"The preservation of workers' rights must be top priority in any strategy for recovery and reconstruction in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, with solidarity as its guiding principle. Safeguarding of quality employment, workers' protection and social recovery should be on an equal footing with economic concerns, as a prerequisite for a sustainable social, environmental and economic model," stressed Oliver Röpke, President of the Workers' Group, during his opening speech at the Workers' Group extraordinary meeting on 24 November 2020.
The meeting was attended by key personalities including Ana Mendes Godinho, Portuguese Minister of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, in charge of the green deal, Aurore Lalucq, S&D MEP and member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, Jonás Fernández, S&D MEP and Coordinator of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, and Colin Crouch, professor emeritus of the University of Warwick.
The morning debate focused on social challenges faced by the European Union, discussing the importance of the Social Pillar, workers' participation and social dialogue in the recovery.
Cinzia del Rio, Vice-President of the EESC's section for social affairs, highlighted the need to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights within the recovery plan, to address as a priority the extremely negative impact of the pandemic on working conditions and the growing poverty and inequality as a result.
Ana Mendes Godinho, Portuguese Minister of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security, insisted that the persistence of poverty and unemployment required European solutions: the unprecedented dimension of the pandemic made it impossible for one country to address the enormous challenges alone. She also stressed that social dialogue was crucial to ensure that the instruments for recovery were effective but also fair and inclusive. She reiterated the need for a European social commitment that recognised the importance of the social model as a key factor for the success of the green and digital transition.
The afternoon panel on economic challenges dealt particularly with the questions of rising inequality, redistribution, and the different tools for convergence in the reconstruction plan, with particular stress on taxation and the issue of EU own resources.
Stefano Palmieri, President of the EESC's section for economic affairs, opened the debate by underlining the need to ensure the involvement of the social partners in the drawing up of the national plans to implement the measures of the EU instrument for recovery and resilience. He addressed key questions such as the importance of qualified majority voting in tax matters within the European Council and the need for the requalification of European workers' skills to support the green and digital transition.
Jonás Fernández, S&D MEP and Coordinator of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, pointed out that not all Member States would be able to rely on the same fiscal margin to face the recovery phase. To make the quantum leap, it was necessary for the EU to have own resources; countries who had blocked this in the past would have to rely on themselves to repay their own debt, if they continued this blockage.
Aurore Lalucq, S&D MEP and member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, urged for flexibility from a macroeconomic perspective and for concrete proposals to address extreme COVID-19 repercussions such as massive unemployment affecting particularly young people, the devastation of entire economic sectors and the huge public debt. She underlined the urgency to preserve the Union's productive activity and called for a strong budget, innovative monetary policies and the focus on tax issues to shape the economy in a way that met citizens' expectations.
Colin Crouch, professor emeritus of the University of Warwick, pointed out that the unprecedented crisis had raised public awareness for low income and personal services workers. Therefore, restoring this inequality should be top priority on agenda of reconstruction. In this sense, he also highlighted the importance to rethink how businesses are taxed, so that employment itself is not the only focus just because is the easiest to trace. He urged the EU to take into account regional inequalities that arose from the relocation of advanced industries and services to well-connected areas leaving behind them depressed areas that were exposed to the danger of populism.
The final panel on environmental challenges discussed the social side and possibilities of the green deal, focusing on the need to make the transition not only sustainable but also fair.
During the debate on the environmental challenges, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, stressed that the green deal goals involving the gradual transition to climate neutrality would only be successful if they had the support of the citizens. Therefore, it was important to make sure that the green transition left no one behind – this was not just a political statement, but an essential element of the green deal. The green deal required for people to make an important investment to transform our society; for workers, the skills were not going to be the same in the future. Huge reskilling efforts would be needed across the EU to give workers the optimism to look for better jobs in future. Furthermore, helping regions most affected to make that transformation had to be top priority.
Peter Schmidt, President of the EESC's section on agricultural affairs, stressed that the pandemic offered the opportunity to forge a climate-friendly, sustainable and equal society. He urged for the green deal to incorporate the social dimension as a priority to ensure a socially just transition and called for investing significant resources to make it a success. Involving the EESC and trade unions in the process would be crucial.
For Lucie Studničná, Gr II Vice-President, the Recovery and Resilience Facility within NextGenerationEU was urgently needed to help regions heavily relying on coal, by opening up jobs and providing prospects for workers there. The aim of the green deal should be to transform industries while safeguarding decent working conditions and collective bargaining systems and allowing for workers to have their say.
In fact, the need to guarantee higher standards of worker involvement in these restructuring processes and decisions that were directly affecting workers' interests, was stressed repeatedly by the Workers' Group members during the debate. The green deal was above all a social process in which workers, who can be also regarded as investors in their workplaces, should have their say.
The Presidency of the Workers’ Group will gather all the input from the members and guest speakers in order to define and update the Group’s priorities, for the next five years and beyond, touching upon crucial issues of concern for the EU and its citizens, such as the growing poverty and inequality, working conditions and industrial relations, social dialogue, sustainability, fair transition and others.