Universal Basic Employment

Johannes C. van Nieuwkerk
7 min readJul 1, 2018

Back in 2015, Europe was absorbing large numbers of refugees and showing great compassion. But today — almost three years later — the political sentiment has turned. The fundamental problem Europe has been facing is uncertainty brought by rapid unregulated change, which naturally scares people. Out of such fear and instead of sharing available opportunities or resources with others, people start to seek protection or to fence their personal interests. Although many individuals have been volunteering and helping refugees, a majority of politicians meanwhile started to represent the voice of the growing insecurity of the general public and are thus failing to address the challenges of longer term refugee integration. Instead of leading their countries towards a structured and secure future via a “Wir schaffen das!” mentality, governments and European institutions are following their population’s sentiments and addressing symptoms rather than fighting causes.

The above attitude of “fencing oneself out of fear of change” is strongly influencing societies. As a result, the currently observed lack of cohesion is certainly not restricted to migration issues. With Automation and robotization rapidly becoming dominant production factors, “full-time employment for all” will very likely no longer be available in the near future. Therefore, solidarity will become crucial to prevent social isolation of the large group of people who may face inequality by becoming jobless. In order to structurally address the effects of this 4th industrial revolution, the remaining “workload” and its related economic rewards need to be more evenly shared by redistributing them. Without doing so, the future society may no longer offer fair participation chances to everyone and communities may become fully split into “haves” and “have-nots”.

As part of its framework for refugee integration, Refival has developed Inclusion Sourcing. It is based on affirmative action and stimulates redistribution of economic activities to where they are needed the most. Its main principle is to relocate geographically independent (primarily Internet based) jobs to rural areas where there are insufficient alternative employment options. This way it can prevent economically forced migration from rural to urban areas. Beyond revitalization, Inclusion Sourcing can also be used to balance economical and demographical developments better, like in case of Northern and Western Europe versus Southern and Eastern Europe where there is a substantial gap in growth to be bridged.

Although Inclusion Sourcing can contribute to a better division and use of the existing available European assets, it offers only a partial and relatively specialized solution for redistributing labor activities within an economy. Inclusion sourcing assigns tasks from privileged to deprived economical segments or groups in order to improve their participation. However, if in future — both structurally and generally — much less employment will be available, far more rigorous equalizing measures must be implemented within the whole economy in order to more evenly distribute the generated total national income(s) and the related responsibilities over it citizens. Currently, one of the predominantly proposed generic solutions is to provide everyone with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) so that elementary standards of living are guaranteed and employment becomes a matter of free choice rather than an imperative to survive.

Looking at past experiments with UBI, the results have been quite positive, both in developed and developing countries. The greatly feared withdrawal or decline in labor participation actually did not occur and in case people choose to work less, this was mostly done in order to improve care for their children and sickly family members or to obtain more education.

However, in societies which lack solidarity, people are afraid that they might have to contribute and work more than others. With politicians and labor unions representing such sentiments, political support for introducing UBI is still insufficient. This is the reason why present UBI experiments dominantly focus on increasing the labor participation of unemployed, for example by incentivizing them to additionally accept low paying and/or low productivity jobs. The real “universal” benefits of UBI are mostly excluded from the ongoing experiments. These include basic protection against exploitation by increasingly powerful and irregular employers and the freedom to develop one’s personal skills better and gain access to more satisfactory professional activities. By receiving UBI, employees have the possibility to say no if working conditions are unacceptable and are thus able to negotiate with employers from a more balanced position.

As an answer to the current absence of cohesion, Refival proposes to use an alternative approach to UBI, which it named Universal Basic Employment (UBE). Instead of guaranteeing a basic income, it defines employment to be a basic human right. This means that “everyone is entitled to contribute to society and to be financially rewarded for their engagement”. This guiding principle is generating solidarity rather than demanding it, since the right on a (derived) basic income is rooted in one’s — basic employment — contribution to society instead of on a fundamental right to unconditionally receive cash transfers. What UBE essentially addresses or changes is the definition of the term “employment”. Instead of using it in the current very narrow sense of a “paid job”, it considers every positive contribution to society valuable and qualifying to be remunerated. Compensation is earned regardless of whether the executed task is currently classified as a “paid job”, volunteering, care for children/sickly/elderly or education leading to personal skills development (which UBE considers to be an investment in the improvement of a community member’s future potential).

Financially speaking, one option to implement UBE is a negative income tax system in which some activities are rewarded as tax credits and others as wages. If the tax credits are higher than the income-tax to be paid, people will receive funding instead of paying taxes. Using this approach, a welfare level, a “tax-free” minimum wage level and progressive taxing can in principle be smoothly combined. In this scenario, the main difference between UBE and UBI is that if the “contribution sum” of tax credits and wages of people is below their required minimum UBE contribution level, people will receive less income than if they would in a comparable UBI approach. However, this situation would be self-imposed since UBE should offer enough possibilities to contribute. People who decide not to participate and forgo UBE, will likely be living off their savings.

By no means does UBE target to become a public work scheme directed towards unemployed people as this is the case in some countries where poorly paid communal jobs are enforced instead of supplying people with welfare benefits. Refival’s concept is to provide a guaranteed universal minimum wage in exchange for one’s — as much as possible — freely chosen contribution to their community or society as a whole. Instead of just unconditionally supplying income to anyone who would like to receive it — as Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposes this — , the task of society in Refival’s opinion would be to define and generate a sufficiently wide and optimized spectrum of engagement opportunities (= a mix of what is currently considered regular jobs, caring tasks, volunteering and skills development type of education etc.). This way, all people should be able to freely participate in the economic and/or social future of their community and at the same time maximize their “contribution satisfaction” and self-fulfillment. Regardless of the type of contribution, a minimum wage based income should be guaranteed and welfare should be dismantled, except for those being disabled or sick. Such approach simultaneously possibly prevents current and future “unemployable” people to become disconnected or escape from society by potentially starting to live an entirely virtual, media based, life without any proper attachment to their “real” local social environment.

UBE is hereby neither socialism nor communism based. Although it can be implemented in such environments, it — being radically new — transcends any specific political or economical order and can be equally applied in a capitalistic supply and demand driven society. Practically, it means in this case that a community democratically — meaning respecting the interests of minorities — defines what type of contributions it expects from its members. All such tasks can then in principle be financially valued and their fulfillment can, if necessary, be driven by “competition”. Most valuations can be simply time or effort based and rewards can also vary to match supply and demand. However, in principle is everyone fully free to volunteer or to creatively engage in society on the basis of their personal skills and analogue to UBI, a basic income is allocated for this. But, if there is (exceptionally) more supply than demand for a task, selection on the basis of qualification can be created. A complex and relatively extreme example: if a society values art and too many people aspire to become a professional artist, not everyone will automatically be considered to be one. In that case, those with sufficiently matching skills will likely be democratically enabled to exhibit their work, apply for conceptual grants, get scholarships or participate in contests and be rewarded accordingly. Still, being a parent, volunteer or artist is mostly rather a life-attitude than solely a task driven profession and one must as a society be careful not to exclude people on the basis of capitalist market principles. Exempted of contribution are only those who are disabled to be involved because of illness, handicaps or by being too young or too old to participate.

Important to keep in mind is that the right to contribute is based on more evenly sharing the assets and available human resources. This optimizes the future division between required necessary participation in the “work/ contribution force” and leisure time. Time-off can, of course, also be used for education and personal development, but in that case learning or creating art does not have to be in line with any democratically defined goal of the society in respect to an expected future contribution; its target can in such situation be 100% self-determined.

Refival strongly believes that Inclusion Sourcing and Universal Basic Employment can promote a return to solidarity and a growth of compassion, resulting in (re)building resilient communities. However, such change can only be accomplished by the involvement of all stakeholders and requires social engineering pilot-projects to achieve optimization. Please share my materials with people who may be interested to participate or contact me if you are interested to become engaged in Refival‘s mission yourself.