The European Committee on Social Rights of the Council of Europe has just issued an important statement on COVID-19, highlighting those social rights affected by the pandemic. As expected, they prioritised the challenge of the threat to the livelihood of so many, as the unemployment figures soared in the last months across Europe.
During the last 15 months, we saw, travelling grinding to a halt, suppliers unable to ship goods, businesses directed to close doors, schooling shifted to the homes, cultural activities suspended, and the health systems overwhelmed by patients. How do you secure the social rights of the citizens in such an unprecedented level of disruption? It is already a challenge in the best of times, never mind in times of a global pandemic. No Government knew what was hitting it yet, they were expected to react.
Governments had no choice but to improvise, in order, to provide a reasonable degree of social security for all, especially for individuals and groups in vulnerable situations, while supporting workers who lost their source of income. Moreover, the small and medium sized businesses were limited in how long they could sustain their fixed costs without generating revenue. They too needed support if they were to survive the disruption.
The pandemic came in waves but equally so Government’s measures that kept being announced at regular intervals. Malta’s Government kept devising real time policies fed by the lessons learnt on the job managing the pandemic and the real needs of the people. The balancing act of keeping the people safe from the pandemic, while keeping economic activity running to ensure a stable level of employment was a hard one to follow. Nevertheless, leadership was shown and ably demonstrated.
“The pandemic came in waves but equally so Government’s measures that kept being announced at regular intervals.”
The employment policy measures were the key aspect of Government’s response to the crisis in Malta. The mix of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ labour market measures were not only conducive to preserve jobs but assisted people to improve their marketable skills. The flexible working arrangements, teleworking, up-skilling and re-skilling of workers were among the most significant measures we witnessed in the last months. It was surprising to see how the years of resistance to such measures from employers and managers disappeared over night. On the other hand, Government used so effectively the unemployment benefit and income replacements systems. Wage supplements, provision of basic income for affected families, furloughs, short-time work, parental benefits, and direct assistance to businesses were some of the measures that did not only retain a stable level of employment but despite the situation kept it at high levels.
These measures kept about 100,000 individuals and their families reasonably secured. This means that Government mitigated the hardship of about 40% of the working population. If solidarity needed a practical definition, this is as practical as it gets. The European Committee of Social Rights views investment in social rights consistent with the maximum available resources, as the main mitigating measure against the adverse effects of the crisis. Government was certainly not left wanting in this regard.
The economic indicators for the months to come are encouraging as the level of industrial investment continue unabated, consumer demand is encouraging even if temporarily arrested, while the social partners exhume positive expectations. The employment prospects appear encouraging too and coupled with an ambitious public works programme, incentives for the creation of quality jobs and investment in transitioning workers to new skills and competencies, the jobs’ market beacons. As the European Committee on Social Rights said, such investment shall accelerate the post-pandemic social and economic recovery.
“Government mitigated the hardship of about 40% of the working population.”
A second factor equally important was the involvement of the social partners and civil society. The constituted bodies were present, active and collaborative. The way that both employers and trade unions worked hand in glove with Government to devise the best solutions, is a defining moment in our industrial and economic history. Leadership in such a complex and unprecedented situation depended decisively on the involvement of the social partners at all stages of the decision-making process. Maturity and competence reigned, supreme and it augurs well for the future.
At the same time, more could have been done to involve the civil society which it too was crucial in many situations to mitigate hardship. Civil society is an emerging giant of huge social and economic significance and nurturing its drive and potential is not only good public policy but should be second nature for a left-wing Government.
The pandemic has certainly disrupted us, but it did us one very big favour. It proved, if proof was ever needed, that investment in Solidarity is what got us out of the worst crisis in a century. Lest we forget.