“There has been no great resignation in Europe as in the United States, but there has been a flight from low-quality jobs,” says Belgian researcher Wouter Zwysen. “The boom in vacancies can be explained either by the fact that people have more options, or by a kind of re-evaluation of what is important, of the meaning they want to give to their work, but also by a rejection of jobs that require contact with the public, perceived as less secure since Covid.”
Even before the pandemic, working conditions played a very important role in recruitment difficulties. This was shown in a study conducted in France by the economist Thomas Coutrot for Dares, the Ministry of Labour’s data department, published in June 2022. It shows that more employers who report that their employees are exposed to arduous working conditions experience such hiring difficulties: 89 percent, compared with 71 percent for all private sector employers. Unsurprisingly, office staff and manual workers are particularly affected.
The hardest jobs to fill are those that involve physical constraints for employees, such as carrying heavy loads, exposure to loud noise, or handling chemicals. Time constraints are also important, such as having to work nights, or other atypical working hours. Employers whose employees are worn out at work not only have great difficulty in hiring, they also have great difficulty in retaining their workers.
The post-Covid recovery has only exacerbated this situation: “In the Netherlands, 14 percent of employees have changed jobs since Covid,” explains Pieter Gautier. “For example, airport employees who loaded suitcases, who were very poorly paid, have resigned and found other jobs. This is very good news: people had no power before Covid, but this is changing. At airports, with huge queues of passengers to manage, employers are slowly beginning to realise that they can’t get away with underpaying such workers”.
Another example: in Germany, there has been a significant drop in mini-jobs, the precarious jobs that flourished in the 2000s, emblematic of the strategy to increase competitiveness by lowering German labour costs. “Covid-19 has clearly highlighted the strengths, but also the weaknesses of our labour market,” says German researcher Enzo Weber. “Mini-jobs, in particular, have disappeared by the hundreds of thousands in a very short time, without entitlement to short-time allowance”. For Weber, the post-Coronavirus revival of the German labour market must be based on quality, rather than quantity, by combining the employment contract with the right to social protection and training.
More broadly, the overall structure of the job market has changed in Europe as a result of the pandemic, as highlighted in a Eurofound report. Between the end of 2019 and the end of 2021, job creation has been particularly dynamic in the highest paid jobs: 2.5 million additional jobs among the first quintile, or top 20 percent, of jobs. Conversely, there has been no recovery in low-paid jobs: more than 3 million jobs were destroyed over this period among the lowest-paid 20 percent of jobs. It is as if the quality of employment underwent an “upgrade”, or a flight upwards, and that labour from low-paid sectors was reallocated to higher-paid sectors. “This is quite different from the polarisation of employment that occurred during the last crisis of comparable severity, the great recession of 2007-2009,” the report states. “The good news is that at the bottom of the social ladder, the situation of workers is starting to improve, because the labour force is becoming scarce,” says Pieter Gautier.
However, even if the trend is going in the right direction, there is still a long way to go before precarity and underpaid jobs are eliminated. For the time being, inflation is wiping out any wage increases won by employees, and the share of temporary jobs remains high in a number of countries, such as the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and Sweden. “The real challenge is to improve the quality of employment,” says Eric Heyer. “In the end, it is quite simple to achieve full employment. If I were to caricature it, all you have to do is create quarter-time jobs. Germany has achieved full employment at the cost of a very significant increase in the poverty rate. Quality full employment means full employment on permanent contracts and full time, and that means not leaving anyone by the wayside, neither unqualified young people, nor older people at the end of their careers.”
It is not clear that all heads of state share this concern. Rather than encouraging this movement towards full employment, some governments prefer to return the balance of power to employers. This is the case in France, where unemployment insurance rules have been changed twice in three years, to the disadvantage of employees, forcing them to be less careful about the job offers they are prepared to accept. Last December in Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s government tightened the conditions for receiving the Citizen’s Income introduced in 2019. The famous “next world” that we have been hearing so much about will not transpire any time soon: when it comes to employment policy, the revolution will have to wait.