Around the world, the sudden lockdown to limit the pandemic’s spread is leading to an abrupt economic slowdown. With cash handouts as the only way to avoid starvation and social unrest, the topic of Universal Basic Income is back on the table. Here is why it is (not) the solution.
by Jan Fürth
UBI as a bandaid or a permanent fix?
“In times of crisis, we are all socialists”, as social media memes liked to comment economic measures taken by governments facing the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Italy, Canada, Germany and even the US are among those who have included cash handouts in their action plans, with many countries following suite. At the beginning of April, Spain made international headlines by announcing the introduction of a permanent Universal Basic Income (UBI), even if it’s not really universal. Finally, in his Easter message, Pope Francis came out in favour of the idea. What was a marginal idea only several weeks ago jumped to the forefront.
Without a question, various forms of (universal) basic income are necessary steps in this time of pandemic to allow people to stay in quarantine while preventing them from starving and losing their homes. Especially, as the quarantine is expected to be on and off, with waves of infection over the next months or years. However, UBI as a long-term instrument has several pitfalls that we must avoid if we don’t want it to become yet another aspect of neoliberalism. Indeed, there is a real risk that UBI could serve as an instrument to worsen the precarisation of labour and excessive consumerism if it is not accompanied by a radical redistribution of wealth and a reorganisation of economic relations.
Panem et circenses
While we should welcome the prospects of freeing people from the necessity to sell their labour or to be policed by social services in order to have a bare minimum to survive on, there are many ways in which UBI could be far from emancipatory. Indeed, we should be wary of a dystopian capitalist future in which the masses on a low UBI would be providing cheap and flexible labour for Uber, Wolt, Airbnb and all the other gig economy villains. With UBI ensuring the basic needs of workers, these corporations could have a powerful argument to scrap work contracts, the minimal wage and social security contributions.
In this sense, a low UBI could just be a perverse way to trap people in the Western consumerist lifestyle by giving them enough to feed corporations but not enough to discourage them from selling their labour to consume even more. As the foremost supporter of UBI in the USA and Democratic Party primaries’ candidate Andrew Yang writes on his website: UBI “actually fits seamlessly into capitalism. […] Markets need consumers to sell things to. UBI is capitalism with a floor that people cannot fall beneath.” While Yang does speak about social issues, this rhetoric betrays the fact that UBI could just be a little fix for the system without really challenging it. A modern version of Ancient Rome’s system of panem et circenses, bread and games for the masses.
Tax, seize, transform
Far from discarding UBI as a tool of neoliberal capitalism, we should see it as a two-edged sword that could be part of a series of immediate measures towards a major overhaul of socio-economic relations. Indeed, in the short-term, it can help society better absorb the shocks of the radical socio-economic changes necessary to avoid new social and environmental destruction, and in the long-term it can be part of a new economical system in which productivism and profit are not central tenets anymore. Accompanied by a radical redistribution of wealth and a reorganisation of economic relations, UBI can be a source of great personal and social emancipation.
If UBI does not go hand in hand with a radical redistribution of wealth, it risks being implemented to the detriment of other key sectors of social intervention such as infrastructures, housing, education, public transport and healthcare. Thus, it can only be introduced if it radically questions wealth redistribution. As a way to immediately fund it, addressing tax justice is crucial. According to the EU Parliament, up to a trillion euro is lost every year to tax avoidance and tax evasion! Yet, no action is taken as EU countries are pitted against each other, with some of them like Ireland having become financially dependent on its role as a tax haven.
While UBI can be financed by taxing the richest individuals and big corporations, we cannot stop short of greater changes and we must challenge the very structure of this system. Thus, UBI should be seen as a tool for radical reforms and a shift in the public and political discourse about labour, wealth, living conditions and the social structure, rather then the end goal, in efforts to stop the madness of the current system built on greed and destruction. With the current crisis, states have a historical chance to challenge the rule of capital and lay the bases for a social and environmental economy. Indeed, now and in the upcoming months, corporations on their knees can be cheaply bought off by the state, or simply nationalised, and transferred to the workers themselves. With UBI, the shocks of mass unemployment and of the transformation can be better absorbed.
In a context of necessary transformation, UBI is not about getting rid of work. It’s about valuing everyone’s existence while also redefining what is work, who does it and for how much. The post-pandemic cannot be a return to the so-called ‘business as usual’, but must be an acceleration of socio-economic changes. Escaping the grip of global finance through taking back control over public finances and moving away from a growth- and profit-driven economy, it is time to massively invest in socially owned green energy, infrastructures, healthcare, education, housing, agriculture and culture. This requires a lot of work and workers, but it must be done without setting a hierarchy between workers based on their market value.
Indeed, one of the injustices of capitalism is that it sets the standards for what is ‘work’ and how much one earns, with little interest for real value based on social usefulness. Thanks to its financial strength translated in political power, it has been increasingly socialising costs and privatising profit. This is especially obvious in the case of unpaid labour in the care sector (childcare, home care, domestic work), mostly performed by women. Despite its usefulness for capital itself, capitalists have largely escaped their responsibility to contribute to it. In efforts to unharness work from a profit-driven logic, UBI can put an end to this artificial separation between labour and chores, and finally remunerate those people who are often performing inestimable tasks outside of traditional working collectives.
Whether it’s being with children, taking care of the sick at home or just doing other forms of communal, reproductive work, everyone can be sure to at least a living wage through UBI, without bureaucratic hurdles and policing. As we see in these times of pandemic, and as we could see before, many people are eager to help each other without expecting a reward. Unfortunately, this is not seen as ‘work’ in our system, and only few people can afford to devote all their time and energy to serving the community. Instead, they are forced to enter into economic relations based on a logic of exploitation and financial return on investment. This has dire consequences for both society and environment, as human energy is more often than ever put in the service of personal greed and resource depletion.
UBI is not the solution, but if it comes along with a radical redistribution of wealth and deep changes in economic relations, then it can be a formidable tool on the path to rebuild a social economy from the bottom-up. With UBI covering basic needs, social investments restoring public services and systemic rules restraining or eliminating big capital, the way will be paved for new economic relations based on environmentally responsible and non-hierarchical principles. Limiting the possibility and the need to sacrifice human and non-human well-being in order for one to make a living can open up countless possibilities for creativity and emancipation.
I see the revival of rural communities freed from the need to compete on the global market. I see the sprouting of autonomous workplaces that can develop without the pressure of instant profit-making, with workers able to make decisions collectively without fearing to die of hunger, without the unfair competition of asocial corporations, without state repression and financial rapacity. I see individuals able to devote themselves to their artistic projects and to communal work without having to think about food, rent and the bills. I see slower societies in which no one is pushed aside and social uncertainty is sent to the dustbin of history. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
The wildcat strike of Romanian agricultural workers in Bornheim shows that struggles are possible even under conditions of racist super-exploitation. Originally published on akweb.de.
On Friday, 15th of May, some of the 250 seasonal workers of the Spargel Ritter company in Bornheim (North Rhine-Westphalia) stopped working in the asparagus and strawberry fields and informed the local press. Management called the police, but the intimidation attempt failed. The strike was covered widely by the media.
The workers are angry because they received ridiculously low wages of 100 to 250 euros instead of the promised 1,500 to 2,000 euros, and because they are housed under inhuman conditions in a container warehouse, idyllically located between a cemetery and a sewage plant on a vacant building site. As a result of the strike, they were immediately threatened with early dismissal and expulsion from their accommodation. Spargel Ritter has been bankrupt since March 1st, according to other sources even since January, and is now managed by the law firm Andreas Schulte-Beckhausen in nearby Bonn. In April, the firm hired both foreign seasonal workers and labourers from Germany without informing them that the company is in a state of insolvency. Obviously the insolvency administrator is using all means necessary to make the company attractive to new investors.
The protest continued on Monday, 18th of May with a rally organised by the anarcho-syndicalist trade union FAU at the accommodation containers, which was attended by about a hundred external supporters. Women workers in particular protested against their exploitation, making impressive and angry speeches. Afterwards, all of them demonstrated together in front of the company’s nearby yard, where some of the outstanding wages were alleged to be paid. Instead, the workers were expected by a chain of police officers and aggressive security guards. It quickly became clear that the strategy of the insolvency administrator was to divide the workers and set them against each other: Some were paid 600 euros, others only 50 or 70 euros. The security guards opposed the presence of a FAU lawyer during the payments, until the police enforced the lawyer’s presence. While the isolation of migrant workers usually means that this type of super-exploitation is largely ignored, the Bornheim case caused a nationwide sensation. Monday was a difficult day, as FAU Bonn tweeted: “A hard day is coming to an end. Even though we cannot be satisfied with the result: The fact that the wages of a few hundred euros were paid at all is a panic reaction of the class enemy. Tomorrow we will enter round 2.”
On Tuesday, the seasonal workers and solidarity activists met for another rally, this time in downtown Bonn, outside the insolvency administrator’s office. From there they went to the Romanian Consulate General, where a delegation of ten workers was received. The consul admonished the workers to be calm and considerate. They should return to their accommodation and wait – because the Consul is in contact with the Romanian Minister of Labour Violeta Alexandru, who is in Berlin at the invitation of the German Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöckner. According to the Consul her second stop after Berlin happened to be Bonn anyway, where she would meet with the Farmers’ Union.
On Wednesday, the minister actually showed up at the lodgings. After a long conversation with the Romanian workers – in which no trade union representatives were allowed – she announced that “everything was settled”: the insolvency administrator had assured her that she would push ahead with the payments, and her ministry would organize a free return to Romania or, in agreement with the German Farmers’ Union, the transfer to another company. After their departure, buses picked up groups of ten workers each for payment at an unknown location. The supporters together with the workers were able to make sure that a lawyer and interpreters were present for all payments, but they had to hand in their mobile phones first.
Since this dubious payment procedure could not be trusted, supporters followed the buses to “unknown places”, which a visibly disoriented police officer tried to prevent them from doing. It came to absurd wild-west-style chases across the strawberry fields, until the busses stopped at a field, where the payments were made in the burning sun. The lawyer made sure that the workers didn’t sign any termination agreements, and many gave him the power of attorney to check their wage claims in court. The FAU announced on Wednesday evening that the minimum target had been reached.
The fact that not all the workers from Romania and a few from Poland took part in the strike is due to the division caused by different contracts. Those workers with contracts running until September instead of only until June who were also promised higher wages saw their contracts of employment endangered by the strike and criticised the unrest that had arisen. In addition to the foreign seasonal workers, about 200 labourers from Germany have been hired since the end of April. As one worker from this group told us, they are called the “German team”, even though they come from all kinds of countries, but are resident in Germany. It is a motley crew – young people who have responded to the call to help “our” farmers to protect the harvest, and people who simply need the money urgently because of short-time work or unemployment. Unlike the workers from Eastern Europe, they are not employed on a piecework basis, but on an hourly wage, and receive a few cents more than the minimum wage of 9.35 euros, to mark the racist differentiation. Another reason for this is that the untrained workers from Germany would not have been able to work at the same pace as the Eastern European workers, who have been doing this kind of work for longer.
At work, the “German” and “Romanian” columns – these are the divisive terms used by the bosses and their foremen – are kept strictly separate when working in the strawberry tunnels, but they run into each other when the full crates are handed over. However, communication usually fails because of the language barrier. On Friday it was noticed that the “Romanian column” was missing, but it seems that word of the strike didn’t get around to the “German column” until Saturday. After the “German column” had continued working on Saturday and Monday, they were sent home for a day on Tuesday because according to the bosses the situation was too heated.
In the past weeks there have been increasing reports on the miserable working and living conditions of agricultural and slaughterhouse workers in Germany. The main reasons for this are the inhumane living conditions to which the workers are exposed and which are even more threatening in the current corona situation due to the lack of protection against infections. While Germany celebrates its low number of cases, it is not surprising that infections break out in places where people live and work under particularly precarious conditions. The refugee accommodation in Sankt Augustin, the slaughterhouse in Dissen and a deceased Romanian field worker in Baden-Württemberg are examples of these scandalous conditions.
The Romanian field workers were initially left on their own. Their outcry was heard by left-wing supporters – above all the FAU. And what about the IG BAU, the mainstream construction union? And the DGB federation? Members of parliament? No chance! With little money and few resources, FAU Bonn managed to support the workers in every step, despite the language barrier – a prime example of concrete solidarity.
This struggle shows above all that even the precarious and unorganised can defend themselves. This experience gives courage for the future. And it remains to be seen whether those who have now been placed on other farms through the Farmers’ Union will carry the strike virus to other fields. In Romania, all major daily newspapers have reported on the strike in Bornheim. This, too, could strengthen the self-confidence and entitlement of the seasonal workers.
In the Corona crisis, in view of the danger of infection, numerous social grievances have become the subject of discussion, which were already disastrous before Corona, but remained hidden for years. In a situation of crisis, people might initially deal with the burdens and troubles on an individual level. But in various sectors, micro-processes of resistance are currently taking place that can easily develop into collective struggles. In some cases these struggles come together, in others the divisions and hierarchies need to be broken through.
Alice Claire is an activist from Cologne and member of Beyond Europe.
Christian Frings is an activist, author and translator (of David Harvey and others).
John Malamatinas is a freelance journalist from Berlin, Brussels and Thessaloniki.