Focus on economy: Decent work and living in Europe – vision or reality?

Under the title “Focus on economy: Decent work and living in Europe – vision or reality?”, a seminar with 20 representatives from labour organisations from four European countries was held from 3-9 June 2018 at the Josef-Gockeln-Haus training facility in Kirchhundem-Rahrbach (Germany).

The project was planned and organised by the Katholische Arbeitnehmer-Bewegung (KAB) Deutschlands e.V. (Catholic Labour Movement of Germany). The Catholic Labour Movement Austria, Catholic Labour Movement Switzerland and the Catholic Association of Workers South Tyrol (KVW) were co-organisers of this project. The seminar was organised in cooperation with the European Centre for Workers’ Questions (EZA), with financial support from the European Union.

“This economy kills” - said Pope Francis; with this short and succinct phrase, he drew attention to the social divide and the fact that many people are excluded. The European Union is needed, and it can become a pioneer for a different kind of economy, which provides a better social balance. When we talk of degrading work, we usually think of the textile workers in Asia. But in fact, degrading work environments also exist in Europe - both with respect to workers’ rights as well as working conditions, which often make people sick - with the corresponding effects on the quality of life of those affected and their families. Urgent action is needed to make work environments more humane.

This seminar focused on humane working conditions. It analysed the correlations between economic interests and workers’ rights, as well as the increase in social upheavals in Europe. In this context, it also examined and further developed the importance of labour organisations and unions and their European collaboration, since they play an important role in securing humane working conditions and expanding social rights.

The following contents were picked up as part of a first step (analytical portion): Current developments in (the wage-earning) society, causes and social consequences of the European work crisis, and the effects on European economic and social policies. The working conditions and their effects on people’s lives were communicated using several European countries as an example, e.g. Estonia, Romania, Austria, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. (Key words in this context are, among others:  working hours, health protection, workplace safety, minimum wage, precarious employment, temporary employment, gender equality, social security, fair wages).

After this stock-taking phase, the seminar focused on the conditions of human work and developed criteria. The key labour standards defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other ILO work and social standards were introduced and discussed. The third important step involved the development of a measures and requirements catalogue for humanising the work environment for European labour organisations and unions, and their practical implementation. This is of particular relevance since unions and labour organisations play a special role in securing human working conditions in a socially just Europe.

The paragraphs from the 1949 General Declaration of Human Rights relating to the issue of “Labour” were introduced at the start. The actual work on contents began on Monday with a presentation of facts on the current development of the wage-earning society in Europe. This appraisal was examined in more depth using country dossiers and the development of wall newspapers by the participants in working groups (key words: employment contracts, working hours, wages, discrimination, collective agreements, social security); this activity highlighted the fact that there are areas in Europe where humane working conditions do not exist.

After this analytical portion, Mag. Gertraud Wiesinger from Vienna offered a detailed presentation of facts and discussed the approaches taken by the unions to implement the ILO’s key labour standards and work standards in Europe. Afterwards, the participants split up into four working groups and discussed - with regard to the topic “Minimum wage and collective agreements, working hours, social security and digitisation” - the unions’ demands and perspectives, as well as the feasibility of these approaches.

Specific examples from the clothing industry that highlight the gulf between rights and reality were introduced by Annika Salingrè. It became clear that precarious employment also exists in the European clothing industry, both in production as well as distribution. The global context and the production chain from cotton to clothing purchases were highlighted, along with consumer behaviour and the power of consumers. After that, small groups discussed the role of European labour organisations and unions in the creation of humane working conditions and developed strategic concepts. This discussion became more in-depth on the basis of interviews with passers-by and sales representatives about production conditions in the clothing industry and the development of a guide for “fair purchasing”.

Of particular importance for the participants, besides the intensive focus on the contents, was the opportunity to demonstrate the learnt material in practice using role plays and consolidating it in a political “seed tray exhibition”, thereby working through the material from their own perspective and learning new methods of political education.

At the same time, it was important to develop political opportunities for action across national borders and jointly prepare concrete action fields and steps, with the goal of providing ideas for a different solidarity-based economy with humane working conditions that does not focus solely on growth, and to further develop the networks of Christian social movements and unions in Europe and strengthen them as players in civil society. In addition to introducing new forms of action, the working groups also developed concrete projects and subsequent opportunities for action. In this context, the spectrum of public relations activities ranged from new forms of action such as flash mobs and advertising clips to national and European surveys and petitions.