Labor Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) warns against removing the restrictions too quickly in the corona crisis out of consideration for the economy and thereby risking the life or health of people. “We will evaluate whether the social interruptions will work in two to three weeks,” Heil said in an interview with the Handelsblatt. “If we can get the virus under control, the measures will be relaxed – but only then.”
Last week, politicians had outbid themselves with suggestions on what was needed to contain corona – right up to curfews, the SPD vice-president said. And after a few days he experienced some of the same politicians who said it must be over now.
The Minister of Labor emphasized that anyone who spoke in this way would counteract the Chancellor’s appeals for personal responsibility and public spirit. “Life and health must have priority, in case of doubt also over understandable economic interests.”
Heil also commented on the debate about better pay for employees in so-called system-critical professions. The finance minister decides whether the federal government, for example, is making tax-free premiums that are now being discussed by some retailers tax-free. “But instead of just talking about surcharges now, I would like a political commitment from the retail trade that we will come to reasonable collective agreements in the industry again after the crisis,” emphasized Heil.
Read the full interview here:
Minister, how does it feel to be the first Minister of Labor in a long time to announce rising unemployment figures again?
The main thing now is to protect people’s lives and health. But we are also trying to cushion the economic and social consequences of the pandemic. I cannot promise anyone that we will all save jobs. But we will fight for every single job and we have the strength to do it.
By sending half the country in short-time work?
We have regulations on short-time working, which other countries envy us – and which have just been expanded. With the welfare state, we have automatic stabilizers that also support the economy. In the United States, President Trump has to distribute helicopter money because there is no basic security like ours. And because we have budgeted sensibly in the past, we have the financial means to help. We are not defenseless in this situation.
How high will unemployment rise?
It all depends on whether the pandemic can be slowed down. Think of the pictures from Italy or Spain, we don’t want to experience that here. We will assess in two to three weeks whether the social interruptions will work. If we can get the virus under control, the measures will be relaxed – but only then. And then we’ll see how they make themselves felt in the unemployment statistics.
Aren’t you taking warnings seriously that the economy can’t stand the shutdown for long?
As Minister of Labor, if I only thought of my departmental responsibility, I would also say: lift everything immediately. But we have to think beyond our own interests and areas of responsibility. I also expect that from leading personalities in business. It’s about human lives.
There are also warning voices from the ranks of the coalition not to overwhelm the economy …
Last week, politicians outbid themselves with suggestions on what is needed to contain corona, right up to curfews. And after a few days, I experience some of the same politicians who say it must be over now. Anyone who speaks in this way contradicts the Chancellor’s appeals for personal responsibility and community spirit. Life and health must have priority, in case of doubt also before understandable economic interests.
First companies like Adidas or H&M have discontinued rental payments for branches in Germany. What do you think?
I think the behavior of Adidas is irresponsible and I have no understanding for it. Adidas has made huge profits in recent years. Now everyone has to shoulder the crisis together – everyone is asked not to duck away.
We come to the short-time allowance. Do you share the unions’ criticism that low-wages barely make ends meet?
There are collective or company agreements in many industries to increase short-time work benefits – especially since employers are reimbursed 100 percent of social security contributions. But where there are no such agreements and wages are quite thin anyway, this leads to unacceptable wage losses.
What are you doing about it?
On the one hand, there are new additional earning opportunities. Laundry workers who are on short-time work because hotels no longer have bed linen washed can help out at a clinic laundry and get the wages on top of the short-time work allowance. This also applies to health care, agriculture or logistics, where employees are currently urgently needed.
But not every seller from the closed retail trade can now sting asparagus. What can the government do for short-time workers?
I will invite the social partners again. In the corona crisis, the state, employers and unions have to find solutions that do not overwhelm either side.
Businesses are calling for the reference period to be extended to 24 months because many companies have been on short-time work since spring 2019. Will you give in to that?
This is an option that we still have. But for now, I’m going to implement what I’ve already decided. We will also see an enormous demand for short-time work benefits, because many more industries are using it than in the financial crisis.
Anyone who cannot get by with the short-time work allowance or the self-employed without orders can now apply for basic security without a wealth check. That means nothing else than that they are dependent on Hartz IV …
We should leave out this term of struggle in this crisis because it has a stigmatizing effect. We have a supplementary basic security – a civil right – which will be handed out in an unbureaucratic manner during this time. You can also call it combined wages. The self-employed can also benefit from this if their existence is at risk, and this without an asset check.
The corona epidemic leads to a debate about pay in certain occupations. Are you in favor of the “crisis bonuses” that some large food chains now offer?
First of all, I think it’s good that the term service providers is discussed differently today. The top performers are not only those who work with ties in the office, but also cashiers, sales assistants, nursing assistants – everyone who is currently keeping the store going. And it is a question of decency that we not only give them applause and warm words, but also ensure that they are permanently better off materially.
The government can, for example, ensure that such premiums do not increase the tax burden on employees. Is that an option?
Yes, the finance minister will decide. But instead of just talking about surcharges now, I would like retailers to make a political commitment that we will come back to reasonable collective agreements in the industry after the crisis. Then everyone who is now at the checkout or is keeping logistics running and exposing himself to health risks would have a permanent perspective on better wages.
However, they are not only planning improvements for employees, but also new impositions, such as opening the Working Hours Act. What exactly is planned?
I will make use of the temporary authorization that the legislature has given me. This is about concrete limited emergencies. It would not be responsible, for example, for medical services to be stopped just because liability issues arise due to working time regulations. Almost all of the federal states have introduced corresponding regulations, and I am now taking the opportunity to make this uniform across the country.
Will there be exceptions only for the health sector or for other areas?
We also have to look at other industries such as logistics or food supply and production. But I warn against free riders who hope to finally get the hoped-for liberalization of the Working Hours Act in the shadow of Corona. I will not loosen everything in general, and the special rules will be limited in time. After all, it is also about the health protection of employees.
Do we need an economic stimulus package to get started after the epidemic?
We have decided on unprecedented acute measures, liquidity support, direct payments for small businesses, shielding large companies, a social protection package. Let us see how they work. If the acute crisis is under control, we must also take cyclical measures to boost the economy again.
The economy demands a “moratorium on burdens” in Corona times. What happens to other projects in your company, such as a basic pension or the regulation of an unreasonable fixed-term contract?
Some of what we have prepared is being implemented. This applies, for example, to the basic pension, which is due to enter into force on January 1, 2021. Other projects will take a little longer than originally planned, but they are coming. The fact that many solo self-employed are now in need of existence in Corona times shows how important it is, for example, to include them in the long-term pension system.
The pension commission presented its report on Friday. In view of the completely changed economic situation, isn’t that waste?
In this legislative period we must also set the course for the future of old-age insurance after 2025. The pension commission did a good job because it provided a solid data basis across all camps. Because we have to stop talking about alternative facts and assumptions in old-age insurance policies.
The SPD wants to stabilize the statutory pension level in the long term and increase it in perspective. Do you feel reassured when you look at the stock markets now and think about private provision?
I am not one of those who use the crisis to underpin what they have always represented politically. But it is correct that the statutory pension remains the main pillar of old-age insurance and that occupational and private pensions are additional pillars. Our country’s pensions cannot be built solely on capital resources.
Is old-age insurance not at risk now if the contribution payments cease but the benefits still have to be paid?
We have had very good wage increases in the past few years and we came into this crisis from a very high level of employment subject to social security contributions. In this respect, I see no reason to question our pension system after a few days.
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