Long-term unemployed jobs programme highlights problems of employment creation

A recently much discussed initiative in Belgium to provide employment for long-term unemployed people is the so-called PWA, or local employment service. This allows unemployed workers to supplement their benefits by working in the local community. Though the unions initially protested strongly against the programme, it has now proved quite successful - a factor that has fed the debate about this type of employment initiative.

Compared with most other EU member countries, Belgium has a very high number of long-term unemployed workers. Over 60% of the unemployed have been jobless for more than one year, and over 40% for more than two years. This fact has caused the social partners and the Government to design a number of job programmes over the years aimed specifically at this group of unemployed people.

Initial goals

One of the initiatives that has caused debate and controversy amongst the social partners is the so-called PWA s (plaatselijke werkgelegenheidsagentschappen, or local employment agencies) programme. The PWAs were installed 10 years ago by the then Minister of Labour, Michel Hansenne. The programme had three initial goals:

  1. the creation of a legal framework for "short-term occasional employment";
  2. assistance in the fight against the informal or "submerged" economy in which - so the Government apparently presumed - many long-term unemployed people made a living supplementing their unemployment benefits; and
  3. meeting the social demand for specific short-term and occasional jobs.

Candidates for PWA jobs basically had to be long-term unemployed. Those working under the PWA system received a supplement to their unemployment benefits. The PWA services were organised by city and included the following categories of tasks:

  • domestic services: eg, cleaning, ironing and laundry;
  • work in local public services: eg, occasional work in centres for social welfare; and
  • work in the "semi-collective" services: eg schools and cultural organisations.

PWA services, however, initially made a very slow start - primarily because of the rather strong resistance mounted by trade unions and organisations representing owners of small businesses in the service sector. The main point of criticism voiced by the unions was the argument that PWAs were an institutionalised form of near "slavery," and that they stigmatised certain groups of unemployed as unfit for any regular job. An additional fear was that those unemployed people who refused to work for the PWA might possibly lose their social security benefits. Small business owners feared the false competition in specific services. For the first seven or eight years, PWA services were scarce, small-scale and definitely not regarded as a major jobs programme for the long-term unemployed.

New impetus

Things changed in 1995 when the Government reviewed the PWA programme in the framework of its "Global Plan". Every city was mandated or obliged to organise a PWA service, and this has now been achieved in almost 90% of them. In addition, PWA services were integrated into the so-called "security and community action plans" (samenlevings- en veiligheidscontracten) which were designed to improve the overall quality of life and the feeling of security in the community. This new framework created the impetus to start what is now generally regarded as a successful network of local PWAs.

The programme has proved successful in that it does in fact reach the (very) long-term unemployed. About 32,000 unemployed people are involved in the programme. Some 33% of the PWA workers have been unemployed for over seven years. The overwhelming majority are women younger than 40, with a low level of education. On the demand side of the services offered by the PWAs, we find that personal and household oriented services form the largest segment. Some 80% consists of household chores and an additional 15% is gardening work. The demand for PWA services is currently outstripping supply.

Whether PWA work is a good way to limit the informal economy is still a bone of contention. Very little, if any, serious research has been conducted on this topic. According to some, PWA work is cutting into the amount of informal work particularly in the areas of cleaning and other household chores. According to others, this is far from certain as previous research has shown that unofficial labour is usually performed by those already having a regular job.

One of the more interesting features of this evolution in PWA services is that the unions have slowly changed their attitudes and now voice a much more positive, albeit still critical, view of the programme. They now recognise the fact that PWA services are filling a need both for a number of long-term unemployed people who feel good about their PWA employment and for a number of primarily younger households with children which are finding a legal and affordable way of getting help with household chores. Unions also recognise that it is probably more important to listen to the satisfaction expressed by PWA workers about their work (which is generally high) than to voice more intellectual arguments about the quality and the meaning of the work being performed.

Points of criticism remain, however. The most fundamental criticism is that PWA employment rarely leads to full-time regular employment. This means that PWA services are quickly becoming a separate segment of employment. If this is the case, unions argue, then it ought to be possible to recognise it as a specific form of "semi-regular" employment, which means that the rules and benefits of this arrangement should approximate those governing the realm of full-time regular employment.

Another important debating point is the fact that PWAs are currently run almost completely apart from what are generally called "social economy" employment projects. According to union representatives, it is necessary to have a political dialogue concerning the role of "social economic", "neighborhood economic" and other forms of not-for-profit employment, which if integrated could be not only socially beneficial but also an important tool for reintegrating unemployed or not-employed individuals in less competitive jobs, more adapted to their needs and those of the local community.

Finally, unions emphasise that the current success of PWA services should not divert attention from the fact that the overwhelming majority of long-term unemployed people (often women and the low skilled) are still without much hope of finding regular full-time employment.

Commentary

The PWA programme demonstrates that the problem of reintegrating long-term unemployed individuals into the workforce is not easily resolved. What was initially designed to give the unemployed a means for supplementing their benefits by way of a low-threshold work experience has turned into a programme which has created its own employment dynamics.

It is positive that PWA services are increasing the awareness of need and also the chances at local level to organise and promote employment and service-oriented initiatives. (Hans Bruyninckx, WAV)

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