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Nordic ministers want a more open working life

Nordic ministers want a more open working life

| Text: Berit Kvam, Photo: Eva Persson

How do you open up the labour market for more people with disabilities? It is a hot topic. Despite crisis and unemployment taking hold, labour ministers keep their strategic focus on mobilising more people to join working life. They highlight the long-term need for labour and that all have the right to be fully part of working and social life. The challenge is to get working life partners to back their initiatives.

“Now we just need to make it happen.”

Robert Arnkil and his colleagues from Tampere University have mapped the ‘Strategies and measures to improve the prerequisites for employment among people with disabilities’ on commission from the Finnish Ministry of Labour. The report formed the basis of discussions when the Nordic labour ministers met recently in Helsinki. The social partners and disability organisations were also present.

“We know what good practice is. The same criteria for success apply to people with disabilities as for others,” Robert Arnkil points out.


“We need an individualised service which is tailored and adapted to people’s life situation, we need to listen to the customer and the customer must be an active participant in programs and solutions, workplace training must be organised in cooperation with the employer and other actors. If necessary, chosen solutions must be supported by a personal assistant, coach and other network resources which can help adapt the workplace and help change attitudes. Permanent solutions should be supported, be followed up and adapted as needed.”   

While we constantly challenge the limits for what is medically and technologically possible and are able to offer people good health and functionality to a far larger extent than before, old prejudices often prevail, Robert Arnkil points out.

“Working life also faces another challenge - to handle physical, psychological and social problems that aren’t necessarily long term or permanently limiting a person’s abilities but which can occur periodically.”

Into work as fast as possible

Arnkil has found that hiring people with disabilities is considered the largest and most difficult strategic challenge for labour market, health and social policies in the Nordic countries as well as in the UK, Germany, France and Holland. To improve access to the labour market you need to integrate the three policy and service areas. Another common trait is the change in the way these challenges are confronted.

“Traditionally the thinking has been that people need to go through a process of training, rehabilitation and qualification before they can find a job. This has proven not to be enough because people rarely move from the institution which is meant to train them into a job in the ordinary labour market. The best solutions are solutions within ordinary working life,” says Arnkil.

“It seems the best results are achieved when you get a normal employment situation in ordinary working life as quickly as possible. After that it is necessary to support this employment in various ways to make sure it works. To make it work you need to see some changes in working life and in workplace culture.”

Arnkil also thinks employment services need to improve when it comes to offering jobs to people with disabilities. 

“The channelling of clients which we see today where people without disabilities get help first shows that employment services must change the way they view people with disabilities.”

The report’s conclusions

Robert Arnkil and his colleagues’ report shows how the countries share challenges and a strategic focus but that they have different service structures.

“The most important thing is to look at what a person can do and not what a person cannot do,” said Finland’s Minister of Labour Lauri Ihalainen.

There are also other similarities to be found between the countries, such as:

• Labour market, social and health policies are integrated in a new way.
• Good service for people with disabilities is considered to be the same as good service for all.
• The aim is to get people with disabilities into ordinary working life as soon as possible. This solution will then be supported through various measures at a later stage.
• There is a need to develop attitudes, workplace culture and skills to help improve the understanding of what resources are available to the labour market.
• Finally, it is important to mobilise all resources at the same time - those of the customers as well as the service network.

While Denmark’s new government has only had time to announce in its programme its ideas in this field, Finland’s new government and Iceland’s new Ministry for Welfare have already begun looking at new plans of action. Norway will be implementing a new employment strategy for people with disabilities from 2012, while Sweden is into a five-year campaign to improve employment for people with reduced work ability.

Crucial wage subsidies

Minister of Labour Lauri Ihalainen’s new plan of action aims to influence employers’ will to hire people with disabilities. Wage subsidies will be central to this. It is also important to get rid of prejudices in working life, he said.

“Securing access to the labour market for more people is also about equality,” Lauri Ihalainen pointed out.

Social responsibility a trend

“It is important that all citizens get the chance to contribute actively to society” reads the new Danish government’s programme. It announces reforms of cash aid, early retirement, flexjobs and special measures for people who find themselves far removed from the labour market. 

The government is ultimately responsible for the policy while execution rests with the municipalities. The municipal job centres are responsible for getting everyone jobs, said Bo Smith, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Labour.

Bo Smith

“The previous government initiated a campaign together with the Disabled Peoples Organisation Denmark with the aim of establishing a knowledge bank which job centres can use. The strategy ‘Disability and job - it can be done!’ is also about encouraging people with disabilities themselves to do more to find jobs.

“The philosophy behind this is that it is best for people with disabilities to get into ordinary working life, not to work in special workplaces. We need to compensate for the solution which is found.

“Corporate social responsibility also opens up for changing attitudes within companies,” said Bo Smith, who explained how being socially responsible has become a trend with Danish companies.

New plans afoot

As Iceland got its new Ministry of Welfare on 1 January, the responsibility for people with disabilities moved to the municipalities.

“This entire field is being reorganised. We have a committee which will suggest solutions at the beginning of next year. We want people with disabilities to find jobs through the public employment service,” said Iceland’s representative, senior advisor Inge Valur Jóhannsson.

People pushed out by tougher working life

“The worse the state of the labour market, the harder it is for this group to find jobs. Groups in need of support are being pushed out of working life. If we are to combine a tougher working life with getting this group into jobs we need to make clear political choices. This is the political challenge we are facing,” said Norway’s Minister of Labour Hanne Bjurstrøm when she met her Nordic colleagues.

Hanne Bjurstrøm

She also said that while the main goal was to integrate people with disabilities into ordinary working life as quickly as possible, this might not suit everyone.

She did not want to accept employers’ demands to be able to offer temporary jobs for this group of people.

“This government does not want to do that,” said Hanne Bjurstrøm.

Polls show some 78,000 people with disabilities in Norway are looking for jobs. The government launches a new employment strategy from 2012 for people with disabilities who are younger than 30, with the aim of securing a smoother transition from education to work. Any extra cost or loss of production will be covered for companies which hire young people with disabilities.

Employers must be willing

Sweden’s Minister of Labour Hillevi Engström shared the Norwegian concern:

Hillevi Engstrøm

“Employers must be willing to take on people with reduced work abilities for this to succeed.”

Hillevi Engström also highlighted how the social partners must take responsibility and what the authorities could do.

“Too few employers are taking on people with disabilities. We are reassessing the kind of support we are offering and we have a five year plan in Sweden to improve the situation.

“The greatest obstacle is attitudes and considerations. When it comes to attitudes we are talking about employers and employees. We are trying to coach within working life to support both employees and employers,” she said.

A need for creative leadership

In Finland there will soon be 20,000 people every year on disability pensions, many of them because of depression. These are people who aren’t fully employable but who might be able to work a little and thus prolong their working life. 

“But many who can work a little can’t find a place in working life. You need special measures to make that happen, and that is our starting point,” said Lauri Ihalainen.

The government’s new employment programme aims to improve cooperation between ministries and the disability administration.

“We already have the tools which for instance can help people who are difficult to employ find third sector jobs. But we must also look at working life,” said  Lauri Ihalainen. 

“It is difficult to change attitudes in the workplace. You need creative leadership.

“When working life is running at full tilt you don’t have room for those who aren’t running at full tilt. So what can be done when it comes to working life? Support for people with disabilities is dependent on cooperation between all parties,” said Lauri Ihalainen and challenged the invited parties to voice their opinions to the ministers.

Mikko Räsinen

Mikko Räsinen, a specialist at the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), and a board member with a foundation which works to employ more people with disabilities, underlined he was not talking on behalf of other employers’ organisations in the Nordic region.

Where are the jobs for whose who can work 40 percent?

“This is a very topical question,” said Mikko Räsinen.

He identified the salary system as one obstacle to employing people with reduced work ability, and felt wage subsidies to be a good measure, and that more flexibility in the way unemployment benefits are paid out could allow for a three month trial period of someone’s ability to work before an employer decided on further employment. On changing attitudes, he wanted to see a better spread of information in cooperation with disability organisations.  

Loa Brynjulfsdottir, newly elected general secretary at the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (above, left) said her organisation would have special focus on the Nordic region in the years to come and hoped for good cooperation to protect the Nordic collective agreement model.

She said the trade unions were interested in creating a more open working life with space for everyone. 

“Everyone must be given the chance to contribute with their skills in working life on their own terms, both the young, the old, immigrants and people with disabilities. It is only fair that all have the same chance to take part in working life. It is a human right for all to be able to take part in society, and when as many as possible take part in working life it has great social benefits,” said Loa Brynjulfsdottir. 

She was particularly focused on border obstacles in the Nordic region, a hindrance to mobility between the countries. This hit people with disabilities particularly hard, she said.

“Border obstacles don’t only hinder mobility, but they rob people with disabilities of their right to be part of a common Nordic labour market,” said Loa Brynjulfsdottir. 

From three to four parties

Tone Mørk, head of the Nordic Council on Disability (NHR), also wanted to see more cooperation. She encouraged the ministers to include disability organisations in their work to increase employment among people with disabilities.

“There is no lack of plans, the challenge is to put these plans into action,” she said, and pointed to several areas where more needed to be done.

“We need more skills and more adapted workplaces. More focus on welfare technology and universal access. We need a change in attitudes and more cooperation between different authorities. We need to spread the good examples and to learn from each other’s experience.”

She felt the user groups should be part of this work. NHH wants to focus on ways to improve the transition from school to working life. They want to focus on measures which target employers and want the Nordic tri-partite cooperation to expand into becoming a four-party cooperation. The Nordic Council on Disability’s programme also states that they want to coordinate evidence-based Nordic knowledge.


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