ECA: Welfare commons as a fundament of work and social protection

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A policy proposal by Sarah de Heusch, Sunna Kovanen and Francine Mestrum, for the European Commons Assembly. [1]


The relevance of this commons to the EU-Agenda and the main problems the policy proposal is addressing

Following a consultation period, the European Commission has introduced its communication for a European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR). The mere idea of a European direct approach to social rights can be per se a huge progress as it questions the exclusive "sovereignty" of the Member States in this domain. The major challenges of the labour market and social protection systems addressed include:

  • increase in non standard forms of employment (self-employment, part-time and temporary contracts)
  • the fast development of new technologies threatening to reduce the demand of workforce
  • the widening gap in the levels of social protection between the economically strong and weak EU-countries, worsened by austerity policies
  • The national differences between the legislation and standards, preventing the mobility within the EU and between EU- and third countries.

The new proposals for social protection have to be welcomed, but consolidating the EU Economic & Monetary Union (EMU) via EPSR is worrying because a truly strong and equitable social protection should not be secondary to the monetary objective. (Francine Mestrum 2013). Therefore biggest challenge of the European social security model is its basis in work and its monetary value. This neoliberal intrusion in the functioning of European social security systems might produce sound economy and growth in short-term, but:

  • It does not necessarily not result into an equitable division of the profits in the benefit of the all members of the society, especially its most vulnerable members, as long as austerity politics prevent public spending
  • It does not guarantee that the jobs would be secured from speculation or financial crises. Quite contrary, those states who need and support the social systems least, and whose fiscal policies have also been the most destabilizing for the welfare states, are th most eager in bringing them down. (Mestrum 2016)
  • Instead it results into misunderstanding care in the households and other reproductive activities as "unproductive expense". House-, care- and voluntary workers cannot in this system receive adequate compensation and recognition. (Habermann 2016)
  • It results into outsourcing the care activities to the precarious members of the society and strengthening of gender inequities, if care work continues to be an economical risk. (Federici 2012)

More broadly, in the long run, there is no evidence that economic growth guarantees a sound economy or a proportional employment growth. In fact, even though economic growth has never ceased (it has only dramatically reduced compared to the exceptional growth rate of the post-world wars boom), social and economic inequalities have increased since privatization of public services and financiarization of economy (since the 70s) which has increased number of European citizens living at risk or in poverty. Furthermore, the growth in productivity of the last 50 years and recent fast developing ICT evolutions make the correlation between growth and employment even less plausible in a near future. To avoid political totalitarianism and the end of the European Union, the Commission must go beyond recognition of the importance of truly redistributive societies by catering policies that have proven to contribute to social wellbeing.

A sound and fair society, that is respectful of environment must tackle these issues with priority and consider the commons as legitimate, sustainable and truly valuable alternative model.

Welfare services and social protection as commons

Securing decent social protection systems based on human rights, more particularly the right to an adequate standard of living should be a priority as such and a common right for all people working and living in Europe. Welfare services and social protection as commons are:

  • Not for profit, solidarity based and financed from the public spending and social contributions.
  • Universa and self-reproducing fundamentals of a secure, active and innovative society especially for people living in precarious conditions
  • Based on a participative and democratic approach in order to fulfill the real needs of people
  • Strongly questioning the main neoclassical economic theories behind EU´s economic policies: The most productive motive for work is fulfilling the needs of people while preserving the commons (supporting the communities and commons), not money. (Kratzwald 2014, Rifkin 2014)
  • Securing decent social security system, including social services as commons should be a priority as such.

They are practised in numerous levels from public services to self-organized local initiatives

  • In universal public services provided by the states (free education up to university level, free public libraries, public good quality health care services, universal preventive social care, free school food, -health care and -mental health support etc.)
  • The self-organized health insurance networks Artbana and Solidago in Germany and Switzerland (including more than thousand members since 1987) [1]
  • In numerous social enterprises and care-work collectives (especially in southern Europe)
  • In self-organized networks providing unconditional care regardless of the recipient's citizenship or residence status. ([2], [3])

How to develop the commons further and what is the role of the EU-institutions

Extending and supporting self-employment, non-precarious part-time and flexible work models could allow sharing the workload of productive and reproductive as well as community-supportive tasks among a wider share of population. This would allow also well-earning men to carry their share of the care activities, which would be crucial for the gender equity.

It would also allow the citizens to develop and make the best use of the low-threshold communal support networks and regenerative services, which do not provide direct paid jobs but are nevertheless an extremely important social backbone of the local communities providing trust, security and social cohesion.

The best benefits of self-employment, the temporary and flexible work-contracts can be ensured only when the workers´ and entrepreneurs´ social security and status is not diminished in comparison to full-time workers and if the employers carry their equitable and fair share of the costs (Esping-Andersen et al. 2002).


  1. Commission should foster an inclusive social protection system that takes into consideration all citizens, whatever their work status. This requires universal social protection for rights related to the individual (access to health care and prevention, sickness benefit, basic income). And rights that are accessible to all workers (regardless of their work contract or relationship) following the needs: maternity and parental leave and benefit, specific leaves, training, unemployment, invalidity, old age (or pension). If maternity and parental leave are made mandatory, access to training, thematic leaves, unemployment and pensions could benefit from a personal activity account (PAA). In this PAA system each hours of work and participation to commons activity are converted into points that individuals use as they want and how they want. The financing of this relies on overall taxation, not only social contribution from work.
  2. Guaranteeing adequate public services should be added with obligations on both individuals and organizations with high incomes to participate in the costs of public services universally
  3. Recognizing non-profit and reproductive activities and community services, i,e. commons, as valuable places of work, rehabilitation and re-education.
  4. Commission should design low-threshold funding programs for innovative pilots of service production between self-organizing grassroots actors and non commercial public service producers. Budget support for the social and solidarity economy sector should be a part of the investment plan.
  5. The Commission should first of all make a decent charter of social rights, or refer to the Charter of the Council of Europe (revised), or refer to the ILO 1952 Convention on minimal norms and standards for social security.


  • Esping-Andersen, G. Et al. (2002) Why we need a new welfare state. Oxpford University Press.
  • Federici, Silvia (2012) Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. PM Press/Common Notions.
  • Habermann, Friederike (2016) Ecommony - UmCARE zu miteinander. Ulrike Helmer Verlag.
  • Kratzwald, Brigitte (2014) Das Ganze des Lebens: Selbstorganisation zwischen Lust und Notwendigkeit (Konzepte / Materialien). Ulrike Helmer Verlag.
  • Mestrum, Francine (2016) (Un?) socializing the European Union: a history of some ups and many downs. Social Commons. [4]
  • Mestrum, Francine (2013) Human rights and social commons. Social Commons. [5]
  • Rifkin, Jeremy (2014) The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The internet of things, the collaborative commons and the eclipse of capitalism. Palgrave Macmillan

Lead image: “Care” by Roy Cheung is licensed under CC BY NC 2.0

  1. See, our entry on the European Commons Assembly or visit our [European Commons Assembly: The Policy Papers] section for other policy papers produced by the Assembly.