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Need for closer co-operation on labour force mobility between Nordic and Baltic countries

| Text: Berit Kvam, Photo: Heikki Löflund

Ministers of labour from the Nordic countries and Baltic states have agreed to increase bilateral and multilateral dialogue and the exchange of views on common labour market policy issues actively and on all levels.

The decision was reached at the first meeting between the Nordic and Baltic ministers of labour held in Tavastehus, Finland, on 22 October.
The main issue of discussion concerned labour force mobility between the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Nordic Baltic meeting

The Finnish Minister of Labour, Tarja Filatov (third from left in picture above), hosted the meeting. Due to regional differences in employment and the increasing average age of the labour force, questions concerning labour force mobility have played a key role during the Finnish chairmanship of the Nordic cooperation this year.

The topics of discussion were: How can the countries assess the development of labour force mobility between the Nordic countries and Baltic States? To what extent is there a need to the further develop the firm co-operation between the Nordic and Baltic labour market authorities with reference to the mobility of labour?

Free movement of labour has been possible between the Nordic countries since 1954, when the agreement on a common Nordic labour market was reached. Nordic ministers of labour have worked together within the framework of the Nordic Council of Ministers since the 1970s. In contrast to the mobility within the Nordic countries, the mobility of labour between the Nordic and Baltic countries has so far been relatively insignificant, with the exception perhaps of Finland where 11,000 people, equalling 10% of Finland’s foreign population, originally come from Estonia.

Labour force mobility was discussed as part of the EU enlargement debate this year. Whereas Finland predicts a transitional period of two years, both Denmark and Sweden have declared that they will open their labour markets to citizens from the Baltic countries as well as other new member states, on equal terms with the rest of the member states, from day one of their membership in the EU.

Iceland and Norway intend to do the same within the framework of the EEA. If unexpected imbalances develop as a result of the enlargement, these countries will reserve the right to take appropriate action.

Brain drain, brain waste or brain gain?

Although Estonian minister, Eiki Nestor, insisted that he understands Finland’s position with its background of high unemployment, he also said that he would like to see Finland adopt the same position as the rest of the Nordic countries. His worry is that only the well-educated will be granted mobility.

"Estonia is a small nation with a workforce of only 600,000. What we are afraid of, is some kind of selective movement of labour, whereby the most qualified and most educated people will be given priority. That would have a disastrous effect on our economy and mean a differentiation of citizens that would be hard to explain. Everyone must have the same right," said Mr Nestor, Estonian Minister for Social Affairs.

Andrejs Pozarnovs, the Latvian Minister for Welfare, supported Mr Nestor’s position:

"Mobility must have an equal footing. Both skilled and unskilled labour must have access to the labour market," he emphasised. "Unemployment in Latvia differs from region to region, and educated people are also needed in Latvia. Certainly we see the need to increase mobility, and we are in favour of co-operation when it comes to research. We would also like to receive information about job vacancies in the Nordic countries and be able to supply the same. Mobility must benefit both sides. Future debate will concern labour shortage, not excess," Mr Pozarnovs continued.

The Lithuanian Minister for Social Security and Labour, Vilija Blinkeviciute, also pointed to the importance of equal treatment.

"What we are afraid of is not only a brain drain, but also a brain waste, where we would lose our best-qualified people to a labour market were they were not able to find a job matching their qualifications," she said.

A recent study from Finland, which focused on mobility between Finland and Estonia, shows that EU enlargement would not lead to any significant increase in immigration into Finland. A recent survey in

Lithuania shows that only a relatively small percentage of Lithuanians wishing to leave the country put the Nordic countries on the top of their list. However, co-operation is valued, especially in the field of employment services.

"Research on future labour markets will be useful. Stimulating mobility must be based on closer co-operation between employment services. We also look forward to future participation in the Eures network," commented Ms Blinkeviciute.

"With enlargement on the horizon, it’s time to start an active debate on the challenges and potential of increasing the migration of labour across our borders," agreed the Danish Minister for Labour, Ove Hygum, and the Swedish minister, Mona Sahlin.

"Mobility was an important part of the discussion when Sweden joined the EU, not only the free movement of labour, but also the chance to travel, visit, work and study in another country. It is therefore quite natural that the Baltic countries want this opportunity from day one, too," said Ms Sahlin.

Whereas Vilija Blinkeviciute talked about brain drain or brain waste, Mona Sahlin emphasised the chances of a brain gain.

"We have to look for a win-win situation," she said.

"This issue is not just limited to the free movement of labour. There is a need for stronger cultural co-operation, it must, for instance, be possible for students to study in each other’s countries. We need to act together, so that experts can identify any barriers to movement, so that employment services can co-operate and co-operation is initiated between youth organisations, in order for us all to benefit."

An A and a B league in Europe?

In Denmark, we are opposed to a division of the new united Europe into an ‘A’ and a 'B' league, where the conditions for the free movement of labour only apply to present member states," pointed out Mr Hygum.

The ministers concluded by reconfirming their belief that "EU enlargement will afford great opportunities and challenges to both the Nordic countries and Baltic States". Furthermore, they noted the importance of social dialogue in a well-functioning labour market, equal treatment and the successful integration of migrant workers into the labour market.

The ministers also agreed to contribute to the development of sustainable labour market policy. They addressed the need to focus on the development of labour market and working environment policy in the Baltic and Nordic states and agreed to continue and intensify Nordic- Baltic co-operation in this field.

Government senior officials are encouraged to promote cooperation and to exchange information between the Nordic and Baltic administrations in these areas in consultation with the social partners. They also agreed to study the possibilities of intensifying the exchange of informat-ion concerning regional or national development plans, which may have a noticeable impact on the demand for labour, and to encourage research co-operation in relation to labour force mobility.

Finally, they resolved to increase bilateral and multilateral dialogue and the exchange of views on common labour market policy issues actively and on all levels.


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