Catalan social action organisations ask to have a voice in European social policies

The "Poverty and Employment" workshop has given a voice to the Catalan organisations federated in ECAS to convey the country's priorities to the European institutions

On Wednesday, 8 July, Diplocat organised the online workshop entitled Poverty and Employment: What do Catalan social action organisations want to say to Europe? in conjunction with Catalan Social Action Organisations (Entitats Catalanes d'Acció Social, ECAS). The goal of this workshop is to convey Catalonia's priorities and reality to EU social policymakers at a time when the European Commission has opened up a consultation period to work on reinforcing the European Pillar of Social Rights and its implementation through an action plan scheduled for 2021.

The workshop was opened by Alfons Gonzalez Bondía, Director-General for European and Mediterranean Affairs of the Catalan Government, who stated that it was extraordinarily timely today, when the crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily impacted Catalonia's economy and society, especially among the most vulnerable groups. In this context, the European framework is essential in tackling common problems with a united front, and with this goal in mind, Catalonia has always had strong European leanings and has more than proven its desire to have its own voice within the EU.

Next, the president of ECAS, Xavier Puig, took the floor to highlight the entity's interest in forging bonds with international entities in order to influence different levels of government, and to highlight the fact that in an interconnected world the issues of poverty, exclusion and employment must be addressed globally. He concluded by stating that it is very important to work on and influence the European Pillar of Social Rights so that it has importance in people's lives.

The introduction to the workshop concluded with the words of Laura Foraster, General Secretary of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat), who emphasised that this workshop is an example of how Diplocat works with civil society and the entities belonging to the consortium that want to have a presence on the international scene, either to contribute to the main challenges and global debates, or to find spaces of collaboration or to share the reality of our country abroad. The Catalan Social Action Organisations (ECAS) are part of the Bureau of Third Sector Social Entities of Catalonia (Taula d'Entitats del Tercer Sector Social de Catalunya), a Diplocat member.

After that, Marta Cid, ECAS international member, executive at the Gentis Foundation and moderator of the workshop, turned the floor over to the participants. The first to speak was Ana Carrero, European Social Fund Spain and Malta team leader in the DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission. She presented the different avenues of action with which the European Commission will be working during the period 2021-2017 and outlined the importance of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which was approved in 2017 with the support of the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. After that, she specified the different funds that exist to reactivate employment, boost training and education and increase access to social services, along with the recovery plans that will specifically be applied in each country. She also stressed the importance of participating in the consultations which are currently being held around Europe in order to influence the reform policies and the calls for applications that interest organisations in order to draw up action plans that are maximally beneficial for organisations and as attuned to citizens' reality as possible.

Isabel Caño, Vice-President of the European Economic and Social Committee, stated that the crisis has primarily affected groups that were already vulnerable, and she stressed the role of women within this job vulnerability. She mentioned all the policies enacted in Europe and Spain but also noted that we have further to go before we reach recovery, since the job vulnerability in Spain predated this crisis. She highlighted the need to increase coordination and unity among the EU countries and to work together to emerge from this new crisis. She also recalled that the austerity policies promoted in the 2008 crisis are precisely affecting the healthcare systems all over Europe right now, and thus the struggle against poverty has three legs: the national and European recovery plan, the social investment plan and social protection plan, which must be universal. She believes that the European minimum income should be the last option within the safety net, but that it should be so all across Europe.

Ferran Busquets, ECAS member for poverty and Director of the Arrels Foundation, analysed the situation of poverty in Catalonia and noted how in recent years the risk of poverty has increased in all indicators. He stated that the vulnerability and risk of exclusion is higher for persons not born in the European Union. He shared the Intermon figures that with the COVID-19 crisis, the risk of poverty could extend to 26% of the population. Finally, he indicated that both the guaranteed minimum income and minimum life income are less than 11,000 euros per year, which is currently the poverty threshold, and he criticised the fact that the administration does not guarantee that people emerge from poverty.

Finally, Sonia Moragrega, a member of the ECAS Board and Operations Director at the Intermedia Foundation, took the floor to focus on employment. She divided her presentation into four points. First, she noted how COVID-19 has affected employment and stressed the increase in unemployment in recent months and the fact that this tally does not include temporary layoffs, which total more than half a million people. She continued by discussing the new vulnerabilities that have emerged, especially among people working in the underground economy, freelancers who have had to shutter their businesses and temporary layoffs which will end in dismissal, in addition to the upswing in part-time hiring.

Next she outlined the need to find workers new job placements in the market, both within their sector and in the sectors with the most job offers, which will often require training and programmes which could be longer or shorter depending on the person and the sector. Finally, she cited the priority avenues of employment, including the importance of education, youth employment programmes and employment programmes for immigrants, as well as programmes to reactivate the economy and promote direct hiring and basic citizen income.

Next came questions that different Catalan social action organisations asked Carrero and Caño. The first question was from Josep Serrano, member of the Board of Directors of the Confederation and president of the Commission on the Elderly. He asked how the Commission can reassess social work and European funds and those being created now can be maintained within the context of COVID. Caño said that the social sector has gone from being invisible to being essential in this crisis, but that there is not just one model of how to emerge from the crisis. However, it should consist in a model which gives organisations a greater voice so that they play a more prominent role in developing European policies, since laws cannot be made without knowing whom they are for and what organisations will be working directly with them. Carrero, in turn, stated that the Commission is speaking about different caregiving sectors in order to enhance them and protect them, and she said that receiving funds does not depend on the Commission; instead, the states have to set the priorities and the sectors where the funds will go, and that organisations have to participate in and influence this process of creating these lists of priorities.

The second question was from Teresa Crespo, a member of the Board of Directors and ECAS member for poverty, who asked whether the EU intends to change its socioeconomic model in order to guarantee its citizens labour rights, the fundamental rights and the dignity of all workers. Carrero replied that the Commission is working on the Social Sector Plan and launching the European minimum income initiative, but that all of these things are dealt with in a multidisciplinary way within the Commission and that the EU has been strengthening the social dimension for some time now. Caño repeated that things action is being taken in Europe, but she reminded the audience that changes cannot be made without the states' support.

The third question came from Rosa Balaguer, vice president and ECAS member for public influence, who asked how Europe views moving towards a universal basic income adapted to each EU country but guaranteed in each country. Carrero said that there is no such proposal for the time being, and she recommended participating in the forums of proposals for the social rights plan in the EU.

Esteve Ferrer, secretary of ENSIE and member of the European Federation of Job Placement Companies, mentioned that most job placement companies are hired by the private sector, stressing the lack of hiring by the public sector. Caño answered that the public authorities have to be more committed to reality and said that the European regulations on the issue face the problem that they allow states to reserve the right not to apply it, even though both she and Carrero said that they don't know how this has been transposed to Spanish regulations. Carrero also stated that a Social Economic Plan is being promoting, and she encouraged his participation so that it is truly implemented in the best way possible, acknowledging the importance of job placement companies.

Finally, Jesús Delgado Almendros, a board member and head of International Relations of the Bureau of Third Sector Social Entities of Catalonia, asked what commitments they think the states should make to respond to current and future migratory flows in a coordinated fashion. In response, Caño noted the lack of political will to do this, and Carrero stated that the Commission has outlined different ways.

Finally, Ana Ollo, a member of the ECAS international and social innovation committee, opened up a Q&A session to the audience, highlighting the question of how the social role of the European Union should be viewed at a time of mistrust towards European institutions. The speakers mentioned that what is mainly needed is a daily effort to explain and raise awareness of the actions that can be taken thanks to European funds.

The event concluded with Laura Foraster thanking the speakers for their participation and mentioning that the workshop had met its expectations: ideas and visions had been exchanged between Europe and Catalonia with the goal of attaining a shared, crucial objective, namely improving people's quality of life.