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Inger Støjberg - fighting unemployment with cross-party cooperation

Inger Støjberg - fighting unemployment with cross-party cooperation

| Text: Berit Kvam Photo: Les Kaner

Just as the economic crisis hit Denmark in April 2009, Inger Støjberg took up her position as Minister of Employment and Gender Equality. She was already known as a vocal spokeswoman for the Danish Liberal Party. Now she is the promoter of broad agreements with the opposition.

She started her ministerial career off by launching the "Youth Agreement", which she unashamedly hails as a gigantic commitment to get young people into work or school. Every young Dane who signs up at a job centre shall be offered some kind of activity within a week. More people will be offered jobs through apprenticeships. Even school weary under-18 should be given a chance to try their hand at working, and young people with no diplomas will be given a chance to get an education.

Bigger than any political party

"I feel this sends an important signal to young people. It doesn't matter if you're a liberal or a socialist - we all agree young people should be offered a good chance of finding work and they should have a good start in working life. You could even argue that this issue is bigger and more important than any political party."

The Minister puts a hand symbolically on her heart:

"I am liberal to my core, but that doesn't stop me cooperating with social democrats and radicals."

Her aim now is a broad agreement on a new massive drive to prevent current unemployment numbers from becoming a permanent fixture in Denmark.

"To me it is very important to do everything in my power to prevent further damages in the wake of the international economic crisis. I can't help companies get new orders on their books, but I can make sure the employment system works." 

Gender equality

It is already late afternoon when I am shown to her office. Another journalist is just leaving as I enter. When she is done with this interview she is off to speak on employment policies for the Liberal Party's parliamentary group. Today's hot media story is about a Copenhagen school with a large number of immigrant children which has agreed to separate parent evenings into male and female events. Inger Støjberg has already expressed her displeasure.

"As Minister for Gender Equality I say this is wrong. As a government minister I can't force the school to change their practise, but I can encourage such a change", she says.

Gender equality was included in the ministry of labour's portfolio when Inger Støjberg was made new Minister of Labour. A government reshuffle at the end of February 2010 saw the responsibility for gender equality shifted to the Ministry of Climate and Energy.

"Generally we have very good gender equality in Denmark", she says. 

I show her some figures showing Denmark bottom of the list of all the Nordic countries when it comes to the number of women leaders and in board rooms. She wants to change this.

"But not by introducing quotas", she quickly adds.

She does not support measures like quotas and the earmarking of parental leave. What she does go for is equal pay and more women leaders. Her predecessor cooperated with the Confederation of Danish Industry to launch a charter to get more women into leading positions. It is a voluntary agreement where businesses sign up to certain targets for equality. She wants an evaluation of this system.

An even higher priority for the Minister is the prevention of domestic violence. Both adults and children are exposed to this, but children make up the majority she says. 

"Nearly 18,000 young people experience violence from their partners every year, be it psychological or physical abuse. 13,000 are girls, 4,500 boys."

But her main priority when working with equality is to secure choice for immigrant women.

"Too many immigrant women in Denmark are subjected to social or cultural control. We have to end this. To me it is a fundamental value to have freedom of choice. I don't care what they choose, but whether they choose freely or are forced to choose", she says. 

"Too few immigrant women work. I am not sure that this is a result of free choice. I am also not sure whether women choose themselves whether to wear a shawl or not, or if they're free to choose their own education. 

The Minister of Gender Equality is also particularly interested in the plight of immigrant boys. They tend not to put as much emphasis on education as the girls. This is a challenge the minister wants to face up to.

"We are in the process of creating a society where boys end up with a very weak link to the labour market. This is a good example of how equality and labour market policies go hand in hand," she adds.

The youngest government minister

Freedom of choice is a basic principle for Inger Støjberg, the government's youngest minister. I wonder whether she considers Norway's Progress Party with their leader Siv Jensen to be the sister party of her own Liberal Party. She is a member of the Liberal Left Party, she says, with emphasis on 'liberal'. One year ago she gave a speech for the Progress Party on freedom of choice - the freedom to choose your own nursery school, your own unemployment insurance, your own hospital - in brief: freedom of choice.

"When liberal parties in other Nordic countries ask me to speak, I speak," she says.

She's been politically engaged since her college days. A defining moment for her was the school charity event Operation Day's Work. 

"I rebelled against the lefties running that year's event, and staged an alternative charity event where all the money was sent directly to an aid organisation with no money going toward administrative costs."

At 20 she was elected a member of the regional office of Denmark's National Labour Market Authority.

While she is talking fondly about how important the cooperation between the state, employers and workers (the 'three-party cooperation') is for employment policies, I remind her of what she once said of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), while a spokeswoman for the Liberal Party. LO, she said, was short for 'løgn og opspind' (lies and fabrications). Does she think that?

There is a glimmer in her eyes and her face lights up. She enjoyed her role as the Liberal Party's spokeswoman and public face.

"It was exciting, taking part in the large discussions with a certain distance to the subject matter - close to government yet without having to go too deep into different areas of expertise. That is one benefit of being a government minister, you are allowed to immerse yourself in one subject. 

"As a political spokesperson you have to provoke and prod sometimes to get your point across. I am in no doubt that the trade union confederation knows where I stand. We cooperate well. The three-party cooperation is extremely important when it comes to labour market issues."

I suddenly notice a poster in a corner of her office saying: 'Støjberg We want silent working conditions' signed Byggfagene, one of the main trade unions for manual workers.

It turns out to be from a demonstration, her first as a government minister. They were outside her office, shouting, playing music and singing. Although she was not invited out, she went down to ask whether she could have that poster. She got it, and it now has pride of place in the corner of her office. 

"That's the way things are in Denmark," she laughs. This way she won't forget about Byggfagene.

Long-term unemployed

”One unemployed is one too many" Støjberg said as she started out as Minister of Labour. This is still her position. That's why she has changed a range of rules to improve the employment system, she says.

"Of course my main task is to make sure there are people out there ready to take care of those unfortunate enough to loose their jobs. For most people, having a job is central to their identity. That's why labour market policies are extraordinarily important. And that is why it is also extraordinarily important that I support a system which actually works and helps people back into work. 

"When unemployment was at its lowest one and a half years ago, there were between 45 and 46,000 unemployed in Denmark. That is fewer people than you can fit inside the Copenhagen stadium. Today there are 121,000 unemployed. Historically it's still a low number, but for those concerned it's nevertheless a sad situation," says Inger Støjberg.

She has launched "a gigantic investment in the young". Now "the canons are trailed on the long-term unemployed". 

"This is a very important problem, and that's why we must use a lot of gun powder. I can see long-term unemployment grow in the near future, and I will stop it before it establishes itself as a permanent fixture."

Yet she warns against amplifying the problems, and underlines the importance of Denmark's flexible labour market.

"This flexibility has allowed us to offer jobs to more than 10,000 people every week even during an economic crisis. Since the beginning of this latest financial crisis 560,000 people have found a new job. This means that if you are unemployed you don't have to watch the football match from the sidelines and wait for the next match - or until the financial crisis is over - before you can play. That image doesn't ring true, because we have more than 10,000 substitutions every single week", she says, still using the football analogy. 

Inspirational meetings

Employer organisations and trade unions play a very important part in Denmark's labour market. She has called on all of them for consultations. She is about to set off on a national tour of what she calls inspirational meetings, to get inspiration from people who face daily problems in the labour market. When she is done she will present her conclusions and planned measures some time in April. 

Working environment?

"My generation expects a good working environment. We expect to enjoy our work place, not to get hurt and to develop new skills through work".

Her generation takes all this for granted, she says. 

"10 - 15 years ago it was very different. You had to fight for a good working environment. Now you just expect it to be there. In 2006 we created a great welfare agreement for Denmark. We put aside money in a fund to help people facing work burnout. Recently I have reached a new deal making sure smaller businesses can also improve their working environment. The deal came about with broad support from all parliamentary parties. I think both social democrats and liberals favour a good working environment."

Nordic cooperation

What about the Nordic cooperation - does that inspire her?

"I had the opportunity to address the Nordic Council meeting not long ago as Minister for Gender Equality. Of course there are areas in which we differ, for instance in the use of quotas and earmarking of funds for parental leave - but our structures are so similar that we can learn a lot from each other still. 

"In European gatherings I always seek out the other Nordic ministers to exchange ideas and experiences. The Swedish labour minister was here not long ago to learn about our work with young people, because their own youth unemployment is almost twice that of Denmark's. And I have just been talking to the Swedish minister for integration, because she and the Swedish minister of labour are very interested in immigrant women and the labour market. I am going to Sweden in April to hear more about that work."

She is interrupted by her secretary. My time is up. She is off to meet her party's parliamentary group. But before I go I have to tell her word is out that she is a good baker. There is a tradition within her ministry to have breakfast together before breaking for holidays. When Inger Støjbeg heard that, she quickly offered to bake cinnamon buns for everybody.

"It's the least I can do. For new year I baked kransekake (a complicated traditional Scandinavian cake) for everyone:", she smiles.

More on the Minister

 Inger Støjberg has been Denmark's Minister of Labour since April 2009.

Between 2009 and 2010 Inger Støjberg also carried the portfolio for gender equality.

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen's reshuffled government of 23 February 2010 moved gender equality to the Ministry of Climate and Energy.

Inger Støjberg was born in 1973 and has been an MP since 2001. 


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