De Coninck’s judgement
This week the federal minister for work faces her first real test. Monica De Coninck has gained a formidable reputation as head of the Antwerp OCMW, or welfare office, where her approach stood out. The OCMW is the last resort for people in financial problems, with no job and no right to unemployment benefits.
It is also the office where many asylum seekers turn to for help. But handouts, De Coninck says, gives these people nothing: work does. “Offering people a job is the best way to find out if they want to work,” she says. Work, she says, is also a way to reconnect to a society they have fallen out of touch with.
The activating and integrating power of work has become a mantra to minister De Coninck (SP.A). Belgium’s employment rate, too low to support an aging population, should be improved by any means, she believes. Everyone who can work, should work.
In the past few weeks, the Ostend-born politician stirred up a major debate, stating that too many women stay at home. As long as their marriage lasts, they do fine, but after a divorce, they often find themselves in poverty, having lost touch with the labour market. Women should work more and men less, De Coninck says, citing her own marriage as an example.
De Coninck also stresses the need to work longer. The over- 50s not only lose their jobs more often, many of them are quite happily resigned to the prospect of an early retirement. Early retirement, however, is an old recipe, dating back to the high unemployment period of the 1980s. Raising the early retirement age was one of the first priorities of the Di Rupo government.
The unions still believe in the system, though, especially when companies sack (older) workers by the dozens. They say it is unrealistic that these over-50 workers can find another job. In circumstances like these, the minister for work could still allow exemptions on the early retirement age.
So this is De Coninck’s test: Flemish steel wire producer Bekaert is in the middle of layoffs, cutting its work force by hundreds. Will the minister allow early retirement exemptions for the Bekaert workers? If De Coninck does, this will seem inconsistent with what she has promoted so far. If she does not, this will seem like harsh treatment of people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. What will De Coninck do?