What OECD ministers are doing

OECD employment ministers' roundtable
OECD Observer

In this Observer roundtable, we have invited employment and labour ministers from a cross-section of OECD countries to answer a straightforward question: 

“What measures are you taking in your country to raise the level of employment and how do you propose to create opportunities for better jobs?”

Jobs are a primary concern for citizens in all OECD countries. And it is not just a question of having work and being paid enough. The quality of the job, whether it is stable and secure, or satisfying – these are questions for us all in our working lives. But they are of acute importance to groups that are under-represented in the workforce, such as women, older people, the unskilled and the disabled. Yet boosting their participation in the labour force can go a long way to helping governments face the challenge and rising costs of an ageing population. 

In this roundtable on employment, we have invited employment and labour ministers from a cross-section of OECD countries to answer a straightforward question: 

“What measures are you taking in your country to raise the level of employment and how do you propose to create opportunities for better jobs?” 

This is the key question on the agenda when employment and labour ministers from OECD countries meet in Paris on 29-30 September. The conference, chaired by French minister for social affairs, employment and solidarity, François Fillon , is on the theme “Towards More and Better Jobs”.

Mr Fillon as chair leads the replies in this Observer. He is followed by Canada’s minister of human resources development, Jane Stewart; Finland’s labour minister, Tarja Filatov; Japan’s health, labour and welfare minister, Chikara Sakaguchi; Mexico’s secretary of labour and social welfare, Carlos Abascal-Carranza; New Zealand’s minister for social development and employment, Steve Maharey; and the UK’s minister of state for work, Des Browne.

France: Promoting employment and lifelong learning

François Fillon, Minister for Social Affairs, Employment and Solidarity, and Chair of the 2003 OECD Meeting of Employment and Labour Ministers

The worldwide cyclical downturn that France has faced for the past two years has underlined the need for a comprehensive range of policies to promote employment. Our difficulties are not the result of the current situation alone. It is obvious that we suffer from an excessively high structural unemployment rate, coupled with under-utilisation of the labour force, particularly of young people and older workers. Refusing to take a Malthusian, administered approach to the labour market, our government has launched a series of structural reforms aimed at raising our growth potential, which alone can provide lasting and high-quality jobs. Our strategy is based on four pillars: to reaffirm the value of work; to lower employers’ social contributions; to make it easier for those in greatest need to find jobs; and to raise skill levels, while tapping into the experience of older workers.

Work is a fundamental value of our society to which the French are deeply attached. Raising the minimum wage, extending the employment bonus for low-paid workers and introducing the minimum employment income (RMA) will ensure that effort and work are more fairly rewarded than in the past. Greater freedom to work overtime, lower taxes and measures to make it easier to start a business will encourage effort and initiative over the long term. Reducing the social contributions paid by employers on low salaries is no doubt the most effective tool for promoting the employment of low-skilled workers. We are going to lower these costs by some €7 million annually between now and 2005.

Through specific programmes that are better targeted and better adapted to needs, the government intends to make it easier for persons in difficulty or at risk of exclusion to return to work. Through one programme for businesses, some 90,000 young people with low skill levels have already been hired on permanent contracts. Through the RMA, spending that now goes to a welfare programme will be used to put the unemployed back to work. Modernisation of the public employment service will ensure more fluid labour market and more effective job placement. Vocational training is key for the competitiveness of our businesses and making individual careers more secure. It is a field in which business and labour organisations hold considerable responsibilities. Negotiations under way should lead to the creation of an “employment insurance” programme that will enable every individual to upgrade and renew their skills on a lifelong basis.

Finally, it is vital for people to extend their working lives. In conjunction with a more favourable regulatory framework providing stronger incentives to work longer, the government intends to organise a nationwide campaign to promote employment and access to training for people over the age of 50.

These are the challenges we face. And we fully intend to rise to them, as employment is our priority.

Canada: Innovation culture

Jane Stewart, Minister of Human Resources Development

The quality of life Canadians have earned and enjoy is rightly recognised as among the highest in the world. At the same time, the government must help develop people’s talent and provide the opportunity for all to contribute to and benefit from the rapidly evolving, knowledge-based economy.

As part of its Innovation Strategy, launched in February 2002, the government of Canada committed to helping build a culture of lifelong learning. While helping Canadians enhance their skills capabilities and participate in learning opportunities is admittedly a long-term partnership among governments, business, labour, the voluntary sector and individual Canadians, progress has been made.

For example, we have strengthened funding for student loans to ensure more Canadians have access to postsecondary education. We have extended assistance for people with disabilities to enhance their participation and retention in the labour market. We are helping immigrants to fully participate in the workforce. We have taken steps and introduced programmes to better equip aboriginal people with the skills they need to take full advantage of employment opportunities.

Starting in 2004, Canadians will help in making decisions about acquiring the skills and learning they need through the newly created Canadian Learning Institute.

No doubt there will be many more challenges ahead as we continue to deal with the issues of shifting demographics, a shortage of skilled workers in some key areas and an ever-increasing demand for a well-educated and adaptable workforce. The government of Canada believes those challenges can be met by making strategic investments in our people.

Finland: Tackling unemployment

Tarja Filatov, Minister of Labour

The main goal of the Finnish government is to increase employment. We have set ourselves a target of creating 100,000 new jobs over the next four years. Finland’s particular problem is structural unemployment, and special measures are needed to deal with it. Another distinct problem is Finland’s rapidly ageing population.

We have set up a Special Employment Programme that involves various ministries and many other players, as well as a programme for supporting entrepreneurship. One important task of the programme is to change regional service structures, through co-operation and collaboration between the different authorities, to achieve more effectiveness. The aim is to provide each unemployed person with suitable individualised employment, rehabilitation, training and other similar measures. The Special Employment Programme also tackles the unemployment funding systems to ensure that the respective fund administrators will be encouraged to look for employment-promoting solutions, while the unemployment benefit system needs to support employment-promoting and active participation measures too.

Another problem we are addressing is that of short career lengths. In Finland, the average retirement age is 59 and young people enter the labour market relatively late. The average retirement age has to be increased, while studies and the transition to the labour market have to be accelerated. To retain ageing employees in work, it is essential to enhance the quality of working life as well as the upkeep of skills, while removing obstacles to the employability of older workers. Many companies have applauded the National Workplace Development Programme, the programme on Well-Being at Work and the Productivity Programme which are already well under way.

As far as the young are concerned, educational guidance needs to be improved and student financial assistance schemes reviewed to encourage more focused and goal-oriented studying. The Finnish Government Programme includes the provision of training and work placements for the young after a maximum period of three months unemployed.

Japan: One-stop centres

Chikara Sakaguchi, Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare

The 2003 meeting of OECD Employment and Labour Ministers is timely, as it will look at the acute problem posed by ageing societies, as well as discussing comprehensive policy changes to promote the employment of under-represented groups. To secure and stabilise employment in today’s world, where ageing is a growing feature and economic and industrial structures are changing, it is essential that real job opportunities be provided to those who wish to work, including people with caring responsibilities and older people, and that labour productivity be improved. We must solve various labour issues if we are to create a society where people can work hard and, concurrently, enjoy sufficient free time.

Japan’s labour situation is severe, with the unemployment rate still high, and we are taking every possible step to dispel concerns about unemployment by, for example, promoting early re-employment, particularly of middle- aged workers that are displaced by restructuring or downsizing.

Frankly, too many younger people are without jobs. If they stay unemployed for too long, they will not be able to enhance their employability or develop their careers. We are concerned that this may lead to serious social problems, such as a rise in precarious employment and expanding income disparities, not to mention the collapse of the economic infrastructure resulting from declining socioeconomic competitiveness and productivity in the long run. To tackle these problems, we are currently considering establishing one-stop centres that will support youth employment and business start-ups through local initiatives, and introducing a system to train them as professionals by combining practical experience in companies and educational/vocational training. The one-stop centres would be designed to provide information, consulting and employment services. We are determined to take these measures to solve the employment problems facing the younger generation.

Mexico: Human capital

Carlos Abascal-Carranza, Secretary of Labour and Social Welfare

In Mexico, we are fostering a new labour culture that recognises the person as source, centre and driving force of economic activity. We consider work to be a tool to achieve personal fulfilment and development, and a means to create wealth. We endeavour to find fair and intelligent formulas of co-operation, dialogue and consensus, placing human beings and human dignity at the centre of our activities.

We believe that workers, employers and governments should work together towards ensuring competitiveness, legal certainty, lifelong learning, quality jobs, and a higher standard of living for all workers. Systematic co-operation and communication among social partners is the best antidote against parochial interests, exclusion, exploitation and the erosion of fundamental values. Mexico’s Consejo para el Diálogo con los Sectores Productivos, which is modelled on the economic and social councils found in Europe, has served since 2001 as a permanent advisory body and discussion forum to this end.

Our challenge lies in creating conditions to generate all the high-quality jobs that Mexico demands, and the government has launched several new programmes to this end. The federal Training System for Work (SICAT) provides training scholarships for the unemployed. Our Training Support Programme (PAC) is aimed at increasing productivity and firm competitiveness in small and medium-sized enterprises. Such policies are designed to improve employability and entrepreneurial skills, thus reducing poverty and improving everyone’s standard of living.

We work actively with our partners to improve access to the job market for target groups, such as women and older adults. For example, the Abriendo Espacios programme is a job-matching and training system that seeks to promote employment of ageing adults and disabled persons. We are convinced that better job opportunities require lifelong learning and training, not only to improve employability, but foster higher productivity and competitiveness. Workers and entrepreneurs must renew constantly their ability to grasp new technologies and develop new skills, for their own personal fulfilment as well as meet the needs of firms that operate in a competitive and globalised environment.

New Zealand: Building capability

Steve Maharey, Minister for Social Development and Employment

The efforts New Zealand is making to reduce unemployment are paying off. Unemployment has fallen from 6.3% in December 1999 to a 16-year low of 4.7% in August 2003. Strong job growth has accompanied this drop, with 148,000 more New Zealanders in jobs than in March 2000.

New Zealand has an active programme to ensure that job growth benefits all job seekers. We have focused on: enhancing the capability of New Zealanders; maximising the opportunities available for people to use their skills; and ensuring that capacities and opportunities are well matched.

This “human capability framework” has influenced our thinking about employment, training and skills policy, and it has reinforced the point that government activities need to be well co-ordinated to achieve employment and social development objectives.

Young people are our future and New Zealand is working to ensure successful transitions from school to further education and training or employment. We need young people to make well-informed choices about the skills they need. If a young person is at risk of falling out of the system or into long-term unemployment, we have to help as early as possible.

To focus our efforts, the government and most of the country’s local authorities have set a goal that “by 2007, all 15 to 19-year-olds will be engaged in appropriate education, training, work or other options which will lead to long-term economic independence and well-being”.

We have invested significantly initiatives that help young people make the transition by both building the capabilities of young people and helping them access the opportunities available. Our Modern Apprenticeship programme and Gateway programme (which enables senior secondary school to participate in structured learning in the workplace) are particular examples that are making a positive impact.

We are now turning our attention to improving careers information, advice and guidance, improving post-school support for those at risk, and to expanding vocational education and training pathways.

United Kingdom: Age-positive campaign

Des Browne, Minister of State for Work

On the whole, the outlook of employment and job opportunities in the UK is positive. The OECD Jobs Study identified the UK as one of four countries where structural reform had led to sustained improvement in employment opportunities as well as to a reduction in structural unemployment.

The UK has coped as well as anyone during the recent global economic downturn. We now have one of the highest employment rates in the world, as well as the lowest unemployment rate of all the major industrialised countries.

However, the OECD also identified long-term unemployment and weaknesses in basic education as areas where more needed to be done. There has been improvement in these areas.

Macroeconomic stability is necessary to provide employment opportunities for all, but it is not sufficient. Reforms to the education system have drastically reduced the number of people without qualifications.

One of our schemes has been the introduction of the New Deal, which now provides universal support for long-term unemployed benefit recipients. It has contributed to the virtual eradication of long-term unemployment for the young and a reduction for adults of three-quarters since 1997. The public employment service, Jobcentre Plus, is being transformed to combine benefit payment and labour market help for all, while extra help is also available for people on lone parent, sickness and disability benefits to increase job opportunities.

Another way to raise the level of employment is to make sure there is a diverse workforce – which is why we are taking action against ageism with the Age Positive campaign to let more people work.

So we have done a good deal, but there is more to do. Success will benefit the economy, individuals, families and society and will allow the UK to continue to enjoy a positive employment situation.

©OECD Observer No 239, September 2003

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