This year’s EAPN conference offered a timely discussion of the further impacts of a continuing COVID-19 pandemic on poverty, but also looked at how the green and digital transitions of the EU will impact people at risk of social and economic exclusion in Europe. Here is our feedback from the conference and a brief report can also be found below.
EAPN President Carlos Susías opened the event by giving the context of the great suffering caused by increased inequalities due to the health crisis, with so much information known to us now. There are resources and many initiatives at EU level but the challenge and opportunity now will be to ensure social rights for and with people experiencing poverty.
Katarina Ivanković Knežević (Director of Social Affairs, European Commission) started her key-note speech with very warm words of the Commission’s support for EAPN’s work on the ground with people in poverty. She stated that all responses – to the green and digital but also demographic changes – must keep social aspects in mind. This event should feed the debate on how to use all the potential of the Action Plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) to be truly inclusive. The post-Covid society will need to allow everyone decent work and decent protection, she said. In talking about how the Pillar can be a frame for an effective and inclusive recovery, she highlighted two points: that all Member States (MS) are showing strong commitment to ensure national targets are met (to work towards the EU target of 15 million reduction) and that the Child Guarantee sets a good basis for providing children with effective and free access to services, with monitoring and financial measures. The EU platform on homelessness should set an ambitious goal with partners to eradicate homelessness.
Annoula Magga, a person with direct experience of poverty and Vice-President of EAPN Greece representing 370 Roma families then gave a reality check of the impact of Covid on this community: They have no way to work from home as they are effectively homeless with no electricity let alone internet. Good nutrition and hygiene are needed to fight Covid but this is impossible for them. Access to health services and food is the most important thing therefore and they had to rely on food banks. “We are afraid of a 4th wave. We are talking about daily survival. Poverty is one thing, but it’s another thing to have nothing to feed your kids.”
The Social Consequences of the Crisis
The first panel then gave their insights into the social consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. Maria Jepsen of Eurofound presented first the results of their survey on the EU population which showed 3 key impacts: older people’s health; younger people’s employment, education and isolation, and women’s employment situation with adverse work-life balance for mothers of small children. Access to continued unemployment has been key to preventing financial fragility. The young feel optimistic about the future however, so there is reason for hope if the recovery and climate transition can be based on trust and consensus.
Maciej Kucharczyk of AGE Platform Europe raised the persisting issue of the digital divide meaning that older people can be left behind in the process of digitalisation. He said we should always refer to human rights which do not diminish with age and regretted that the Social Summit in Porto showed little commitment to older people. The gender pension gap is still at 30% and some countries’ life expectancy rates fell back to what they were a decade ago.
Freek Spinnewijn of FEANTSA, pointed out that homelessness massively increased in the pre-Covid era and public health measures prompted by Covid actually meant some temporary solutions could be quickly found and feared infection rates did not rocket. Worries for the future however include the housing affordability crisis; long-terms effects for people with precarious work and the increase of rent arrears with the halt on evictions being lifted in some countries.
Eurochild’s Ally Dunhill highlighted that children are the most affected by the pandemic and will be affected the longest. Social inequalities impacting mental health, loss of meals, inadequate housing, violence and education and digital divides are very real problems for children. As such they welcomed the Child Guarantee but warn that much is to be done to implement it. An integrated approach is crucial and they see that children are mostly invisible in the Recovery and Resilience Plans (RRPs) they have seen. The climate discussion also rarely makes their voices heard and children must have agency.
Michele Levoy, PICUM, repeated a previous point made that Covid reinforced existing inequalities and this is acutely true for undocumented migrants working in underregulated sectors. Their main concerns when surveyed were loss of income and impossible access to health. The digital divide for children, booking appointments and inability to make cash payments heavily impacted them. Access to vaccines is largely not assured. Some countries have or plan to regularise undocumented workers which would benefit not only the people themselves but also society and economies but this should be done with clear criteria and include Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). They must be included in recovery plans, she added.
European Women’s Lobby’s Mary Collins informed us that women experience a massive backlash with Covid yet the role women have in keeping society from absolute collapse has been clearly shown. A strong gender and social impact assessment in the digital and green agendas must be integrated. Gender budgeting is one way forward. Investment should be made in the IT sector to fight the huge gender divide there, and the green deal should be complemented by a ‘care deal’ to compensate carers and those excluded from the system taking a life-cycle approach.
After this wealth of input, Commission representative Jiri Svarc concurred with previous findings which support their partial evidence that there will be a significant rise in inequalities and certain groups more affected. The response has been massive at EU level in terms of resources in the new budget framework and new instruments of the Next Generation EU, he said. They have taken the lack of CSO-consultation in the Member States very seriously and will have much work assessing programmes and negotiating. Employment recommendations are key to make sure that it is adequate for decent living. The Commission is working on the proposal for a Council Recommendation on minimum income which will contribute to a more inclusive recovery through less income inequalities and more quality employment. An EU report on access to essential services will also be presented in 2022. The Commission is furthermore working on a guidance for distributional impact assessment to ensure that the ongoing labour market transitions will be fair and socially sustainable.
For Dennis Radtke, MEP, the EU can and must support this fight against poverty, despite MSs being in the front row. The EP is debating right now how to fight in-work poverty. Minimum Wages must be set by collective agreement but the coverage rate for collective agreements is declining in many MSs and political action must be taken. They look forward to Commission proposals on ensuring people in platform work get minimum social security.
The Social Dimension of the Recovery and Transitions
The 2nd panel then heard from the Slovenian presidency, the UN, the Commission’s European Semester unit and ourselves, on the social dimension of the recovery and transitions.
Valentina Vehovar, Director General in the Slovenian Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities, stated the presidency’s first priority to be quality work with flexible arrangements and adequate wages; then a resilient society based on equal opportunity for all children to fully participate in society.
UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Olivier De Schutter made the salient point that if you have more inequalities, more resources are needed and there is more tension between our needs and our ecological footprint. “If there are less inequalities, we will need less growth to eradicate poverty.” We need to revalue work based on social value, recognise unpaid work and fund public services including childcare. Apart from the Minimum Wages directive, Child Guarantee action plans and a strong Council Recommendation on Minimum Income, we must transform the European Semester into a tool for social justice, with a new social-imbalances alert mechanism, he said.
The Commission’s Federico Lucidi stated that the social dimension has gained in importance since 2018 through the Social Scoreboard and a common approach aimed at identifying the main challenges in the annual Joint Employment Report. 2022’s Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy will set the framework for the new Semester based on the implementation of RRPs and the revised social scoreboard which will be further implemented in the monitoring mechanism of the Semester.
Graciela Malgesini, Co-Chair of our EU Inclusion Strategies Group then presented EAPN’s view on poverty since last year’s work done on the Covid impact, stating that the multidimensional nature of poverty is ever clearer to us – see her presentation here. “Any society with high levels of poverty is not only unjust, unequal and unethical, it is also unhealthy and weak in the face of crises”. It cannot be addressed by simplistic measures, but requires political commitment (and therefore hard legislation) to a strategic approach, with overall targets, cross-cutting measures, and an adequate economic investment to revert the above-mentioned inequalities:
Helder Ferreira, EAPN Interim Director, concluded the conference by saying that we have learnt many lessons during the pandemic – out of the consequences of past choices on what work to value and which systems to strengthen, and first-hand experience of one of the new agendas – digitalisation. The EPSR and all initiatives and assessment tools mentioned above are important but all deal with specific angles and what is missing is the strategy to integrate all these responses into an effective fight against poverty. We have a chance now to pursue necessary social goals and to rethink our long-term social and economic governance.
President Carlos Susías ended the conference by saying that this is our mission to work on together. This conference helped us to be better prepared and equipped for this mission!
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This event received financial support from the European Union Programme for Employment and Social Innovation “EaSI” (2021-2027), under the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+). For further information please consult: https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1081.