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The inequality pain threshold has been reached

| By Berit Kvam

The inequality pain threshold has been reached. The OECD now wants the world to think again about what the term economic growth should entail.

So far the narrative about growth first, then distribution has only widened the gap between rich and poor. Now a new narrative is emerging, with terms like ‘resilient, sustainable and inclusive growth’. The Nordic Labour Journal looks into what this paradigm shift means and focuses on inclusion in the labour market.

Inclusion is the new buzzword. Pretty good as long as it has real meaning. If we want to succeed with bridging the divides, we must do more for all the groups struggling to enter into the labour market, says OECD Director Stefano Scarpetta, who is in charge of the organisation’s new Jobs Strategy.

There is a lot of attention on refugees as a group. Earlier this month, Norway – currently holding the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers – hosted a Nordic conference on the inclusion of refugees into the labour market. This was also part of the debate at the OECD Forum 2017, one week earlier. The OECD’s Thomas Liebig was a keynote speaker and debater in both fora. He praised the Nordic countries for leading the way in several areas, but said their structures were at times somewhat rigid.

In 2015 Sweden was top of the list of European countries which accepted the most refugees per capita, with Norway and Denmark also high up. Today there is a lot of activity and much sharing of knowledge across the Nordic countries, in order to best prepare for the refugees’ inclusion into the labour market: Introduction programmes spanning years, fast tracking and mapping of skills. ‘Everybody wants to know about refugees’ skills’.   

For 30 years, Sweden has accepted more refugees per capita than any other Western European country. Yet there are no signs of this representing a threat to the welfare system or the labour market in terms of lower wages or reduced access for the native population, says national economist Joakim Ruist. The risk is that they end up outside of both working and social life. That is why successful integration is so crucially important.

The refugee crisis has led to a rapprochement in Nordic refugee policies. The countries learn from each other. Things are moving towards a consensus, although the systems are still different. The Nordic region has become more coordinated, even if the rhetoric might not be the same, says Grete Brochmann, Professor at the University of Oslo, and a keynote speaker at the Nordic conference on the integration of refugees into the labour market.

Integration is not only about refugees, but also labour immigrants. How are people who do not have the same rights as the refugees doing? Take Polish labour immigrants, who have come to Norway after being recruited by staffing agencies. They are not given language training, do not participate in introduction programmes or learn about Norwegian society. They struggle to get a foothold in the labour market, and few of their contracts last for more than six months, according to a fresh survey.

Ex-prisoners also represent a group that might face problems in the labour market. Yet that is not an altogether clear picture, according to a comparative Nordic study. There are big differences between countries. The study shows that Finnish prisoners find it the hardest to get a job after serving time, while in Norway things are quite different.

Danish municipalities have come far when it comes to including people who for different reasons have been far from the labour market. The report ‘Flexibility in practice’ shows the concrete work undertaken by management and staff in order to create good pathways for inclusion into municipal workplaces. The report shows that inclusion can succeed if the individual, the workplace and the municipality see it as meaningful. It also makes the workplace culture more open.

The pain threshold has been reached, inclusion is necessary if divides are to be erased. Perhaps the same thing will happen when the OECD changes the growth philosophy. It can be meaningful to go for resilient, sustainable and inclusive growth.



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