By Imtiaz Patel
As the EU election draw closer, workers across Europe are demanding higher pay.
The recent strikes and unrest in France shows just how strong the pressure is growing for workers to win a decent wage. In fact, recently, a press report came out suggesting that French workers have become more than just angry about the recent rises in minimum wages.
In response, on Friday September 14, French workers took to the streets, hundreds of thousands of them, to demand higher wages, better conditions and the right to form a trade union.
In Italy, unions as well as workers have the right to form a trade union – a right not enjoyed in many other countries in Europe. Yet unions there are as busy as French workers in organizing strikes. Unions have recently called for strikes in 50 towns. In Germany, while wages have risen, some have argued that it has gone too far.
In Poland and the Czech Republic, demands to improve the state of work remain prominent. Even those countries with a higher minimum wage, like Poland, are having to grapple with increasing demand for more protection in terms of non-compulsory national training, child rights, flexible work hours and now even pregnancy and maternity pay.
As I explained last year, as we move away from “bloc economics”, where increasing the minimum wage is a path of least resistance, for all workers across Europe, the need for higher pay will intensify. By 2020, for example, it is expected that some 1.2 million people in Spain will need to work until 80-years-old, due to a lack of workforce growth. There will also be more and more of us at the lower end of the pay scale in order to maintain economic growth and political stability.
Furthermore, with demographic shifts in many countries leaving us with a shrinking working age population, some of us will never reach the level at which we can earn a wage with which we can afford to live.
As a result, the number of workers in low-paying jobs, like cleaning, hospital and retail are set to rise. At the same time, rising power, wealth and household incomes among young people and families in the upper middle classes are sending a clear message that their expectations are rising.
These wider forces of redistribution and demographics are creating the conditions for what is becoming a “race to the bottom”. That is, countries who can attract young, healthy workers on lower incomes will be able to weather the storm better than countries that can’t, where inequality is much higher.
It’s a fact that the most rewarding jobs are currently the ones with the lowest wages. The number of jobs that carry a pay packet that is above €9,000 has fallen to just 28.5 per cent. The number of the jobs that pay below €8,000 and all the way down to €2,000 has increased from 62 per cent in 2012 to 78 per cent.
When it comes to minimum wage increases, whether for workers in EU countries like Austria, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden, or for workers in emerging economies like India, China, Brazil and Indonesia or Kenya, Brazil and Bangladesh, employers will have the political might and resources to resist.
While the European Commission is providing assistance for these workers, they can learn a lot from global developments in Asia. In Taiwan, for example, after government pressure to increase its minimum wage three times, workers won twice as much in the final proposal. And workers in South Korea persuaded the government to raise the minimum wage six times – with no concessions.
As the European Commission moves to define further concrete steps towards closing the employment skills gap in Europe, it can’t go it alone. Workers across Europe are now demanding more from their employers. More money, better jobs, more rights and above all decent living standards. If the EU wants to make it easier for its residents to go abroad for better jobs, it needs to make its employers look outwards for labor. It needs to listen to workers, resolve to solve Europe’s employment skills and uneven inequalities and act on it.
Imtiaz Patel is an Assistant Lecturer in Labor Practice at Chatham House. He has previously worked at the G20 Development Centre and with the British Overseas Territories of Ascension, Bermuda, Dominica, and St. Kitts and Nevis.