This article is part of our special report Jobs and Growth.
Opportunities for new ‘flexicurity’ policies combining job security with flexible working arrangements are limited at the European level by sharp differences between member states over social issues.
Delegates at a recent European Commission conference said that the national differences call for stronger social dialogue between employers and trade unions.
A stakeholder meeting on 14 November in Brussels was designed to launch informal consultations on flexicurity to feed into an employment package to be presented by the European Commission in 2012.
But delegates told the conference that there was no one-size-fits-all answer for flexicurity, which is best dealt with at national level. Flexicurity is the concept of combining job flexibility with security.
No progress can be made without social partners
One of those leading a volley of calls for closer consultation between social partners and public authorities in nations that are keen to introduce flexicurity policies is Andrea Benassi, who heads ?the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME). “You cannot consider social security issues if you do not consider the concerns of the social partners,” Benassi said.
Koos Richelle, director-general of social affairs in the EU executive, told the conference: “Social dialogue is not a luxury that we can only afford in times of economic growth; tripartite social dialogue is a necessity.”
Emphasising the sharp differences arising from the financial crisis across European labour markets, where unemployment rates range from 4.4% to 20%, Richelle acknowledged that any new policy would need to cater to this diversity.
“This is not to say that we should create different speeds in the EU, but we should ensure that our policy framework is adapted to the variety of situations across member states,” he added.
Leading academic says there is no time to lose
Ton Wilthagen, a labour markets professor who has spearheaded the EU’s attempt to frame new flexicurity policies, acknowledged in an interview on the fringes of the conference that such policies would need to be brought about at the member-state level.
Wilthagen favours a broad shift from governments paying social security benefits directly to the unemployed to a system of subsidies to companies enabling them to hire workers they could not otherwise afford.
He said that there was no time to lose, and he warned against waiting for a pan-European proposal, saying: “We are hearing some of the same concerns and issues now as were heard four years ago. The machine moves ahead very slowly, but there is nothing preventing initiatives being introduced on a local level.”
Denmark is often held up as the best example of the efficient use of flexibility in the workforce.
Lone Henriksen, an executive in the Danish ministry of employment, acknowledged during a speech before the conference that the experience of the Scandinavian country was probably not directly transferable to other countries, because the labour market conditions might be too different.