British MEP: Young people are often forced into precarious work

(L-R) Antonio Tajani, European Parliament President, Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President, and Estonia's Prime Minister Jüri Ratas holding the European Pillar of social rights as they attend the EU Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg, Sweden, 17 November 2017. [EPA-EFE/JONAS EKSTROEMER]

Deep cuts to public finances were not necessarily needed after 2007-2008’s financial crisis in order to rebuild the economy, according to British Labour politician Sion Simon, who spoke to EURACTIV Czech Republic’s media partner,

Sion Simon is a British MEP for the Social Democratic Labour Party.

He spoke with Radim Klekner of EURACTIV’s media partner Aktuálně.cz on the sidelines of a visit to the EU Parliamentary Committee on Labour Market and Social Affairs in the Czech Republic.

Didn’t the EU’s Pillar of Social Rights proclaimed at the Gothenburg Summit in November 2017 come a little too late?

It is indeed high time for Europe to break away from the failed ideology of austerity that has shattered our socio-economic models. In my opinion, this would have had to happen a long time ago. But I am encouraged by this new commitment to an economic and social model in which social rights are proportionate to economic freedoms.

Wasn’t the European Pillar of Social Rights primarily the EU’s response to the global financial crisis of 2007-2008?

The EU’s response to the global financial crisis has been unsatisfactory and flawed, not only because of the difficulty of finding an international response to the financial crisis, but also because of the false assumption that deep and sustained cuts in public finances are needed to restore the economy. As always, this catalyzed demand from the private sector, which in turn eroded workers’ rights.

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There is another problem, the European Pillar of Social Rights is not legally binding and the member states are not obliged to abide by it…

Yes that is a problem. But the European Pillar of Social Rights is still a start.

Since 2012-2013, unemployment as well as youth unemployment have fallen sharply across the EU, from an average of 25% to 15% today. There are obviously other driving forces than the European Pillar of Social Rights to solve this problem…

Of course, the decline in youth unemployment in the EU is to be welcomed. But it is still catastrophically high. The likelihood of young people neither working nor being in vocational training or at school is higher than in previous generations.

Those who work are much more likely to work without a guaranteed working hours, in voluntary part-time jobs, forced into a fictitious self-employment or undergo an internship in which the work of a full-time employee must be exercised.

Trade unions play a role in educating and dealing with young people. The young people need to be better informed about their rights. It is therefore important that unions adapt to become more relevant to today’s modern labour market. This is particularly the case with regard to young workers, who often see little sense in joining a union.

The Czech Republic is one of the member states that does not seem particularly willing to adhere to European values, including social rights. Is there not a danger that these member states will be forced into a peripheral position within the EU on the British model?

Both, national governments and the European Union must be careful not to alienate their citizens [from political leaderships]. The sluggish recovery following the global economic crash, combined with the failure of austerity, has provoked resentment and disillusionment. Many citizens feel disappointed by their governments.

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Under the Social Pillar, the EU is in danger of further unsettling citizens by making promises they cannot deliver. The success of the European Pillar of Social Rights requires the member states to bring about the change that workers need.

It will take a long time to rebuild citizens’ trust, but this is crucial if the EU is to survive.

In the last quarter of 2017, unemployment in the UK grew  for the first time since the Brexit vote, mainly due to an increase in youth unemployment. The forecasts show another, albeit not dramatic, rise. Do you see this as one of the consequences of the Brexit vote?

The Tory government often refers to low unemployment in the UK and sells it as a success. But other basic statistics, such as stagnant wages and productivity, show the true failure of this government’s economic logic. This focus on a low-wage economy rather than proper investment in skills and education, as well as in the much-neglected transport and communications networks, is extremely ruthless and cynical.

The UK will leave the EU with one of the block’s lowest GDP growth rates. The badly worked out and extremely harmful Tory Brexit policy will unfortunately provide for it.

So you expect British citizens to suffer the most if the UK leaves the EU without a mutually acceptable agreement?

Yes absolutely. A failure of Theresa May will severely curtail opportunities for young people and put the United Kingdom back in time when the opportunities to work abroad were limited to the rich.

As a member of the European Parliament you regularly support initiatives to promote the employment of young people. What are the most effective tools to help this group?

We need to encourage more and better apprenticeships and internships, encourage young people to be hired full-time with guaranteed working hours, and tackle age-related discrimination.

Too often, young people are forced to accept precarious employment contracts – many with short-term fixed-term contracts for low wages and little opportunity for promotion. Regardless of their age, they should not only be able to earn enough to survive but also live well.

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Great Britain is one of the EU member states with the most employment contracts without guaranteed working hours. McDonalds, for example, employs more than a million people with such contracts in the UK …

Correctly. These so-called zero-hour contracts significantly weaken the negotiating position of the workers. And they literally empower the bosses to decide if a worker will have working hours and thus a wage. While this type of contract may be appropriate for some people, too many employers take it as a standard rather than an exception.

Zero-hour contracts are often associated with unpaid overtime. How does it work – and how is it possible?

More and more employees are being asked to work beyond their contracted working hours. In the context of the “zero-hour system”, there is an additional danger: if you as a worker disagree with unpaid overtime, you may end up allotting it for less paid working hours.

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