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2020.05.10 10:00

Saving businesses will not save the people – opinion

G1PS (May 1 Labour Union)2020.05.10 10:00

The coronavirus has brought to the surface the issues of our economy – those who do the most important work for the society are doing so under the poorest conditions and receive the smallest wages, writes May 1 Labour Union (G1PS).

According to Lithuanian government officials, almost half of the working population have seen their wages decline since the start of the coronavirus quarantine.

Around 300,000 have been furloughed, around 55,000 self-employed people have lost their livelihoods, and the number of unemployed is constantly growing – since the beginning of the quarantine on March16, some 30,000 jobseekers have registered at the national Employment Service.

Read more: One-sixth of Lithuania's labour force out of work – minister

Instead of helping people, the government has focused on providing support for businesses. While politicians are telling that the state will focus on helping small businesses, now it is clear, that the wealthiest businesses owned by the most rich segment of society received the largest amount of subsidies. In addition to covering wages and providing tax exemptions, there are plans to subsidise commercial rents and provide state-funded loans.

The main idea is that if we save businesses, people will keep their jobs and life will come back to normal.

These subsidies will cost the state massive amounts of money, but economists from commercial banks assure us that we should not worry about it.

The good side of the crisis, according to a Swedbank representative, Nerijus Mačiulis, is that the state can borrow money at a very low price – this was not an option ten years ago, when the world economy crashed because of the credit bubble. The main goal would be to feed the money into business, so people can start consuming and the economy starts growing again.

The quarantine showed that the functioning of our society requires not entrepreneurs and business managers, but thousands of supermarket workers, truck drivers, hospital workers, cleaners, teachers and care sector workers.

But the money does not come out of thin air and even if we can borrow today, we will have to repay tomorrow. Who will pay this price – the corporations, the banks, the richest 1 percent who have seen their profits and incomes grow at the fastest pace over the last decades?

No. It will be us, workers, because we are the ones who create the profits, but are the first ones to bear the losses. Once again, we will be told that, for the sake of the economy, we must work harder and longer, while enjoying fewer protections, less funding for public services such as healthcare, education and pensions.

We already see multiplying demands from business, supported by liberal and conservative parties in the parliament, to once again loosen labour laws – allow employers to not pay for overtime, legalise zero-hour contracts that would tie people to their employers without any guaranteed income.

Now, the demands do not gather a lot of support, as this would cause enormous outrage among the public. No ruling party wants to pass a death sentence to themselves before the parliamentary election in October 2020.

But we can be sure that demands from teachers to raise their wages will be met with simple explanations from the government: we do not have the money, because we gave everything to businesses. And if nothing changes, the burden of saving the businesses will be put on our backs.

Instead of feeding benefits to businesses, we demand that the economy serve the needs of the people.

These people had to work despite risks to their health because the society cannot survive without them.

Firstly, it means providing living wages for those whose work is low-paid or seen as marginal. The quarantine showed that the functioning of our society requires not entrepreneurs and business managers, but thousands of supermarket workers, truck drivers, hospital workers, cleaners, teachers and care sector workers.

These people had to work despite risks to their health because the society cannot survive without them. And these people barely make a living wage working 12 hours a day, while their employers enjoy substantial profits year by year.

Instead of working longer, we should be shortening the working day to 6 hours while keeping the same wages.

The problem for working people is not simply a lack of money. The problem is a lack of time. Because to survive, to pay the bills and to buy food, one has to work 12 hours a day – and it feels like slavery.

Giving more free time means not only giving time for rest, but also allowing people to take care of themselves and their close ones. It means allowing people to engage in meaningful work around communal, environmental or social issues. In the end, it means healthier society, environment, and economy itself.

Instead of giving money to large property owners such as the Maxima supermarket chain, by covering its commercial rent, the state should freeze all rent payments.

It would save thousands of people who lost their income from being forced out of homes. The right to housing is far more important than the right to profit from property.

The same should be done with bank loans – instead of forcing people to repay their loans so that banks can save their profits, we should be using the vast amounts of financial capital to develop public infrastructure and provide free services for all.

Instead of giving money to large property owners such as the Maxima supermarket chain, by covering its commercial rent, the state should freeze all rent payments.

While these demands can sound utopian and unrealistic, it is only because we do not believe in our own strength as a society to mobilise and demand what we need.

We should always remember that not long ago a free weekend and eight-hour workday were also denounced by large business owners as unrealistic and utopian. People were told that the economy would crash if workers’ demands were realised. And yet the economy did not crash, only rich people were forced to provide better conditions for workers.

What is truly unrealistic and utopian is to think that everything can stay the same – that the economy and profits can continue growing without end.

The politics of saving the business is dead end politics – it is demanding too much from us and the environment. So let’s be realistic – the economy has to serve the people, not the wealthiest business.

G1PS (May 1 Labour Union) is an independent organisation uniting workers from retail, service and cultural sectors as well students and the unemployed.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.