The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on employment, families, society and social protection

An International Seminar was held from October 7th - 10th, 2021 in Valongo, in the District of Porto. It was held in a mixed format, with significant on-site participants, plus some speakers and participants on-line, through Zoom. The Seminar was promoted and organized by the Catholic Workers' League/Christian Workers Movement (LOC/MTC), with the financial support of EZA (European Centre for Workers' Affairs), and of the European Union (EU), on the topic: “The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on employment, families, society and social protection”. It counted on the participation of representatives of workers’ organisations from Portugal, Germany, Spain, Slovakia and France.

The opening session counted on the participation of D. Manuel Linda, Bishop of Porto who presided over the session; Engineer Ana Maria Rodrigues, Deputy-Mayor of the Town Council of Valongo; Américo Monteiro, National Coordinator of LOC/MTC; and Maria Reina, Board member of EZA. They thanked for having chosen Valongo, and praised the topic under discussion. From the interventions, we highlight the concern that it is not yet possible to accurately predict the true consequences of this pandemic; and that the pandemic was not experienced or suffered by everyone in the same way, but everyone had to make many changes in their daily lives, which brought about much suffering and problems, both at personal and social level. It was and still is much harder for the most vulnerable. The increased poverty of the most disadvantaged, including loss of jobs and income, unemployment, domestic violence, anguish, insecurity, worsening of mental health, which were, and still are quite striking. Bishop D. Manuel Linda said that young people were and are the social group that suffers the most, and we are witnessing the difficulties of many youngsters struggling to find a job, and when they do find a job, it is in unworthy conditions, where they have to work for long hours and with low wages. Society knew how to find some answers in record time, which if it hadn't been so, the consequences would have been much more dramatic and with much greater suffering.” He also stressed that,  “you are a Christian Workers Movement, do not lose that identity.”

In the other sessions the speakers were: Nuno Nunes, University Professor and Researcher at ISCTE-CIES-IUL (University Institute of Lisbon); Diana Salgado, participant in the “CO2 of Inequalities” village of Francisco's economy, and Professor Américo Mendes, from the Catholic University of Porto (UCP); Professor Maria Clara Murteira, from the School of Economics of the University of Coimbra (FEUC); and José Luís Molina García, from the Hermandad Obrera de Acción Católica (HOAC), from Spain.

In the first session, moderated by Rui Lavoura, national treasurer of LOC/MTC, on the  “Impact on employment, and on labour relationships and forms. On social dialogue and its implications in Portugal and Europe. Its meaning in the lives of workers and their families,” Nuno Nunes, developed a broad reflection on work in the present times, and the challenges facing the various social actors. 

The decent work agenda must include the debate on the future of work, as this debate is being subverted by a logic of technological determinism, in which the great premises of economic and political orientation may subordinate the well-being of workers. So, there is a social conflict and some issues of social dynamics around this matter, which could put this realization at risk. Therefore, we have to be attentive, because it is of no use for workers to be left with an abstraction, and that the agenda of decent work is not implemented.

We need to consolidate those political agendas that give centrality to work, in a constant struggle. We are being permanently distracted by agendas that ignore work, and this cannot happen, as we have to maintain the centrality of work, and this is absolutely critical for the development of societies. Therefore, social dialogue, and the idea of transformation based on work, must be present in these places where agendas compete with each other.

In the second session, moderated by Olinda Marques, President of the Movement of Christian Workers of Europe (MTCE) and leader of LOC/MTC in the Diocese of Coimbra, Professor Américo Mendes and Diana Salgado developed the topic “Economic and social consequences for the future of work, its valuation and the fair distribution of wealth.” The pandemic has intensified the transformations that were already happening. The first one, is a trend that has been going on for some time, of the reorganization of production processes and economic activities in terms of production and distribution chains on a world scale. Each piece of the final product tends to be manufactured in a different place of the world, according to the best economic conditions. This is possible as a result of the 3rd and 4th industrial revolutions that combine technology to, among other things, manufacture objects in smart factories, replacing tasks with human presence by artificial intelligence, linking it all into what is called the Internet of Things. This has two sides to it, on the one hand, much more is produced than before and with a greater variety of goods and services, but if it is cheaper to manufacture a given piece in another part of the world, “the tent is just dismantled here and moved over to the other side of the world, leaving behind unemployment and environmental waste.”

There is a trend towards the individualization of work, with many people working remotely. But there is yet another transformation, which is different from teleworking, called the “human cloud.” In this system, a company that needs to have some tasks performed, places them on the Internet for someone, somewhere in the world to perform them, in a contracting process by the task. In these cases, there is no worker relationship under labour legislation. The experience of Diana Salgado was also shared, as part of a project proposed by Pope Francis, based on the Encyclical Laudato Si, on a new form of a more inclusive economy, in which each person, in the place where they live, tries to make a difference, putting fraternity at the centre.

The third session, moderated by José Augusto Paixão, a leader of LOC/MTC from the Diocese of Santarém, consisted of a roundtable dedicated to: “Sharing of each country's situation; workers' gains or losses. How recovery measures are being viewed.” José Ricardo – leader of Base Fut – Workers' Unitary Front, Portugal; Filip Cerny leader of NKOS - Nezávislé kresťanské Odbory Slovenska, Slovakia; Johannes and Wilfried Wienen, leaders of KAB from Aachenn, Germany; and Paco Alamós, leader of the Hermandad Obrera de Acción Católica (HOAC), Spain were the participants of the roundtable. They shared their experiences in their countries, and the answers that were found or not, for the recovery and in order to face the challenges of the pandemic. In all cases, from the shared experiences, it was mentioned that there was a deterioration of the lives of the most vulnerable, and that the pandemic increased the existing problems and highlighted our vulnerability. Such is the case of precarious workers, mainly in the Services and Tourism sectors, who were the first to lose their jobs, their income, and in the worse working conditions. Inequalities became much more visible, namely in terms of access to digital technologies by the poorest, and many were excluded from this form of communication. We need to talk less about the poor and talk more with the poor; listen to their anxieties; ask them what can be done; and even if no immediate answers are found, we will have the strength to look for answers and not give up. We need to generate unrest and replicate the wave of solidarity, or else the loss of social rights will just keep increasing. We are responsible for everyone, for which we need a globalization of hope, which is born and grows in peoples.

In the fourth session, moderated by Américo Monteiro, Maria Clara Murteira, elaborated on the topic: “High levels of precariousness, inequalities, and of income and job insecurity — issues highlighted by the pandemic. Necessary measures at social, economic and political level in Europe to promote everyone's well-being, especially of the poorest.”  Professor Maria Clara Murteira began her speech with the sentence “The vulnerabilities that characterize the present world are systemic in nature.” Solving them requires systemic changes, which include the transformation of economic and social structures. The European Union's neoliberal policies have been making the world of labour more vulnerable. The monetary policy has been focused on controlling inflation and the stability of the Euro. If only supply strategies are left, and if such strategies just obey the primacy of competitiveness, companies compete on prices, which represents a permanent pressure on wage costs. If there are only supply strategies to relaunch jobs and growth, workers' rights and social rights start to come under pressure, and new and worse legislation appears. The critical issue is competitiveness, and labour and social rights are now subordinated to the imperative of competitiveness; they have become means to promote the efficiency of the labour market, and to promote the economies' external competitiveness

The fifth session was moderated by Maria das Neves Jesus, leader of LOC/MTC in the Diocese of Porto, and the speaker was José Luís Molina García who addressed the topic: How to put the individual at the centre, with dignity, in the employment, social and economic organization model, taking advantage of the clear lesson from this pandemic?

He developed his reflection clarifying that, within the economic system we live in, there is a temptation to look for ways out within the system itself, but he wanted to share with us another logic — the logic of the Christian perspective. The economy, which has to be an instrument at the service of human needs, has placed itself at the centre and has become an end in and of itself, and that discards people.

We are not living times of change, but in a change of times; things are not changing in the world, it's the world itself that is changing.

We have to move away from the logic of profitability to a logic of gratuity. We must rethink the economy, believing that the economy can be something different. We are not doomed to selfishness; economic growth as an indisputable dogma is not the answer. It does not respond to human needs, but only to the drive for profit. We need a new mindset!

We concluded the work with a thematic visit to the District Resources Backup Centre for patients with Covid-19, to see the difficulties encountered in the reception and treatment of patients with Covid-19, and the resulting scars in the health of patients who survived. We had a conversation with Sónia Tereso, who helped us understand the difficulties experienced by the institution that made this space available to the Ministry of Health, and the challenges and transformations that the institution underwent during the most acute period of the pandemic.