Commissioner Špidla: Mobility is an opportunity, not a panacea

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In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimír Špidla comments on the European Year of Workers’ Mobility and the challenge of pitching the benefits of mobility to the peoples of Europe.

What objectives does the Commission pursue with the European Year of Worker’s Mobility? 

Workers’ mobility, in both geographic and occupational terms, has become a topical issue on the employment and social agenda. Yet, notwithstanding recent developments in a number of  areas – the introduction of the European Health Card or the directive on the portability of pension rights -, the overall figures concerning mobility remain low. As regards cross  border mobility , less than 2% of EU citizens of working age actually live and work in another EU Member State, a percentage that has not increased significantly for over the past 30 years. The picture is somewhat different for job-to-job mobility. Around 8% of workers change jobs every year and slightly more than a quarter of all workers are with the same company for less than 24 months.  On the other side of the picture, around 40% of workers remain with the same employer for over 10 years, a figure that reaches almost 50% in several countries. 

These numbers are indicative of the emergence of a dual labour market with a small, highly mobile group of workers in contrast to a static majority. A large group of these mobile workers are often obliged to change jobs because of sectorial factors or due to the precarious employment relationships. There is hence little or no ‘mobility culture’ amongst most of the European workforce, which leads to one of the paradoxes of the EU labour market, namely that in the EU work has become mobile while many workers have not. 

The aim of the European Year is therefore to propose a large debate with all relevant players of the employment scene – job seekers, employers, trade unions, local authorities, education and training organisations – in order to sensitise all citizens to the rights of workers to circulate freely within the EU; to inform them about the opportunities that exist in this area as well as the instruments introduced to promote mobility (in particular  EURES); finally, to expand our knowledge base concerning mobility flows in Europe, the obstacles to workers’ mobility and the reasons that lead workers to undertake a period of mobility in another Member State.

 

Is the Mobility year linked to the end of the first transitional period  on the mobility of workers from Central and Eastern Europe in those of the old Member States that chose to impose restrictions two years ago?

The decisions to be taken by the Member States in order to maintain or not the transitional period after 1 May 2006 certainly played a role in the decision to hold the Year in 2006 and not at a later date, as was initially planned. 

The Commission issued in this respect a report on 8 February 2006, which evidenced the globally positive effects that enlargement has had on employment opportunities, particularly as regards the three countries – the UK, Ireland and Sweden – that had not applied restrictions after May 2004. During the two years after enlargement, these counties have experienced high economic growth, a drop in unemployment and a rise in employment. I believe that the choice of the European Year has helped to raise the debate in its various dimensions.     

 

Most countries have upheld these restrictions, a few have dropped them, a few others will lift them under different schemes. Had you hoped for more progress?

The picture in retrospect looks very much like the story of the glass, which can be considered as half full or half empty, depending on the way you look at it. On the one hand, four additional countries have decided to lift restrictions  – Spain, Portugal, Finland and Greece -, while five others are introducing a more flexible policy, based for instance on a partial removal of restrictions in a number of sectors. On the other hand, three countries have opted for a global prolongation of the restrictions for another three years. This of course has caused some frustration in the so-called ‘new’ Member States. We need therefore to keep up the momentum in order to make the free circulation of workers a right for all EU citizens.      

 

As you mentioned, only 2% of Europeans are transnationally mobile. How much more mobility would it take to bring about significant progress on the Lisbon targets?

The figure of 2% is low, although it does not take into consideration the seasonal workers, who can be quite numerous at certain moments in the agriculture or the hotel sectors. It does not include either the 600,000 cross-border workers who commute every day between countries. 

What we want to do during the Year is to explain how mobility can contribute to create jobs, for instance by reducing unemployment in specific sectors in certain regions or countries, while there are shortages for these types of workers in other Member States of the EU. We also want to demonstrate what mobility can bring to people in terms of access to new cultures, new languages and a new working environments. This is how introducing a mobility culture in the EU could contribute to create a genuine labour market in Europe, and help achieve the Lisbon objective of more and better jobs. 

 

Important reasons why people are so sedentary are in traditional orientations. Can the Commission really change those?

It is a fact that in certain areas, people tend to stay in the same position for as long as they can. As mentioned before, nearly 50 % of Belgian, Italian or French workers have not changed employer for over ten years, while the figure is about half in the United Kingdom and  Ireland. Another interesting figure is that 25 % of the European workforce has never changed employer, whatever their age group. The average duration in a same job is around 50 % higher in Europe than in the United States. What we would like to do through mobility is to encourage European workers to engage in mobility experiences at certain moments in their careers. Overwhelmingly, European workers who are questioned on these experiences indicate that the latter are extremely valuable in the planning of their career and the management of their daily lives. If we want to generalise mobility as a part of a career, we need however to address a series of issues such as the recognition of mobility in the advancement within a career. We need also to help workers who have undertaken an experience abroad to reintegrate in the job market upon their return. 

 

Other economic blocs with which the EU is competing, e.g. the USA, don’t have the same language and cultural barriers that we have. Will Europe ever be able to reach the same degree of mobility as those countries? 

Language and cultural barriers, but also housing and the issue of return, are indeed some of the specificities of the European labour market, which prevent the development of a mobility culture. But we can also look at our diversity as an asset which enables people to access new cultures and working environments. In addition to providing better adaptability of workers to a rapidly changing working environment, mobility is probably one of the best ways to experience the European added value.  It is not surprising that all programmes that have fostered mobility – Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci or the Marie Curie scheme for researchers – are among the most popular programmes of the EU. 

 

Instead of teaching people to go where the jobs are, wouldn’t it be more promising to teach employers to bring the jobs to the people? In many domains, e.g. in the whole field of ICT services, this would technically be possible. 

The two options are not contradictory. First of all, we do not want to force people into mobility. We want to make mobility an option at certain moments of people’s careers. Mobility as such is not a panacea, but an instrument to provide people with better tools to adapt to the effects of globalisation. This is why we would like, in addition  to bringing jobs to the people, to offer all Europeans the chance to experience a mobility experience at least once in their career.    

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