Berlin's experimental basic income plan yield's promising results

  • Living
  • Sunday, 13 Sep 2020

Gehn has been working for the German company Kopf, Hand und Fuss for about a year. Photos: dpa

Ulrike Gehn seems happy. She has been working for a small company in Berlin, called Kopf, Hand und Fuss, for about a year, advising firms on diversity.

She also runs a co-working space for people with and without disabilities. Gehn, 33, organises workshops and events, counsels employers on inclusion and collects donations for new projects.

She and her team work together from home and from the office, and chat by video conference.

She is one of the first people to take part in a model testing that's called "solidarity-based basic income," or SGE.

A trained administrative assistant who is also wheelchair-bound due to a severe handicap, Gehn signed her new contract in Aug 2019 after spending two years unemployed.

"I really enjoy it," she says of her job that's funded by Berlin's government. The best thing is, she says, that "my job is safe, even during the crisis caused by the coronavirus."

Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller launched the project, seeing the SGE as an alternative to the minimum welfare benefits paid to the long-term unemployed known in Germany as Hartz IV.

He said the whole idea was founded on the approach that it's better to "create work rather than manage unemployment."Gehn says the best thing about her job is that it's safe, even during the crisis caused by the coronavirus.Gehn says the best thing about her job is that it's safe, even during the crisis caused by the coronavirus.

The idea may sound relatively straightforward, but it remains controversial, even among lawmakers in his own party, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Labour Minister Hubertus Heil, also a member of the SPD, refused to stump up any money from the federal coffers for the project, as he and the welfare office prefer to subsidise companies that give jobs to the long-term unemployed.

That leaves Berlin alone in venturing out on the experiment financing 1,000 jobs that also pays social insurance contributions in the non-profit sector for five years. That costs 170mil euros (RM837mil).

So far, around half of those jobs have been filled. Some 12 people have been released from the project, according to the Senate Labour Administration, for differing reasons: Two switched to jobs that aren't subsidised, including a daycare centre employee.

Those receiving basic income work for daycare centres or as school assistants, support the homeless or help people who don't speak much German to navigate the country's bureaucracy and communicate with the authorities, for example. The outbreak of the coronavirus has upset things somewhat, delaying the launch of the whole project, but the city's government still aims to fill 1,000 posts by the end of the year.

All participants are paid in line with a collective agreement, or the minimum wage. Under the project's criteria, all should have the prospect of a permanent job.

One year into the project, no one knows whether it will succeed. Mueller looks ahead hopefully at the likelihood that those taking part will transition into the regular job market in the long term.

He's already seeing indications of initial success, he says.

"If someone gains self-esteem and feels appreciated, their work is valued, they don't have to apply for Hartz IV (nor) take low-paid work, have a proper job where benefits are paid and can work again," that's already a positive thing, he says.

Gehn agrees, happy that she can "get involved and help others," she says. "My day is structured, I know what I'm doing, my rights, my limits, my duties, much more than before. That makes me feel safer and more self-confident."

Having colleagues to interact with is good too, she says, and it helps that there are coaches who provide support as part of the project. "For me, this came at the right time," she says.

Gehn's boss, Stefanie Trecinski, is likewise a fan of solidarity-based basic income.

"The project is funding two posts for us and we're super happy. Here, people in a protected environment have a chance to familiarise themselves so that they can become full-fledged employees afterwards." For employers, the solidarity-based basic income is uncomplicated; bureaucracy and reporting are manageable, she says.

That view chimes with a city housing association, the Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Berlin-Mitte (WBM) which hired seven people for posts funded by the solidarity-based basic income project to help caretakers and janitors. Six of them are still on board.

"We broke new ground by taking part in this project, and it went well for us," says Christina Geib, a manager. She says the workers proved their worth, and the WBM is looking at continuing to employ them beyond the programme.

All that adds up to what Berlin's Labour Senator Elke Breitenbach calls a "very good dynamic". She sees new opportunities ahead in the wake of the pandemic.

"If we enter a recession now, this could reach even more people, and provide support to many more different kinds of people and situations who need it." She says lawmakers will evaluate the project. "Then we'll decide if we extend it and if we widen the circle of those eligible." – dpa

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