Mobility conference highlights deficits and progress

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At the closing conference of the European Year for Workers’ Mobility, the Commission EU mobility actors took a positive outlook but stressed that, under EU Treaties, this fundamental freedom of movement is still not commonplace.

Among the issues discussed in the conference workshops were: 

The family situation and the employment of spouses 

Panelists and participants found that families determine the overall success of mobility and that the question of spouse employment continues to be one of the main obstacles to mobility. 90% of companies said that more work needed to be done in this respect. Only a fairly small number of big, transnational companies have experience in managing the employment situation of spouses, whereas SMEs have neither the experience nor the means to manage it. It was suggested, therefore, to address the issue, as far as non-EU citizens were concerned, in the framework of the EU policy on managing migration, with a clear preference for spouses and partners to be allowed to work freely during an assignment. 

Assistance schemes to mobile workers

Positive reference was made to  the winner of the Special prize of the Jury of the 2006 European Mobility Award: Wyzsza Szkola Humanistyczno-Ekonomiczna in ?ód? identified the lack of foreign language skills among nurses, one of the most intensely cross-border mobile groups in Poland, as being a main reason for their diplomas not being acknowledged in Western European countries. Consequently, Polish nurses working abroad are getting paid worse than their local colleagues. The project addressed the problem by developing an English-, German-, Italian- and Spanish- language course for nurses, which will hopefully result in payment adapted to nurses’ skills. 

Panellists pointed out the positive potential of co-operation between different countries’ trade unions, such as between the Polish Solidarno?? and the British TUC, for making workers aware of their rights and giving them a feeling of trust. They also found that in particular younger workers could be addressed with web-based information tools. 

New information tools for mobile workers
A number of projects based on information-age media were presented in one of the conference’s plenaries. This included Europa-mobil.de, a German-language website project answering questions sent in by mobile workers or people considering relocation for a job. On-the-move.org, described as “The Performing Arts Traveller’s Toolkit” was presented with a Mobility Award. At the heart of the project is a website in English and German, dedicated to international mobility opportunities and information in theatre, dance, music and other contemporary performing arts disciplines, directed at artists and performing-arts professionals from Europe and beyond. Experiences of artists, traditionally an extremely mobile population group, are presented on Artiste-mobilité.fr

A workshop discussed mainly positive examples, such as SOLVIT, a joint initiative by the Commission and the European Federation of National Engineering Associations aimed at lifting barriers not only to the free movement of goods and services, but also to the free movement of workers. Other examples cited included McPassport, an official certification of the training and skills that employees have acquired while employed by the McDonald’s fast-food chain, and which facilitates finding a job elsewhere at McDonald’s when moving anywhere within the EU. 

Finally, workshop participants praised “Know before you go“, an initiative by the Irish Training and Employment Authority aimed at providing prospective workers willing to come to Ireland with practical information in 13 EU languages, and for Telefónica, which provides in-company training courses in a format that can be displayed on mobile phones regardless of their user’s location. 

A mobility culture for SMEs 
In this workshop, more awareness of workers’ mobility issues was urged on the part of employers. Participants agreed that a culture of mobility should be part of company, as well as of country, cultures. Reference was made to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report Managing mobility matters 2006, which found that employers’ motivation for hiring new workers from elsewhere has shifted from internationalisation to cost-cutting. Panelists’ views differed as to whether this more economy-driven approach was to the benefit or detriment of mobility, but they agreed that, in order to raise Europe’s low levels of mobility, new policies may be needed but more importantly packages and tools for finding and assisting mobile workers should be developed. In this context, prior information and intercultural and language learning at an early age were defined as key priorities. 

Regional co-operation and the cross-border dimension of mobility 
In these two workshops, panellists and the audience came to similar results as in some of the previously mentioned discussions, namely that intercultural and language learning were of utmost importance, even more so in border regions. Around 700,000 Europeans commuting across borders on a daily basis went to demonstrate past progress as well as remaining challenges for the creation of regional labour markets. The award-winning project by the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions, “Co-operation between the Finnish and Estonian labour markets. Information Point on Finnish Working Life in Tallinn“, was mentioned as a positive example in this respect. 

Removal of legal and administrative obstacles 

In this workshop, participants found that “practical barriers often hide legal and administrative ones” – a situation for which there is “no quick fix”, as ECAS Director Tony Venables reported. As an example, he cited the administrative burden of organising a concert with a number of artists, who come from different countries in- and outside the EU, are partly employed, partly self-employed and partly with special statuses such as French intermittents, and who are, in addition, members of collecting societies from different countries as well as subject to different intellectual-property rights regimes. Workshop participants urged member states and the Commission to set up a one-stop shop to deal at least with the social-security issues of mobile workers. A common European social security number was brought up as another measure that might facilitate cross-border mobility in administrative terms. But more important than administrative reforms, participants said, was information on and enforcement of existing legislation benefiting mobile workers, especially directed at local and regional authorities, who are often unaware or unwilling to transpose the laws they have to follow. Special attention, panelists said, needed to be paid to unemployed people moving around Europe to find a job – the workshop found that until now, there is “no decent solution” for those people. 

The return issue and the importance of reintegration after a mobility experience 

The result of the discussions in this workshop was that the difficulties mobile workers face when planing to return to their countries of origin are as much of an obstacle to mobility as the ones they face when moving abroad.  “Return is a new departure,” as one panelist described the experience. The difference being, however, that expatriates tend to keep a link back home and that therefore, returns are easier to anticipate than departures. It was suggested that countries of origin should publish repatriation guides, and that the return issue could also be made part of the work of 
EURES

Commissioner Vladimír Špidla looked back at the year's initial objective, namely creating awareness of the mobility issue, exchanging best practices and consolidating the figures. All three had been attained, he said, in what he called "a provisional stock-taking". Špidla recalled that, during the year, the 'transitional measures' preventing labour migration from had been lifted in five member states. At the same time, the new the EURES internet portal attained as many as 900,000 visitors per month. Regarding the Commission, the creation of a vast database of mobility stakeholders and placing the issue at the heart of European policies were cited as the most important successes. 

Green MEP Jean Lambert saw the year as being dominated by the transition periods, which, she said, were an "unhappy decision" in the first place and "certainly confusing for employers". Lambert added that the experience of the majority of mobile workers was positive, as long as they were employed and regarded as a complement to the existing workforce. She pointed out that, in spite of the risk of 'brain drain', workers' countries of origin have mostly profited from labour mobility. She added, however, that in the future the EU and its member states "need to be far more serious about integration", in particular with respect to third-country nationals who already have difficulties finding jobs, a situation that will be exacerbated with more and more low-paid jobs in the EU-15 being taken by workers from central and eastern Europe. 


ECAS Director Tony Venables
, on the other hand, accused the Commission of sometimes "working in hermetically sealed boxes". Venables said that, regarding the difficulties and obstacles mobile workers still face, it was striking how conference participants across political and economic interest groups agreed and understood what needs to be done. He sent out a warning, however, to "be wary of half-measures and gadgets". 

Göran Hultin, an advisor working for temporary work company Manpower, pointed out demorgaphic change as the backdrop to the worker-mobility issue, citing research saying that, by 2020, Europe will lose lose 11 million workers. Pointing out Manpower's X-Border Connexions programme as an example, Hultin stressed the importance of mobility for addressing what he called "the looming labour crunch". He added that international mobility needs an adapted regulatory framework and transparent operators with ethical principles, for instance against human trafficking. He pointed out that the company he is working for signed the Athens Action Plan, which consists of seven ethical principles to combat human trafficking. 

In his presentationEURACTIV Publisher Christophe Leclercq pointed out how appropriate an issue mobility was for raising readers' interest in the EU. He cited the success of EURACTIV's cross-border mobility section and the fruitful co-operation between EURACTIV.com and its partners in the project. The readership figures for EURACTIV's Workers' Mobility sections prove public interest - 12,000 pageviews were reached during the month of October 2006 on EURACTIV.com alone; a six-fold increase since June 2006. Throughout the EURACTIV network, mobility sections reached around 50,000 pageviews in total; around 400 articles were published in nine languages, with notably a voluntary participation of EURACTIV's Romanian and Bulgarian partner portals, which, their countries not yet being EU members, are not eligible for Commission funding. "The EURACTIV Workers' mobility section goes to prove at once the power of online media and the ability of the workers' mobility topic to provide good media visibility for the EU, " Leclercq said.   

As a climax to the 2006 European Year for Workers' Mobility, the two-day closing conference for the event  was held in the Northern-French city of Lille on 11 and 12 December 2006. Around 100 speakers - Commission officials and MEPs as well as NGO activists and individuals with mobility experiences - and several hundred attendants discussed the benefits and drawbacks of relocating for jobs in Europe, the progress made during the past 12 months and challenges ahead. 

The first European Mobility Awards were also presented at the ceremony. 

  • At the Lille conference, the Commission launched its new EUlisses portal, which provides citizens moving around Europe with information on social security.
  • In early 2007, the Commission plans to follow up with a Mobility Action Plan, which will cover the following areas: 
    • Mobility tools such as the EURES portal
    • access to support services for workers and their families during all stages of their mobility experience; 
    • the issue of return of workers home labour market after working abroad, and; 
    • how mobility can become a natural element in the professional career of Europeans.

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