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let’s debunk the headlines and fight for equality
By Irena Ioannou
In a discussion with Swedish friends recently, they confided in me that they were facing serious problems finding a job in their country. They are highly-educated locals, and, even after years of studies, they are unable to get any kind of employment outside of waiting tables or looking after toddlers.
Sweden, it seems, is not the exception. Employment opportunities—for young and old people alike—are equally scarce in many so-called rich European countries, and the coronavirus is not to blame. This had been happening long before Covid-19 hit the economy.
Though troubling, this should not be a surprise. These times during which prominent tabloid and rightwing media outlets dedicate most of their time to Trump’s, or Giuliani’s, hair dye and deniers of Covid-19 pose as a useful distraction which governments use to pass bills about flexible employment forms and to dismantle state support for those in need.
Here are some common headlines in tabloid media that need rethinking:
Immigrants are flooding our countries
This is a common theme playing out on news lately here in Greece that stresses the soaring numbers of immigrants ready to enter our country. This news is usually accompanied with concerns regarding their integration. People appear troubled and the states eager to find a solution. Many European countries have long managed the entry of immigrants by offering them temporary contracts. These postings with fixed starts and ends usually relate to low-paid seasonal jobs, after the end of which the workers can no longer stay in the country, or have any claim on it.
Such forms of human exploitation affect the local population too. In Sweden, construction companies have started outsourcing their projects to foreign subcontractors who are responsible of seeing these works through, no questions asked. They bring workers from other countries, pay them and house them, and in the end discard them once their job is done. Nobody asks how someone who is getting paid minimum wage and has no permanent residency can live in Sweden. Or how their low wages affect locals’ employment opportunities and their subsequent salary. Somewhere along the line, hand-in-hand with our humanity, the message gets lost that by not standing up for other workers’ rights we are jeopardizing our own future employment.
Freelance is Freedom
Temporary contracts are not the only non-standard form of employment which is thriving. Part-time jobs and self-employment are also on the rise. As usual, they tend to reproduce the already existent unequal power relations. The numbers, for instance, show that EU as a whole has twice as many involuntary female part-timers as male. Additionally, not even rich countries can avoid the pressure to turn to non-standard employment. In the Netherlands and Germany, for example, people link their decision to turn to self-employment with the lack of other options, while some also cite their employer’s will. It is their employer who urged them to turn to self-employment and not their informed choice.
This happens as the unions’ power decreases. The numbers of union members who are employed has been falling since the early 1980s which has also been linked to the strengthening of non-standard forms of employment. People today are urged to become independent and carry their fate in their own hands and are ultimately left to negotiate with their employer on their own, which diminishes their bargaining capacity. Nobody wants to be left without stable employment in times of crises, and there are always worse-off scenarios to look at and cringe, the media are here to remind us. Ultimately, we are left with the feeling that uncertainty is increasing, and the future looks bleak, but things could be much worse, and we should be grateful.
No need for minimum wage
Another piece of news that hasn’t received much attention amid corona and the Trump mayhem is that on the 28th of October Commissioner Nicolas Schmit stated that introducing the same minimum wage for all EU countries would be unproductive. Regarding this complex issue, the Commissioner asserted that if the same minimum wage was introduced, “people [in poorer countries] would not have the incentive to get new skills”. That statement is problematic in many ways, but perhaps what could be stressed is that funnily enough, 65% of companies who outsource do so in Europe. Some of the reasons cited are the quality of education, English proficiency and the cultural similarities of the Europeans as opposed to citizens of non-European countries. Bottom line, companies leave richer countries and flee to eastern European ones because they get the same quality of employee with less money. If the mountain does not come to you, you go to the mountain. In the end, we are left to wonder who the unequal minimum wage narrative really benefits.
When tabloid and rightwing media and nationalistic voices stress people’s differences we should get suspicious. They may lead us to think of foreigners as unequal. Which in turn may make us indifferent to their problems. Many people’s wealth is built on these stereotypes and, in the meantime, highly-paid jobs are difficult to find.
Perhaps we should start thinking more about what we are all facing around the world: limited employment options, lower incomes, uncertain futures, reduced government support. The cracks in a profit-before-people based system were there before the pandemic. Instead of closing our borders off and turning on those less fortunate than us maybe we should start focusing on how the gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us continues to widen and work towards closing it.
Irena Ioannou writes from Crete, Greece and her work has recently appeared in Crannóg and Betty Fedora. She is currently working on her first novel. She is a mother of five.