The latest official figures, which were released by the EU's statistics agency this week (1 February), confirm that unemployment across the EU remains at record levels, with more than 23 million people looking for work.
Last week, EurActiv reported that EU Employment Commissioner László Andor is concerned that the EU seems to be experiencing a 'jobless recovery', with early signs of economic growth failing to be reflected in the creation of new jobs.
Despite this generally gloomy picture, those willing to look beyond the headline figures might be surprised to find a few glimmers of hope.
Germany, Finland and Sweden all saw significant falls in their unemployment rates during 2010, which shows that the decline in demand for labour is not irreversible.
Growth of temporary employment
Meanwhile, data collected from private employment agencies shows that the total number of hours worked by temporary agency workers across Europe went up by more than 23% during the 12 months leading up to October 2010.
This rapid growth in the level of demand for temporary workers was revealed by the first in a brand new series of monthly statistical reports, published this week (31 January) by Eurociett, the European Confederation of private employment agencies.
The Agency Work Business Indicator (AWBI) brings together the latest available data on the agency work industry in 10 European countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
According to Eurociett: "The agency work industry in Europe entered the recession in June 2008 and reached its lowest point in the second quarter of 2009. Since then, the industry has been in recovery, and has been displaying positive growth since March 2010."
The level of demand for temporary workers is seen as a leading business indicator. Any increase of activity in this sector can therefore be taken as an early sign that the European economy is starting to grow again.
Trend towards more part-time work
Another significant trend in Europe's labour market is the increasing importance of part time work, which appears to have continued through the economic crisis.
According to the latest available data, across the whole of the EU some 19% of all employees were working part-time in 2009, up from around 16% in the year 2000.
The 'Employment in Europe 2010' report, published by the European Commission last November, states that part-time employment accounted for "a significant part of the overall expansion in employment in the EU" that was seen between 2000 and 2008.
Wide differences can be seen between member states. In the Netherlands, almost half (48%) of all employees are working part time. Other countries with lots of part-time workers include Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Part-time work remains mainly a female phenomenon. In the Netherlands, three quarters (75%) of all the women in employment have a part-time contract.
Across the EU as a whole, around one third (32%) of women workers are part-timers, but less than a tenth (8%) of male employees work part-time.
A recent report on 'Part-time work in the European Union', published by the European Foundation for the improvement of living and working conditions, notes that part-time work "is a feature of modern working life".
The report states: "New forms of part-time work are starting to emerge alongside just working a few hours each day. These new options could be further developed and their use encouraged, providing increased flexibility for companies and workers."
Response to economic crisis
In Germany, temporary agreements to reduce working hours have proved valuable as a means of avoiding massive increases in unemployment during the current crisis.
The relationship between the number of people who are employed and the average number of hours they work is one of the issues addressed in another report, which was published this week.
The report on 'Development of working time in the EU' was presented at a hearing in the European Parliament on 2 February by Thomas Händel MEP of Germany's Left party (Die Linke).
The report highlights "the possible contribution of shorter working times for safeguarding or even perhaps creating employment".
It describes how in the case of Germany, reductions to working hours "made a crucial contribution to curbing the effects of the immense economic crisis" by allowing more people to keep their jobs during the downturn seen in the last two years.
EU legislation in the pipeline
This year the European Commission will review the so-called 'Working Time Directive', following extensive consultations with employers and trade unions. It has also promised to look at the concept of 'quality of work' in cooperation with the social partners.
In 2012 the Commission is planning to review the effectiveness of EU directives on part-time work and fixed-term contracts and their impact on women’s participation in the labour market.