Miller. Smith. Webster. Some of the most popular surnames found in different European languages and across Europe date back to the Middle Ages or even earlier. At that time, a person’s job was such an important characteristic that it became literally a civic identity. Today, our jobs do not define anymore our surnames, but they often are still a major part of our identities. And when meeting someone new, one of the first things we ask is: “What do you do for a living?”.
More than 5 million people in the EU do not have an answer to this question. Merely labelled as "long-term unemployed" in statistical terms, they have been looking for a job for more than a year. Many of them have lost an essential part of their identity in a downward spiral of desperation, fear and anger because the longer they stay outside the labour market, the more they become invisible in their local communities. Although all Member States are confronted with long-term unemployment, there has been no European initiative to combat it since a 2016 Council Recommendation.
The situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and it is likely to further worsen as the digital and green transitions disrupt our traditional labour markets. An important element of the social cohesion of our communities is at stake. How can we give back hope and life prospects to the "faceless 5 million"?
Stopping the downward spiral
Making sure that everyone has a decent job has always been a major political battle of the socialist family and is firmly anchored in the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights.
As Socialists, we call for prompt action at European level and a paradigm shift that puts people back at the very centre of political action. Dutch Socialist MEP Agnes Jongerius, who is coordinating the work of the S&D Group in the European Parliament's Employment Committee, rightly emphasises: “It is not that people are too far away from the labour market, but the other way round: the labour market is too distant from people”. This also means that there is no 'one-size-fits all recipe' to effectively tackle long-term unemployment. We need to look at the local context which, at the same time, can best benefit from high-quality employment of the many.
Cities, the true laboratories of sustainable job creation
Here the role of cities, which have the most direct link with citizens, comes into play in the unfolding drama of long-term unemployment. By promoting innovative projects targeted to specific local contexts, local authorities can bring back to work the long-term unemployed. There are many inspiring initiatives already experimented in progressive cities that clearly prove their effectiveness in helping those who, despite their efforts, are unable to find employment. “These persons are often in a complex situation because, being deprived by your job means also being deprived by social links, and they were cut off from the world and somehow made invisible”, underlines Afaf Gabelotaud, Deputy Mayor of Paris in charge of employment.
It is about coming towards people and about taking a collective responsibility for the problem. “No one is unemployable. Everyone can have a job. We need to look at the competences of people. Everyone has skills and these skills can be used to the benefit of people who have them and of their community”, argues Yonnec Polet, Deputy Mayor of Berchem-Sainte-Agathe (Brussels), and who is leading the debate in the European Committee of the Regions on the topic. “At the local level, social actors can best identify unmet social or environmental needs. People who are long-term unemployed are then encouraged to take part on a voluntary basis in projects set up to address those needs and they are paid at least the minimum wage.”
The zero long term unemployment zones he refers to are tested out both in big progressive cities such as Paris and Brussels or regions such as Wallonia, but also in tiny towns like Gramatneusiedl in Austria. They are great examples of bringing back people to work by creating socially valuable jobs where the market will not, by reallocating public resources usually spent on unemployment benefits and by providing for a personalised approach to labour reintegration.
Did you miss our study visit to 13Avenir @TZCLD13, a company in the zero long-term unemployed zones project?
Check out our video on how these zones are giving back jobs to people and reinforcing local communities 🤝@ZeroChomeurLD @LGRANDGUILLAUME @afafgabelotaud @jerome_coumet pic.twitter.com/WGXCYQKuql
— PES 🌹🇪🇺 (@PES_PSE) March 1, 2023
In a similar way, the State of Berlin has created the solidary basic income, a labour market programme funding over 1,000 jobs in the period 2019-2025 for people who have been unemployed from 1 to 3 years. Jobs are provided in eleven predefined areas and intend to serve the wellbeing of society and the public interest. It has the same objective of double solidarity: the unemployed receive the state minimum wage and the inhabitants of the city benefit from improved services.
If becoming unemployed often results in losing part of one's civic identity, these local projects succeed in enabling people with very diverse profiles like Klaus Meier, now working as a social taxi guide, and Nada Iraki, now a daycare centre assistant, to regain their place in their local communities.
Making the European Social Pillar work
“Employment deprivation costs more than creating additional jobs”, argues Yonnec Polet, in his opinion on "Zero long-term unemployment: the local and regional perspective", adopted at this week's European Committee of the Regions plenary session. “Local and regional authorities should therefore be empowered to put in place similar schemes based on the key principles of the "zero long-term unemployment areas" by redirecting the cost of unemployment towards the creation of decent jobs”, he emphasises. “This is why we call on the European Commission to set up an ad hoc fund to combat long-term unemployment, modelling it on the Youth Employment Initiative, initially a major PES request, and providing at least EUR 750 million in funding over five years”.
His call for prompt action is particularly important for the so-called NEETS (that is, young people not in employment, education or training) and 22% of whom are currently long-term unemployed.
Progressives at all levels of government will continue to defend the right for a decent job and thus strengthen our local communities. A true social Europe is a Europe that lets no one sink into the vertiginous spiral of long-term unemployment. The ingredients for success are social cohesion, economic solidarity, local democracy and effective public policies. The PES Social Summit, taking place tomorrow in Porto, will be the next occasion to put the Social Pillar in motion.