29th Mar 2023


The EU's working poor, a modern Dickensian nightmare

Listen to article

For our Work Week project, we asked European parties if they'd like to contribute an op-ed, carte blanche. Here's what The Left sent us:

Europe is facing a critical social problem that risks further dividing our society, into one of extreme haves and have-nots.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The working poor refers to people who despite working full-time do not earn enough to live above the poverty threshold. This affects almost one in every ten workers in the EU. And in the midst of a cost of living crisis, this means many workers are on the brink of homelessness, forced to turn to foodbanks or are skipping meals or other necessities just to make ends meet. In other words, they are living a modern Dickensian nightmare.

When we combine the staggering number of working poor in Europe with the growth in people employed as so-called "platform workers", it is clear that our societies are in a situation where we risk making the European Union increasingly unequal.

To some, especially free marketeers, that might not sound so bad, but that is only until you think about what it actually means. We are talking about a scenario in which millions of people in full-time employment are stuck on the breadline. For them, any unforeseen event can be economically devastating.

As if this was not enough, there is the fact that many of those in low-paid jobs are twice hit, as they are also in extremely precarious employment.

Just take the millions of platform workers in Europe, many of whom, because they are forced into situations of employment as fake independents, may have no pay when they fall sick or limited or no healthcare coverage via the company they work for. In addition to this, they may not be able to make the necessary pensions contributions and are at a disadvantage with no or limited parental leave.

The problem of precarious employment is not a small one. In just two years, it is expected that 43 million people, around 9% of the entire population of the European Union, will be platform workers. This underlines how important it is to act, and how widespread the sub-standard conditions already are.

When talking about this, it is important to remember that being stuck around the effective poverty threshold for years, combined with possibly a precarious form of employment has potential ramifications far into the future. Like a ghost of Christmas past, poverty can easily come back and haunt people much later in life. Lower pension contributions in youth may once again plunge people into poverty when they are older. Saving for the future is not an option when you struggle to make ends meet in the present.

Yet, in spite of this, when looking at the political debates in many — if not all — of the 27 EU countries, there seems to be a lack of willingness to truly act. It is as if too many fail to realise just how serious the whole situation actually is.

I urge those who dismiss the increasing wealth inequality to ask themselves if they truly want to create a future European society resembling either something out of Oliver Twist? Or maybe to take a more current example, the United States of America? This hyper-capitalist society without a proper social safety net means countless people go without access to proper healthcare, healthy food or proper living conditions.

While decision-makers ponder that question, workers are asking themselves if they are willing to accept it, and if not — how to influence their politicians to change direction.

Read all the stories as we publish them throughout the week in the Work Week section (or on the homepage, you do you)

Author bio

Nikolaj Villumsen, is a Member of the European Parliament for Denmark and Vice-Chair of the Left group.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Leaving women behind in labour leads to economic loss

"It's important, especially in times of crisis, that we look at the benefits of gender equality," Carlien Scheele, the director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) said, adding that losing women in the labour market is a "shame".

Swedish doctors and nurses' battle for proper rest breaks

"There are a lot of rural areas in Sweden and we must be able to secure people's right to healthcare and access to water, food and medicines. At the same time, we must protect the workers' right to daily rest."

The overlooked 'crimes against children' ICC arrest warrant

An unprecedented component of this announcement has received less attention: the ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Putin's commissioner for children's rights. Lvova-Belova is accused of deporting and unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.


What does China really want? Perhaps we could try asking

Perhaps even more surprising to the West was the fact that the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal was not brokered by the United States, or the European Union, but by the People's Republic of China. Since when was China mediating peace agreements?

Dear EU, the science is clear: burning wood for energy is bad

The EU and the bioenergy industry claim trees cut for energy will regrow, eventually removing extra CO2 from the atmosphere. But regrowth is not certain, and takes time, decades or longer. In the meantime, burning wood makes climate change worse.


What does China really want? Perhaps we could try asking

Perhaps even more surprising to the West was the fact that the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal was not brokered by the United States, or the European Union, but by the People's Republic of China. Since when was China mediating peace agreements?

Biden's 'democracy summit' poses questions for EU identity

From the perspective of international relations, the EU is a rare bird indeed. Theoretically speaking it cannot even exist. The charter of the United Nations, which underlies the current system of global governance, distinguishes between states and organisations of states.

Latest News

  1. The overlooked 'crimes against children' ICC arrest warrant
  2. EU approves 2035 phaseout of polluting cars and vans
  3. New measures to shield the EU against money laundering
  4. What does China really want? Perhaps we could try asking
  5. Dear EU, the science is clear: burning wood for energy is bad
  6. Biden's 'democracy summit' poses questions for EU identity
  7. Finnish elections and Hungary's Nato vote in focus This WEEK
  8. EU's new critical raw materials act could be a recipe for conflict

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. InformaConnecting Expert Industry-Leaders, Top Suppliers, and Inquiring Buyers all in one space - visit Battery Show Europe.
  2. EFBWWEFBWW and FIEC do not agree to any exemptions to mandatory prior notifications in construction
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Azerbaijan Embassy9th Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting and 1st Green Energy Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting
  2. EFBWWEU Social Dialogue review – publication of the European Commission package and joint statement of ETUFs
  3. Oxfam InternationalPan Africa Program Progress Report 2022 - Post Covid and Beyond
  4. WWFWWF Living Planet Report
  5. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us