Time to rejig flexicurity, say SMEs


European social partners joined forces last week (25 March) to deliver to EU leaders their labour market vision, in particular the need for revised goals for flexicurity.

The Tripartite Social Summit, comprising employers, trade unions and SME associations, stressed that at a time of crisis, enhancing labour market inclusion – finding effective and creative ways to get people back to work – is key to restoring economic growth.

The partners delivered a framework agreement in which they "commit to taking concrete actions to help disadvantaged people to enter, remain and develop in the labour market".

Suggested areas in which measures can be taken include "vocational training, apprenticeships, recruitment, transparency and information regarding competences, available jobs and training programmes".

Meanwhile, European SMEs have argued that the much-vaunted EU priority of flexicurity needs to be rejigged if EU leaders are serious about tackling the crisis.

There is no time to lose, Liliane Volozinskis, director for social affairs at SME association UEAPME, told EURACTIV.

There is an urgent need to rethink flexicurity principles and adapt them to the crisis, she argued, as the recession has distorted the way flexicurity works. Due to the squeeze on labour markets, half of European workers currently have no flexibility in their working arrangements, and the other half have too much, in that they lack any form of job security and face a precarious 2010.

"We need to remove this polarisation," Volozinskis said. The UEAPME director believes the EU's flexicurity principles remain valid, but a number of measures should be launched to get labour markets back on track.

Transitions and training: Germany good, France bad

Specifically, she stressed the need to improve training measures, particularly for SMEs. In other words, in countries such as Germany, where short-term work schemes have been put in place as a safeguard against mass unemployment, it is imperative for workers to be able to combine their reduced work hours with the right training programmes.

Without these improvements in quality and accessibility, the EU risks a prolonged period of weakness in the EU job market, the UEAPME chief said. 

Secondly, the issue of transition between jobs needs to be tackled. In a time of crisis, it is crucial to keep people employable so they can move easily to a new job within a company, or to a new organisation. This is also linked to training, explained Bolozinskis.

She noted that in many countries, and notably France, the training and transition measures built into short-term working schemes are too complicated, whereas in Germany and Austria "they are doing better as the social partners are more reactive".

Speaking after the tripartite summit, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that "creating jobs remains a number one priority.. We cannot and must not let unemployment turn to long-term unemployment and social exclusion. We must also pay particular attention to facilitating the entry of young people into the labour market".

He added that "we are committed to more and better jobs and to a flexicurity approach to help this transition. I do not need to repeat it: flexicurity is both about flexibility and security".

Barroso noted that "the upgrading of skills will be a decisive factor in achieving higher levels of employment and matching the skills needs in various sectors in the future".

"We will not accept new walls in Europe because of poverty and exclusion, and we are resolved to tear them down. That's why we want leaders to agree on a headline target to combat poverty," he said.

UEAPME President Georg Toifl argued that "the economic crisis has further exposed the unhappy state of Europe's labour markets. Some workers enjoy high levels of security with almost no flexibility, while another part of the European workforce are highly flexible but regrettably insecure".

"Rising unemployment is likely to make matters worse. We cannot afford this situation any longer," added Toifl, concluding that "we must go back to the drawing board and re-think flexicurity as a state in which all workers enjoy a fair balance of flexibility and security and are ready to respond to the changing needs of the labour markets".

"The principles agreed by all social partners in 2007 are a good starting point for our debate. We must press ahead and put them into practice," Toifl said. 

The Tripartite Social Summit, which meets at least once a year, before the spring European Council, institutionalises the informal summits held since December 2000.

It consists of the Council presidency and the two subsequent presidencies, the European Commission and the social partners, all represented at the highest level. Its objective is to ensure the effective participation of the social partners in implementing the EU's economic and social policies.

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