As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, SIPTU researcher and author of the Notes on the Front political economy blog, Michael Taft, considers the opportunity to consolidate new social and economic practices.
During the pandemic we witnessed popular responses to the public health crisis. Networks of aid and assistance across communities, innovative ways of doing business and free provision of vital public services emerged. In the face of unknown danger, collective effort overcame civic helplessness. How can we embed these positives into new social and economic practices coming out of the pandemic?
First, we gained an appreciation of the essential supply chains of the economy: retail and food delivery, sanitation workers, cleaning and hospital catering, health and carers, and so many more. The problem is that most people working in these sectors suffer low pay and precarious working conditions.
Ireland has one of the highest levels of low pay and wage inequality in the EU. Addressing this issue is not just a matter of urgent social justice. It is an economic imperative. Low pay and precarious working conditions impose a high price in the form of depressed tax revenue, increased public subsidies and reduced consumer demand.
Coming out of the pandemic we must ensure everyone has access to meaningful, quality employment – at the very least a living wage, standardised contracts, and a voice in the workplace. Raising everyone above the threshold of decency benefits everyone because everyone, directly or indirectly, subsidises low-road employment. Quality employment strengthens the social networks in which we all participate.
Second, we experienced enhanced security during the pandemic through the provision of Covid-19 free health care (vaccinations, hospital care) along with increased unemployment and illness supports. This promoted social buy-in. People felt they were treated equally, and their living standards supported (for the most part).
This security should become the governing principle going forward. It enhances economic and social productivity. Surveys consistently show that workplace stress revolves around two major issues: ‘will I have enough income for my family if I become long-term ill’, and ‘will I have enough income in retirement’?
Let’s free people from these and other debilitating anxieties through full wage payments for those out sick from work; enhanced family supports (in many EU countries women on maternity leave receive 100 per cent of their previous wage); pay-related unemployment benefits and pension payments that not only keep people out of poverty (one-in-seven elderly people living on their own suffer multiple deprivation experiences) but also provide life-quality for all in retirement. Other European countries offer these supports. So can we.
Finally, we need to capture that workplace and community innovation which animated popular responses to the pandemic. For employees, this means greater participation in the decision-making processes of the firm. The first indispensable step is to grant workers the right to bargain collectively with their employers. Giving people influence over their work contracts opens the door to wider participation: for instance, employee-participation programmes – which have been proven to boost business performance and productivity. We can experiment with deepening workplace democracy through enterprise/works councils, employee-elected directors, and co-management. This can unleash a new wave of innovation, building on the skills and experience of those who actually produce the goods and services: the workers.
Low pay, insecure living conditions and participation exclusion exacts a high cost on all of us. And our current models – the same models that failed to predict the financial crash and struggle to incorporate climate change impacts – will be of little help. We urgently need a new understanding of how macroeconomic, workplace and community networks interact that can provide us with new tools for potentially difficult times. As the economist, Mark Blyth noted: “There is no normal to return to… there are now only unknown and unfamiliar alternative futures that we can choose from.”
If we base our new policy frameworks on equality, security and participation, we can not only meet these alternatives. We can actively create them.