Equality has a business case going for it. Employers who treat their staff equally attract and keep a talented and skilled workforce, and boost productivity and innovation. Inequality is bad for economic growth, says the OECD, and they should know. Yet creating equal work conditions and treatment of workers is an uphill battle, even in Europe in 2022. After two decades of real wages decline, the economic wrecking ball of the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on poverty levels. Europe’s tough sanctions against Russia’s barbaric aggression on Ukraine are right, and we are willing to pay this price for peace while we ensure solidarity mechanisms so that the most vulnerable do not shoulder the biggest burden. At the same time, new technologies and artificial intelligence are increasing the size of the precarious work sector, creating the dangerous prospect of a two-tier labor market.
Can we prevent the digital revolution from devouring hard-won worker’s rights? The answer to this question will largely determine the future of work. It is so convenient: with one click on our smartphones we can have food delivered to our homes or a ride to take us places. But the apps neatly hide the real story of the platform workers, who are too often deprived of fair wages and social insurance, refused participation and employee voice, and denied paid leave and decent working conditions. We are fighting for platform workers to be considered as employees, with all applicable rights — unless platform companies can prove they are dealing with genuine self-employed people. Through this ‘rebuttable presumption’ of an employment relationship, we can ensure that platform workers get the rights they should be entitled to, such as minimum wages, social insurance, health and safety protection and sick leave, as well as the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining.
As algorithms become an integral part of work life, we risk the creation of a two-tier labor market, where workers managed by their employers through algorithms have fewer rights than workers in the traditional economy. This is true for platform workers, as well as any other worker managed by digital tools. Every tool affecting working conditions and workers’ health and safety must be transparent and subject to collective bargaining, including algorithms. Decisions affecting working conditions must not be taken by automated systems without human supervision or in violation of our data protection laws. Workers must never be at the mercy of algorithms. How we protect some of the most vulnerable people in today’s economy will shape tomorrow’s societies.
Fighting yet another fight that is worth fighting: Equal pay for equal work or work for equal value. Yet women in the EU earn on average 14.1 percent less than men in comparable positions, according to Commission figures. Currently, we are negotiating with EU governments a new law on pay transparency in companies. Closing the gender pay gap cannot be left to women workers taking companies to court, but must be the obligation of firms and governments. With the new rules, workers will have the right to receive information about pay. Companies will have to address unwarranted imbalances. Should companies not comply, they must face sanctions and give compensation to those affected.
Inequality between European workers remains a divisive issue. With the revision of the rules for posted workers, we guaranteed that workers receive the same rights and the same pay for the same work at the same workplace. By putting an end to the abuse of posted workers, who often had to endure outrageous living conditions and only received a pittance, we also put an end to social dumping. Now, co-workers can be colleagues again, rather than competitors. Yet, we are still waiting for governments to finally get serious about social security coordination. With a single market and labor mobility comes the duty to ensure that the 14 million citizens living or working in another EU country are sufficiently covered and protected by social security systems, including unemployment benefits, long-term and family benefits.
We also say it out loud: work must pay. One in ten Europeans does not earn enough to make ends meet according to Eurostat. Even though they work a tough 40-hour week or more, they can’t pay their rent, their food and energy bills. With prices skyrocketing, many Europeans cannot take a decent standard of living for granted. We are talking about the very people who keep our societies afloat: supermarket cashiers and shelf-stackers, cooks and waiters, lorry drivers and care workers, farm hands and kindergarten teachers. They neither get the respect nor the pay they deserve.
The directive on Adequate Minimum Wages will finally end the scandal of in-work poverty. At one go, we are strengthening collective bargaining as the best way to guarantee decent working conditions throughout Europe. Europe’s misguided recipe of lowering wages and breaking up sectoral collective agreements hurts people. It is time for change and we are leading the charge to make it happen: wages must go up and workers’ bargaining power grow.
Minimum wages should function as a threshold of decency. Setting them at an adequate level only works when taking into account the cost of living. Fair minimum wages will also help narrow the gender pay gap and fight inequality. The main mechanism through which inequality upsets growth is by undermining education opportunities for children from poorer families, lowering their social mobility, making them less productive and earning them lower wages, according to the OECD. We must break the vicious circle of poverty breeding poverty — by ensuring all Europeans earn decent wages that empower them to afford a home, healthy food and a good education for their children. Additionally, we also need sufficient standards for minimum income in the EU. Equality at work will make many children happier and our societies better off in every sense.
This is the fight of our times: progress cannot go hand-in-hand with rising inequalities. The citizens of Europe have been crying out for change for years now. We, the Progressives, we hear their roar.