Our main problem: the dismantlement of economic and social rights

Acceptance speech of Francine Mestrum at the ceremony of the ‘Jaap Kruithof Award’ in Ghent, 21 July 2016

Thank you very much for this wonderful award.

Its topic allows me to tell you something about solidarity, social protection and basic income. I want to be extremely clear.

First, poverty is a problem of income deficit. Poor people need to receive, without too many conditions, a serious allowance in order to be able to live a life in dignity. This is a matter of human rights. It means that our social assistance systems will have to be reformed, that rights have to be individualized, that humiliating controls have to be abolished, that allowances have to be at least at the level of the poverty line. That this still did not happen in a rich country such as Belgium is a real shame.

However, it is also a shame that at the same time some people are campaigning to give such an allowance to people who are not poor and even to the wealthy. They campaign for a universal basic income. It is something I cannot understand, probably because my priorities are different from theirs. Giving poor people an allowance equal to the poverty line hardly costs a couple of billion Euros; it is perfectly possible, right now. Giving one thousand euros to all people in Belgium will cost more than one hundred euros. This is far more difficult. Trying to promote such a ‘solution’ is a smokescreen in order to hide the real problems of our society. I cannot agree.

Second, there is one other smokescreen. It is hard to read a newspaper or a magazine and not find anything on the ‘sharing economy’, on the beautiful solidarity of people who share the lawnmower and the hedge shears. Of people who go and help sick or aged people in their neighbourhood. This, obviously, has to be praised. But is this the kind of ‘sharing economy’ we need? What is the real problem in our society? Is it not the dismantlement of our social and economic rights? Is it not the privatization of our social services? Is it not the dominance of the financial sector on almost all aspects of our daily lives? Can we please not forget this priority?

Our economic system is faced with the consequences of its own social, environmental and political destructive actions. The only answer coming from our governments, here and in other parts of Europe and of the world, is less democracy, less human rights, more authoritarianism. This is what we have to resist, this is what our alternatives and solutions will have to change.

This is what I am trying to do with my research on social protection. I have been able before to explain the reasons why I do not think a basic income is a good solution, I will not repeat this here. But let me say once again that I do think it would be a shame to give employers and corporations once more a gigantic gift of billions of euros in order to have people work in precarious conditions and for a far too low wage. This is what is happening already in the so-called platform economy, with hyper-flexible jobs in restaurants, with delivery jobs of BPost and Bringer, with the small backpack for disabled people who then go and look for the cheapest and non-professional care, because once the backpack is empty, it is empty. Give people a basic income and the door will be wide open for precarious mini-jobs, exploitation and poverty.

My resistance to the delusion of the basic income is not a rear-guard fight. I am not in favour of a status quo in our social protection system, on the contrary. I am aware of the fact that our society and our economy are changing rapidly, though I do not think we are now heading for a world without labour, that we have to work for free in a P2P economy, that robotization will destroy all employment or even that we are heading for a post-capitalist society.

What is threatened and what we have to defend is waged labour, social security, labour law and the professional care sector. Today, there is ever more precariousness, there are more and more pseudo self-employed people, the informal labour market is growing. We have to stop this evolution instead of trying to compensate people with a basic income. We need new regulations for the labour market and a better social security.

Allow me to say one more thing about these two issues.

Our society has a strong demand for solidarity, co-decision and cooperation. This is necessary and useful in order to strengthen the already existing solidarity, in order to improve and to broaden our social protection with the help of all members of society. We should not be afraid of concepts that till now have mainly been used by neoliberals, such as flexibility, because many young people do want a flexibility in their favour. Who wants to work a whole life from 9 to 5? Young people want to travel, young parents want to care for their children. This is why a drastic reduction of working hours should be one of our first priorities. What I want to promote is a social protection for the whole of society, seen in terms of commons. Because this protection is ours and it is by acting together that we can improve it.

We have economic and social rights. They are the result of a decades long social struggle. We cannot just abandon them. We live in one of the world’s richest countries with one of the best social protection systems and with an excellent professional care sector. We should cherish and preserve them, we should resist every attempt at privatization, directly by our governments, indirectly by free trade agreements such as TTIP.

And yes, we need strong trade unions. Today, they are doing what they can do, but it is a fact that many young people do not trust them anymore. Yet, it is thanks to trade unions that we have paid holidays and family allowances. Today, they are under attack and we have good reasons to defend them. But we also have good reasons to ask them to reflect on their organisation. We do not live anymore in an industrial era with hierarchical and centralized labour organisation. Not only workers need social protection, but all members of society, including the unemployed, the sick and disabled people as well as the pensioners. Trade unions will have to take into account the demand for more horizontal and less hierarchical organisations, they will have to play a major social role and take to heart the interests of non-workers. My dream still is to see a strike of railway unions in order to get better allowances for the poor.

I am convinced that by promoting a better social protection, we can also change the economic system. Using the achievements of the feminist economy we can see that care should be central, that our priority should be the sustainability of life. In this way the movements that are working on social justice can join hands with the movements for climate justice and for systemic change. This is what I believe in.

Finally, one more priority: tax justice. A just society and a decent social protection are not possible without tax justice. This is why the two awards that are attributed today are perfectly in line with each other.

And for those who believe our system cannot be reformed: for thirty years now neoliberals have been reforming our whole economic, political and social system, from the European treaties and institutions to the Belgian State reform, from social protection and labour law till youth and culture policies. The time has come to stop this and to propose progressive and emancipatory reforms.

This is what Jaap Kruithof wanted us to do: to prepare the future by looking at the future, to look beyond redistribution, to reflect on system change and on radical alternatives. I hope that my research is in line with what he encouraged us to do. Thank you very much.

Ghent, 21 July 2016.