Informal meeting of ministers for employment and social policy

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Dear Minister Cigler Kralj,

Dear Ministers,

First of all, thank you to the Slovenian Presidency for having invited me to such an important meeting - it is an honour and a pleasure for me to participate in this plenary session and to represent the European Economic and Social Committee. Working on resilient and inclusive labour markets for all in the context of current transitions is a core aspect of our work at the EESC.

Our view is that we need a vision for a stronger and more resilient post-COVID Europe, making the best out of the ongoing transitions. My own priorities are to contribute to putting in place all the elements for an economically prosperous Europe, a socially inclusive Europe, and an environmentally sustainable Europe.

We know that the pandemic has caused a terrible recession and has aggravated inequalities. Europe has shown a great level of mobilisation and solidarity, by providing financial means to ensure our recovery. But we need more than money to solve the current situation: the transition to an economy that is more digital and green after the pandemic needs to be linked to a social recovery. In this regard, the Porto Social Summit created a new momentum and the European Pillar of Social Rights serves as a compass for upward social convergence.

Two days ago, we had an excellent news: the European economy is rebounding much faster than expected. The Summer Economic Forecast of the European Commission projects the EU economy and the euro area economy to both grow by 4.83%% in 2021 and 4.5% 2022. 

However, the risks surrounding these good forecasts remain high. Also, talking about GDP is not enough: 2 days ago, we had a very interesting debate at our plenary session, on a "well-being" economy. One of the conclusions was that "Economic prosperity, care for environment and people's well-being can and need to go hand in hand."

We cannot just go back to "normal" after the pandemic: we need to both facilitate the transition towards a green and digital Europe and to reinforce the basis of a competitive European economy, which ensures prosperity and inclusiveness. A well-functioning, diverse labour market that integrates all categories of people is a must. In this sense, I appreciate the commitment of the Slovenian Presidency to the Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights.

The EESC has adopted yesterday an opinion on the Action Plan. It considers that sustainable economic growth needs to be coupled with social progress. Accordingly, the Action Plan should promote sustainable and competitive economies, based on quality jobs and equal opportunities for all.

A core element for achieving this objective should be matching education and training with the needs of the labour market. This is certainly one of the key challenges we are facing today – like the one of promoting lifelong learning for everyone.

In particular, we are in the middle of digital transformation and new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, are increasingly used in the workplace. A recent Commission report noted that "The use of ICT has increased significantly in the last five years in more than 90% of workplaces." This requires to better prepare both enterprises and workers, if we want it to be successful, fair and inclusive. "38% of workplaces report that the lack of digital skills has an impact on their performance". Up - and re-skilling of workers and digital education are crucial nowadays.

This is also the conclusion of an exploratory opinion on Adult Learning that we have just adopted, at the good initiative of the Slovenian Presidency. Our opinion also calls for an active involvement of companies and trade unions when establishing strategies for skills development.

I believe a socially inclusive labour market should safeguard employment and income for all workers, and at the same time, support in particular vulnerable groups, such as young people, women, persons with disabilities, atypical workers, people in marginalized areas and people with a migrant or ethnic minority background.

Young people are among those most hit by the pandemic. Commission's new review on "Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2021" shows that young people had more difficulties in transitioning from education to the labour market. The employment of young people declined strongly in 2020. Compared with 2019, the employment rate for people aged 15 - 24 decreased from 33,5 % to 31,5 %. This is almost one million young people who were not employed anymore in 2020.

The reinforced Youth Guarantee is an important instrument to combat youth unemployment, as it includes apprenticeships, traineeships, education and job offers. 

However, there is also the need to increase and promote active labour market policies in the Member States, which could guarantee not only access to the labour market, but also quality work opportunities for younger generations.

In the preparatory paper for this meeting, the Presidency has underlined the need for a diverse work place. I fully share that view.

It is essential to enhance the efforts for inclusive work environments, regardless of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation of employees. An inclusive work environment also means real social dialogue. The European Diversity Charters Month in May 2021 was a strong message in this direction.

At the EESC we have also repeatedly focused on the position of women in the labour market. Whereas the employment rate declined less for women than for men in 2020, thus contributing to slightly reduce the gender employment gap, women experienced an important fall in working hours: -7.2%, in comparison to -6.7% for men.

Moreover, during the pandemic women continued to take on the majority of caring work, in - and outside their families, therefore often facing challenges in balancing work and private life. The Committee recently adopted an opinion on gender and teleworking, which emphasised the need for enhancing digital skills, with special attention to women, in order to enable them to fully participate in labour markets.

All the policies and tools I mentioned above should ultimately contribute to achieving quality work and a quality life for everyone. The principle of quality of work for quality of life is also emphasised in an opinion the EESC is currently working on, requested by the Slovenian presidency, on sustainable quality work during and after recovery. 

The opinion will be adopted in September, but the preparatory work on the opinion suggests that to effectively introduce solutions, we need to put in place good structures for doing research and monitoring more closely labour market developments in the recovery period.

The opinion will also call on the Member states, in conjunction with the social partners, to enhance social dialogue with other more strategic and sustainable content that will help for instance to anticipate future needs of workers with regard to the competences and skills required by the transformation of the labour market.

Finally, I would like to touch upon the green transformation - one of the major driving forces of Europe's recovery. Certainly, this transition will help to modernise the industrial sector and will contribute to the creation of high quality jobs. But this will be done only if businesses and workers will be assisted for meeting the new ambitious targets. Both enterprises and workers, via the social partners, should be constantly involved in shaping the transition. Businesses should remain competitive while respecting environmental targets, workers should be equipped with the necessary set of skills for continuing to be operational in an evolved and progressive labour market, and people who will suffer from the transition and lose their jobs will need to be supported and not left behind.

Dear Ministers,

To conclude, the EESC's is fully committed to continue supporting the other institutions in shaping new, inclusive policies for a labour market that is living epochal changes. We can do that by upholding the voice of the primary actors: the social partners and organised civil society, and by bringing to you the grassroots knowledge and the on the ground connection with people.

Thank you for your attention!

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Informal meeting of ministers for employment and social policy