Today is Labour Day, and in many European countries it means a day off to celebrate the achievements of the workers’ movement and to advocate for better working conditions worldwide.
As Greens, our commitment to workers’ rights and engagement towards trade unions is an essential part of our DNA. At every level, from local governments to the European Parliament, we promote legislation that improves working conditions and reduces inequality.
In our interview with Green MEP Sara Matthieu we discuss the Minimum Income initiative. This initiative aims to ensure that no one in the EU must live below the poverty line.
Sara is a member of our Belgian member party, Groen, and had a key role as the rapporteur for the resolution on minimum income which was adopted by the European Parliament in March.
"This was a real victory!"
Before we start talking about the minimum income resolution that you worked on, can you briefly explain the difference between minimum wage and minimum income?
Indeed, minimum wage and minimum income are often confused. The difference is that a wage is linked to a job.
It is the remuneration one gets in return for carrying out a job in the labour market. Whereas the minimum income is a financial support for people who are - temporary or structurally - outside the labour market.
What they have in common is that both are established in all the member states and that in most of the cases, they are not high enough to guarantee a decent standard of living.
Is there an EU wide rule about the minimum wage?
The EU has recently adopted a directive for the minimum wages to be raised to the level of so-called ‘living’ wages. A living wage is a wage that provides enough to rent a house, pay the bills, buy food, etc.
What does this directive mean for workers?
The impact of the directive cannot be underestimated: 25 million workers in the EU will enjoy a wage increase of 20 %. I hope that the member states will transpose this directive as soon as possible; this is one of the best solutions to address the current cost-of-living crisis.
Ok, now let’s talk about minimum income. What did the European Commission propose?
In its proposal from September 2022, the European Commission acknowledges that minimum income should be set minimally at the national poverty line. But it only issues non-binding ‘recommendations’ to the EU member states. In the past, EU governments failed to follow them, so why would they suddenly change their policies to live up to standards that aren’t even mandatory?
What do the Greens want?
As Greens we call for a directive on minimum income. We need a directive that raises the minimum income at least to the national poverty line in all member states, which is 60 % of the national median income.
In March, the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution to change the EU legislation to a binding directive. Why was this process so special?
This vote was a real victory. For the first time, the European Parliament has called for binding EU legislation on the national minimum income. This is an utmost important step towards a more social Europe. The lesson learnt is that you never give up. We will keep explaining why we need binding measures on minimum incomes above the poverty line.
Who would benefit from a binding Minimum Income Directive?
First, it would benefit groups who are more likely to face higher levels of financial instability and discrimination, such as single parents, people who are long-term unemployed, people with disabilities or long-term illnesses, etc.
On top of that, every single one of us can get in trouble at some point of our life and need support. We can become unable to work, sick or depressed.
Women, for instance, often take up informal care for relatives. They have often not been able to build up social rights. If, at some point in their lives, they want to make a shift and go back to the labour market, they often need means to bridge a period in which they are looking for a job or take up education. This is what a minimum income can do.
The Greens largely voted in favour of the minimum income increase, while conservatives and liberals were divided. Why are some parties hesitant to support a minimum income that allows people to pay their bills?
Opponents of a stronger EU policy in the social field often argue that social policy is predominantly a national competence, and that the EU should refrain from it. I disagree.
Catering for the most vulnerable should be the priority of the European Social Union. In most countries both in-work and out-of-work income protection are insuﬃcient to prevent poverty. The situation is worrying, especially in the poorest EU Member States.
In addition to raising the minimum income, what other steps can be taken to address poverty and inequality in Europe?
Poverty is not solely a lack of economic means, but rather a multidimensional phenomenon that encompasses a lack of both income, access to essential goods and services, and thus basic conditions to live in dignity and participate in society. Thus, the EU should address this in a comprehensive way, by ensuring upwards convergence towards a minimum level of well-being. This means that the EU should be more active on accessible and good social services in childcare, long-term care, education, housing, etc.
Some criticise that Greens yet must build a better social profile to ensure that Green policies benefit everyone. How do you respond to this criticism?
Greens have always been in favour of a strong social Europe. Social integration and economic integration are intertwined. From the outset we have advocated that social aspects should be treated the same as economic aspects. Unfortunately, we see that the economic pillar is way more developed than the social one. This has never been our political choice.
Labour Day marks the day of trade unions and workers. What role do they play in the transition to a Greener and more just Europe?
Trade unions are key allies in putting social policies high on the political agenda. They possess the credibility to represent workers and were foundational in conceptualizing the idea of a just transition in which socio-economic concerns are taken on board when greening our economies. It’s impossible to impose these changes from the top down, and even if it were, this would create massive resistance that would grind the transition to a stop anyway.
But they are also instrumental in convincing workers in different industries that business as usual is not an option. Rather than presenting this change as a threat, which is understandable but often abused by our political opponents, there is much to gain in terms of employment opportunities, improved health and safety and job security long into the future.
The Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament recently proposed a ‘true EU Green and Social Deal’. What specific measures are included in this proposal?
Indeed, we have recently launched a paper on Just Transition that is worth reading!
As Greens we believe that a transition to ecological sustainability must go hand in hand with social justice, as they are not only vital to human prosperity, but complement and reinforce one another.
In the paper, you call for expansion of the European Green Deal. In what way?
In addition to environmental commitments and objectives, we demand that it also covers social commitments to make the economic transition work for, and not despite, each and every person in Europe.
What does it mean concretely?
There are a lot of concrete measures that need to be taken, both on EU level and on the national, regional, and local level. They are ranging from labour market policies, the creation of green and sustainable jobs, and up- and reskilling workers, to an EU definition of essential goods and services to which everyone in the EU must have an inalienable right under the Social Union. Decent housing and affordable health care, for instance, will for sure be one of those services that way too many Europeans are still prevented from.