Quality work for a quality life

On 11 October, I attended the ‘Quality Work for a Quality Life’ conference. Given all the focus on how work is fundamentally changing due to COVID, the topic was a no-brainer for the Slovenian Presidency, though they added a much welcome focus on ageing and the workplace. Representatives from the European Commission, labour ministries, trade unions, businesses, International Labour Organization, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and academia looked at the good and the bad of the changes wrought by COVID.

Everyone agreed that COVID had made some workplaces more flexible and on the need to create even more flexibility in the future. I told stories about Silvia, a full-time mother of two and worker who struggled to balance her work and life until she agreed to more flexible working arrangements with her employer; and Simon, a worker with health issues who also faced challenges working from home but who was supported by his employer to continue in his job with some slight changes. These are normal people, normal stories.

Many of the speakers highlighted the uneven impact of COVID on work. Esther Lynch of the European Trade Union Confederation called it “A Tale of Two COVIDs”. Some people who had jobs that could go online enjoyed working from home, while others didn’t take to working from home, were surveilled by their employers and worked much longer hours. People in sectors like tourism and hospitality with often low paid workers, that couldn’t move online were out of work but were shielded from the immediate impact by social protection systems, aided by the EU’s SURE programme. Some are now rethinking careers in jobs with precarious working conditions and low pay, but they and the rest of Europe now know the benefit of a proper social safety net for people who cannot work or cannot find a job.

To show how our members were helping to bridge the digital divide, I told some more stories about work integration social enterprises like COORACE, ABZ Austria and Arbeit Plus who went digital to help the individuals they work with continue to upskill during COVID. We were also reminded that moving everything online is not a viable solution for everyone, like those who need in-person support or don’t have access to the internet.

Transitioning to quality jobs

There was much talk about how the twin transitions – digitalisation and the move to a carbon-free economy – would impact the world of work. Creating green and digital jobs and upskilling those who will lose their jobs are themes that are likely to feature prominently in the forthcoming European Council Recommendation on the social impact of the green transition and the Social Economy Action Plan. Social service providers and social economy enterprises are experts in upskilling and the kind of social entrepreneurship that will be needed to help those in vulnerable situations reap the benefits of greener or digital jobs.

Ultimately quality work isn’t just about working conditions, it’s also about feeling valued at work. You can’t feel valued if you earn less than a living wage or are paid less than your co-workers for the same job, like many women across Europe. I made sure to call for systemic solutions like adopting a minimum wage directive and for the pay transparency directive to be rolled out across the EU. A social Europe that’s resilient to future crises has no space for jobs that don’t give people decent living conditions and dignity.