The COVID-19 pandemic killed more than a million people across the world and presents an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work.
Nearly half of the 3.3 billion people who make up the global workforce is at risk of losing their jobs, while tens of millions of people have fallen or may fall into poverty. Often the first to lose their jobs are those whose employment was already precarious – sales people, artists, cultural workers, kitchen staff, cleaners and many informal workers. It does not have to be this way. A new report by the European Environmental Bureau and the European Youth Forum, of which I was the co-author, demonstrates a prosperous future for all is well within our reach if we rethink our approach to work and employment policies.
Let’s face it, the pandemic has preyed on the pre-existing conditions afflicting our economies, unravelling the fragility and deep fault lines running through our labour markets. Long before COVID-19, the current economic system had ceased to work for most workers, let alone the environment. Many people were forced to labour under precarious conditions, without enough money in their pockets to make it to the next paycheque. The pandemic merely exacerbated these existing problems.
Besides all of this, the Earth is in the throes of climate and biodiversity crises fuelled by the overproduction and overconsumption encouraged by our constant quest for endless economic growth. This is causing enormous suffering and threatening the survival of society as we know it. However, we are not helpless. There are alternatives, positive pathways to a truly prosperous post-coronavirus future. We have the chance to build back better by breaking free of our structural dependence on GDP growth to create jobs. Decisions taken today will determine whether employment works for workers and the environment or against them.
In our report, we highlight numerous innovative policies for making work more rewarding for people while serving broader social and environmental goals. One of the most debated and popular solutions is to introduce a universal basic income. This is a government programme in which every citizen receives an amount of money which covers their basic needs. It ensures a minimum standard of living for all, and can help narrow the widening inequalities plaguing our societies.
Here, I should point out that a universal basic income is not a substitute for work but an enabler that empowers people to pursue more rewarding forms of labour, including but not limited to paid work. These can be labours of love, like spending more time with family and friends, caring for loved ones or the community, turning hobbies into professions, volunteering to do socially valuable work, or working on pet projects. Another workable and popular solution is to shorten the working week, with no reduction in pay, allowing the freed up working hours to be distributed to more workers through job-sharing schemes.
Shortening the working week not only helps stabilise our economic system by allowing more people to gain employment, but it is also good for workers. It reduces stress and the risk of burnout. It also liberates people to pursue more leisure and creative activities, allows for the redistribution of unpaid care activities, and helps increase political participation, which benefits democracy.
A shorter working week would also have a positive impact on the environment. Study after study have shown that longer working hours are accompanied by higher resource use and emissions. For example, our research suggests that if Europeans worked as many hours as Americans, they would consume at least 15 percent more energy. Cutting working hours would cut down our ecological footprint. Another way to make work more rewarding for all is to enhance democracy in the workplace. Many of us feel alienated at work because most corporations and enterprises are ruled exclusively by employers or boards selected by shareholders, leaving the voices of workers unheard. A more democratic working environment can be achieved by broadening decision-making power in the workplace to include workers and a larger group of stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, and the broader public.
Finally, governments can take it upon themselves to become the employer of last resort. This can be achieved through job guarantee schemes which ensure that everyone who is seeking employment can get a decent and suitable job. Such schemes can be used to create jobs that can help our societies and nature to flourish.
For example, the shortfall in the care sector exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic can be plugged through job guarantee schemes. They could also support and expand the arts and culture, two sectors which are on the brink of catastrophe due to years of underspending worsened by the coronavirus crisis. Job guarantees can also generate work in nature protection, conservation and restoration.
There is no generic solution for all economies, sectors and societies, so governments will need to experiment with different blends of these policies to find which work best. However, the coronavirus crisis and the climate and biodiversity emergencies have made one thing abundantly clear – we cannot continue with business as usual when it comes to employment and economic growth. The time has come for us to focus on the things that matter: ensuring everyone’s wellbeing and providing people with meaningful pursuits in life. This should become our new normal.