2nd Oct 2023


The EU's working poor, a modern Dickensian nightmare

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

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.

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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.

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.

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