlier) concepts of the “deserving and undeserving” poor. I often feel I could scream when UK politicians speak of “hard working families” as those in need of support and thus excluding others – as if hard-working single people don’t exist, for example, of those who are looking for work and can’t find it don’t count.

We have a language developing that blames people on benefits for creating the crisis or preventing a solution. The re-examination of the claims of those on disability benefit is an example. In the UK, we have seen a rise in hate crimes and hate speech against people with disabilities; others report being accosted by people demanding “Why aren’t you at work? Why are you taking my money?” etc. Treated as if they are lazy or fraudsters. We have a hardening of language and attitudes towards workers from other countries seen as “stealing” jobs, rather than contributing to our societies and economies.

We see the facile maths of 100 job vacancies and 100 unemployed – where’s the problem? As if there is automatically an easy fit: low-skilled workers can become professional engineers with the wave of a magic wand! Moving to where there is work is pushed as a solution. Greens are all in favour of labour mobility, when it makes sense. However, you have to recognise that many people – especially in difficult times – are not willing to leave their family and social network and move themselves and their families (assuming they can find affordable housing elsewhere) for a temporary, minimum wage job.

At least most EU countries have a minimum wage – whether set by law or social-partner agreement. Greens believe a living wage would be even better. We can try to solve in-work poverty (affecting at least 1 out of every 8 workers) by state subsidies to employees or we can expect employers to pay a wage people can live on.

We are seeing attacks on security in the workplace. One British MP from a governing party has said that we could easily lose 80% of health and safety legislation. Now, the Working Time Directive is health and safety legislation – it’s revision currently under discussion between social partners. It’s designed to limit working hours so that tired workers are not a risk to themselves or others. We will probably return to the fight later in the Parliament.

In the name of flexibility, we are seeing more short-term contracts, part-time and casual work but social security systems are generally not able to respond to this flexibility. This prevents people taking opportunities: if you take a few days of casual work but lose benefits and then it takes weeks before the system can kick in again, wouldn’t you be tempted to either put the money straight in your pocket and stay quiet, or turn down the offer of work? Flexicurity is increasing off the agenda as flexibility takes a stronger hold.

Many of us in the European Parliament increasingly feel we’re fighting for what should be obvious.

Greens have been working with the International Social Security Association and the ILO to promote the message in the EP that social security systems are important as they:

  • Provide a buffer
  • Are an economic stabiliser, which keeps the local economy moving
  • Have enabled countries to soften the impact of the crisis (although it may not feel like that)
  • Help to reduce inequalities

Greens are fighting for:

  • Social conditionality on the so-called bail outs
  • An adequate minimum income, with a statutory basis
  • A core wage, ideally a living wage

Some parts of the Commission are fully on board with this and need to be supported.

We are determined to ensure that all Member States remember they have a commitment to socially inclusive growth under the EU 2020 strategy and this must be reflected in National Reform Plans.

Social Europe still matters – we have to help build it.