“The process is underway,” comments the former Danish government minister and EU Commissioner Poul Nielsson. In November 2014 he was asked to review the Nordic cooperation on labour market issues. At the labour ministers’ meeting in Helsinki he presented his proposals for reforms and got reactions from the ministers.
How do you create new life and more engagement within the Nordic cooperation? How can the Nordic region become a stronger force in the EU or create closer cooperation with the ILO? How can you vitalise the Nordic cooperation? These were some of the questions which triggered the task of reviewing the Nordic cooperation on labour market issues.
The report was delivered in June 2016. In the course of his work, Poul Nielsson has travelled the length and breath of the Nordic countries, visited the EU, ILO and OECD. The report has been presented at the various Nordic political weeks and it has gained attention far outside of the Nordics.
One issue which has gained a lot of attention is the proposal for mandatory continuing and further education. When he now meets the labour ministers for the first time to present and discuss how to follow up the report, this word ‘mandatory’ presents a problem.
“I can follow you very far,” says Sweden’s Minister of Labour and Integration Ylva Johansson, “but do you have to use the word mandatory? From a Swedish perspective that is a dead end street,” she says.
Without the word mandatory this could be a good starting point for benchmarking between the Nordic countries. But it is necessary to take a more measured approach, she thinks.
“Sweden has initiated an expansion of mandatory education for young people, and made schooling up to college level obligatory, but time is not yet ripe for establishing a mandatory continuing or further education on a Nordic level.”
The labour ministers then decided to send the proposal for mandatory continuing and further education to the education ministers for further comments.
“This is a positive first step for an idea which after all is out of the box. I believe there is a meaningful provocation in the expression mandatory. It signals that this is serious. It is good to have a gradual growth in measures. This is after all what is happening in all of the countries, but going from there to having a system where continuing or further education is a permanent part of working life – that is something else.”
The word mandatory provokes reactions. What do you think about that?
“Yes, that nearly always happens, but without reactions the idea would not have been very powerful.”
“Poul Nielsson’s report highlights some important issues which we must address,” says state secretary Christel Kvam at the Norwegian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
“But at the same time it carries a somewhat double message. The report mirrors how things have been until now. We who work in the departments and directorates in Norway and in the other countries work so closely with the changes which are taking place, that getting a status report which is meant to set the course towards 2021 is probably not appropriate. But as a report which highlights important issues it is interesting.”
How does the future labour market look like, do you think?
“I believe all of the Nordic countries have established commissions to look at the sharing economy. What does it mean when you get technology which to a large extent replaces organisations. While we used to create organisations in order to link customers to products, technology now does this for us.
“We get new people in working life who define themselves as neither employers or employees. I have challenged the parties in Norway and said it is up to employers’ organisations and trade unions to make themselves more attractive to new workers or new people who get involved with the sharing economy. This is not a political responsibility, but we are dependent on people succeeding in doing this.
“The three partite cooperation is very central to the Nordic model, but only if the parties to the cooperation are representative. If the parties don’t succeed I fear that we will get a kind of insurance based system. The dialogue we are dependent on in order to solve future challenges, depends on us having representative parties to talk to,” says Christel Kvam.
Poul Nielsson thinks the debate shows a distorted picture of reality.
“The picture of change which is being drawn in the debate is larger than the changes we see in real life.
“In my report, what I call the fragmentation of the labour market with many self employed people plays a big role. All in all I feel you should look at this with the greatest care, if not scepticism, because most people become self employed out of necessity.
“This is ultimately a threat to the survival of the Nordic model, which at its core is built on a well-organised labour market on both sides. This is also what will come under threat with the erosion of the traditional structures. Of course you could say that I present a very conservative and defensive attitude, but isn’t it a cynical laissez faire attitude to just say let the new stuff roll?”
What should be done?
“First of all, the two sides of the labour market must see how they can facilitate and define new ways of working which are of interest to their organisations. I mentioned the Danish Artist Union as an example for the ministers. Their members are self employed. They are actors or other artists and musicians who work freelance. The Danish Artist Union has solved this by hiring many lawyers who can offer support and help and service the members so that they keep control on everything.
You say you have a 10-15 year perspective for your proposals? Is that an anachronism in rapidly chasing times?
“You’d have to ask the ministers that. What is a bit contradictory is that all the problems were acknowledged before I wrote my report. What I could do which was new was to comment on it and link it together with the workings of the Nordic Council of Ministers, and then provide views for how you can strengthen those workings. You could say this is the prioritised order of the day in my report. The fact that ministers include it in their work plan is exactly one way of revitalising what the labour ministers do.
“Then there is of course the acute dimension here because of the migration pressure. This makes it even more necessary to take action in the areas I have described. There is also a pressure in the fact that the Nordic region acts more proactively and in unison, creating a more forceful influence in international organs like the EU and the ILO. I have been arguing very strongly for this.”