The coronavirus pandemic continues to hit our continent. After several months of crisis with lockdowns that set our economy on hold and threw people into precariousness literally overnight, it has become clear that the economic and social repercussions of the crisis will have long-lasting effects on the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions. As the International Monetary Fund declared: We are facing “a crisis like no other”.
Towards a "lockdown generation"?
From the very start, the pandemic shook profoundly the world of work . According to a recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 94 % of the world’s workers currently live in countries with some sort of workplace closure measure in place. In the third quarter of 2020, global working hours declined by some 12.1 per cent, equivalent to 345 million full-time jobs. Women in particular continue to suffer a disproportionate impact in terms of reduced working hours, also due to an increased burden of care responsibilities.
Short-time jobs, job losses, restructuring, bankruptcy - the effects of the pandemic are plunging millions of Europeans into deep insecurity about their future. Finding the right balance between health and economic and social policy interventions - particularly in the light of lately growing infection numbers in many countries - is therefore a huge challenge not only for the EU's Member States, but also for Europe's cities and regions.
Particular in cities and their peripheries, poverty and inequalities are rapidly rising, with new groups of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion– the ‘new urban poor’. In addition, youth unemployment has risen dramatically in many European regions with COVID-19, making the 'the lockdown generation" the future protagonist of an already announced tragedy.
Hopes are high that a vaccine will soon be found to cure the ones most at health risk. But will the same be true for all those at 'social risk', such as the many workers in precarious employment and economically vulnerable citizens? Will they be put first in the "new normal"?
Putting a socially just recovery first
With its EU reconstruction plan, Europe must put people first on the EU agenda and give cities and regions the means to address poverty and the root causes of inequality. Only by bold and coordinated action between all levels of government can we build a fair, inclusive and sustainable recovery that works for all.
"It is time to invest more in public services, to put people’s wellbeing and solidarity back at the heart of policymaking. We must implement policies now to shelter our citizens and their jobs from this crisis. This means short term work schemes, minimum income schemes, large and inclusive education and training programmes, and support for the digital and environmental transitions. We cannot ignore the acute impact on young people either. Our political family pioneered the Youth Guarantee and this crisis requires further action now to support young people into employment, education and training “", stresses Agnes Jongerius MEP (S&D/Netherlands), who is also the European Parliament's rapporteur on a Strong Social Europe for Just Transitions.
Cities and regions are the best partners when it comes to promoting and implementing social policies at grassroots level such as those actively combatting poverty through support for job-seeking, providing quality and affordable health care, access to education and training, housing, and preventing in-work poverty through adequate wages. As the Regional and Local Barometer confirms, 43% of Europeans would like local and regional authorities to have more influence in the employment and social policy in the EU.
"Recovery measures must address the social dimension of the ecological and digital transitions. We need a fair labour market in the carbon-neutral economy of the future, based on decent jobs, strong social protection, and job opportunities where people live". This is the key message of Finnish PES Group member Anne Karjalainen, Member of Kerava City Council, who is leading the work on a Strong Social Europe for Just Transitions in the Committee.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, she emphasises that we need "a clear, coordinated and ambitious roadmap for implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights" and that "the Just Transition Fund – the EU's fund to support green transition in most vulnerable regions – needs to go hand-in-hand with the EU's social pillar."
This means first and foremost empowering workers. The pandemic has seen an exponential increase of new forms of employment, such as work on the platform economy, which require clear rules ensuring fair working conditions. At the same time, the emergence of new working patterns, such as teleworking, which calls for the urgent recognition of a new right, that is, the right to disconnect.
Another important aspect that emerged with the crisis is the need for investments in digital skills and connectivity as a key element of territorial and social cohesion.
"The keys of the recovery are a fair labour market in the carbon-neutral economy, strong social protection, and decent job opportunities." #SocialEurope
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) October 12, 2020
We also need a more permanent European Unemployment Reinsurance Scheme and minimum levels for wages, incomes and pensions.
Last but not least, more funding is required for the Youth Guarantee, whose age-limit is now extended to 29, and a Child Guarantee, which should guarantee equal opportunities to all children in the EU, must finally be set up.
"@NicolasSchmitEU, do you intend to regulate platform work, which has grown during the pandemic and is precarious?
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) October 14, 2020
The calls of progressive cities and regions were also echoed by European Commissioner Nicolas Schmit, who, addressing members of the European Committee of the Regions at their plenary session, stressed:
"Throughout the pandemic we saw the strength and the value of solidarity. What we now need is social investments. This crisis has only deepened the divide and there are millions of European families that find themselves at risk of poverty. Children are particularly vulnerable, which is why we need a Child Guarantee that will ensure equal opportunities. This can only be achieved with the help of cities and regions."
From Gothenburg to Porto – keeping the promise?
Three years ago, Heads of State and Government proclaimed at the Social Summit in Gothenburg the European Pillar of Social Rights, pledging to make a truly social Europe a reality for all citizens. This promise has not yet been kept. The coronavirus crisis makes a fair and inclusive recovery even more urgent. We must make sure that the crisis is not used as a pretext for further postponing or withdrawing social policy proposals.
Moving south to Porto, at the May 2021 Social Summit, a meaningful and effective Action Plan on the Implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights should be adopted under the Portuguese EU Presidency. Will we succeed in making this process not just a transition, but a just transition? Progressive cities and regions are ready to play their part in this fight. We need to put words into action.