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Work is the basis of everything

Interview with Lieve Blancquaert on the meaning of work and the power of Europe 

We are Europe. It could just be SD Worx's new slogan, given its ambition to be the leading European HR player. But it is the title of Lieve Blancquaert's new exhibition, in which the Belgian photographer takes us on a trip across Europe. A book about it will be published under the same name and from 5 March a documentary series will run on VRT Canvas. It is about Europe, people and importance of working together. With the content’s focus, SD Worx saw a project with an important social value and got on board. It will use some images from “We are Europe” in its Navigator reports based on its own European research on payroll and HR. Lieve Blancquaert came for coffee in the Ghent SD Worx office, close to where she lives to explain more about the content’s meaning and story.

    "In 1989, I was working in East Berlin, including for the weekly Knack. As a 26-year-old freelancer, I took countless photos there that attracted a lot of interest: people were curious about life behind the Iron Curtain, social media did not yet exist. At the fall of the Wall on 9 November, I noticed a huge sense of togetherness. It left a deep impression and a strong fascination for unification. The idea of doing something with that had been lurking in my head for a while. I wanted to send a signal that we must not let this cohesive, strong Europe crumble. There are 27 member states, with 24 different languages and a distinct history for each country. Yet we can stand there as one block. That is what we must strive for. Togetherness is crucial to get things moving and solve problems. Together, we can do so much more." 

      Not bashing each other's heads in

      With the initiative, Blancquaert wants to make us think carefully when we go to the polls in June for the European elections. "I am more concerned with Europe than with Flanders or Belgium and prefer to zoom out. Our clout is much greater if we work together and we owe a lot to Europe. Hendrik Vos puts it aptly: we sit at the table together and there are quite a few arguments, we don't always agree with each other. We have our own history and interests, so it is not so strange. But we no longer bash each other's heads in. There has not been a war here since World War II and that is to the credit of the European Union."

      Brexit, climate change, the refugee influx, the war in Ukraine... no shortage of triggers to turn the idea into a concrete plan. And so Blancquaert took a trip across Europe in a camper van over the course of five months. The goal? On one hand, to understand Europe better through encounters with ordinary people. On the other, to send that signal that Europe must remain one. Blancquaert systematically asked the same questions during her encounters: do you feel European (85% said yes), do you feel rich or poor, what does faith mean to you, what scares you, what do you see as the biggest challenges for the future? She felt warmly welcomed throughout.


        Photo: Lieve Blancquaert

        "It is remarkable how welcome you are everywhere. People are not afraid, they are open to conversation and they all have a story. That's encouraging, it's worth listening every time. You are quick to pigeonhole and judge people, even when we don't know them at all. I thought about that regularly during my tour. You see someone walking, approach them and in that one moment, in those 15 metres you travel on your way to that person, you almost unconsciously already form a certain image and have a certain expectation. While people are so much more than what they look like at first sight. In an elderly man there is still a piece of a young man, you see? That makes it just as fascinating. With an open mind and by looking at situations from a distance, you can come to completely different insights. I find that so enriching. “There is something to do with that in the workplace too.

          Badly deceived

          The trip made Blancquaert realise how spoiled we are in Belgium, where the labour market is well regulated. It is different in southern Spain, with a clear migration from the countryside to the cities that are becoming overcrowded. In the Almeria region, where vegetables are grown en masse in kilometres of plastic greenhouses for Europe, she was shocked by working conditions reminiscent of true slavery. Migrant workers work there in extreme conditions, are poorly paid and live in slums. That too is Europe, we should not be blind to that.


            Photo: Lieve Blancquaert

            Difficult themes are not avoided. Blancquaert also visited the UK, no longer a member state since Brexit, “But we felt it was important to include them in our tour. How do they look at this today, what feeling do they have now that they are no longer part of the European Union? Most of the people we spoke to feel politically rocked by the many lies."  

            "Work is something you build your life with, it is the basis of everything. In the south they work themselves to death for little, in the north people work to maintain a certain standard of living. But even there, there is no equality yet. I had a conversation in Sweden with a woman who had just given birth. Yes, parental leave is generous there, for both women and men. But why does a male midwife still earn more than his female colleague? It is a myth that the labour market there is perfect, the pay gap still rages on there too. Finland was once again named the world's happiest country. But what is happiness? The average Finn rather soberly points out that such a label is mostly pure marketing. Although people are indeed rather content there. The biggest reason: strong social security and the fact that every Finn has nature no more than 600 metres from home."

              The lost generation

              For Blancquaert, work goes hand in hand with happiness and quality of life. This functions much better in the north than in the south. People have also been members of the European Union for longer, which means there is more protection, and everything is better regulated. Countries like Bulgaria, Poland or Romania still have a huge gap to make up in the labour market, which also has to do with economic backwardness. There is a feeling among locals that we look down on them, even though they belong to our European family and do feel European. But they are not treated the same way, they feel. Think of the huge wage gap, even though life is getting more expensive there too.

              "It leads to extreme poverty and makes people migrate abroad to clean or work in construction, far from their families and friends, years on end. This generation sacrifices itself to give the next generation a better future. I call them the lost generation."

                The best tomatoes in the world

                If she were the boss, Blancquaert would give everyone a decent wage for work. It bothers her that care workers are paid so poorly, even though they do such valuable work. She wants more future vision and a long-term focus. "It is difficult to go from election to election, with relatively short legislatures. You don't get around that way. Work, climate, social care, the flow of refugees... it's all connected, and we have to solve it together."

                  Work says something about your personality, it even fuses with it.
                  Lieve Blancquaert

                  Lieve Blancquaert: "Many people work to have a salary at the end of the month. But of course, it is more than that, it gives meaning to your life, it can make you proud. I spoke to a tomato farmer in Malta who was fighting the drought. But his faith gave him hope, he was happy because he was proud of the result of his work: after all, he had the best tomatoes in the world."


                    Photo: Lieve Blancquaert

                      Scare of a boss

                      "For me, my work is everything, if I don't have my work, I become lame, it is the drive in my life. I am 60 now and I am not thinking of stopping working already. Autonomy is important to me. I did not want someone else to make decisions for me and was scared to work for a boss. Teaching did not appeal to me either. I was afraid that a steady job and the security of a monthly salary in the bank account would lull me to sleep. So, after my studies, I applied for an enterprise number. The first year, I had a profit of 200 euros. Of course, in the beginning I took commissions to make ends meet and to build a life. But I never put money before quality. That sometimes means you must compromise, but I prefer to follow my heart. Being self-employed can be stressful, most definitely. But it also gives you so much freedom and forces you to be inventive and creative. I like that."

                      Speaking of her youth, what advice would she give to a young person who is at the start of her career? "Be patient and dare to grow slowly, don't expect everything to be an instant success. When you are 30, a big part of your career and life is yet to begin. For me, the best came around age 50. We all have to work longer. Please, let us look more positively at older people and the experience they built up. Grandparents who look after grandchildren do a brilliant job. Let us appreciate that more. I often miss that: applause for people who still make a difference by doing small things in their work."

                      "Capitalism links happiness and success with growth, and preferably as fast and as hard as possible. For me, happiness is in the appreciation of my work. Even a smaller turnover or growth then gives a lot of satisfaction. Today, 95% of my work comes from my own initiative. Because I can afford it financially, I realise of course, I am in a different phase of life by now. But it also has to do with the limitation of time. When you are young, you think time is endless. Now I am much more aware that time is limited. So, I want to make good use of it, by really focusing. Projects like "We are Europe" require a lot of time and so other projects must give way. But I do the things I like to do."

                        Want to find out more?

                        The first episode of the six-part documentary series starts on 5 March (VRT Canvas)

                        The book 'Wij zijn Europa' is published by Hannibal and is now on sale. The exhibition runs from 16/03 to 30/06 at the Mechelen Cultural Centre.

                          All about 'Wij Zijn Europa'

                          Pieter Goetgebuer

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