The social partners and the regional employment networks
A conference in June 1999 examined "regional employment networks" in Portugal. These networks have been growing in importance as means for implementing labour market policies, in line with the objectives of the National Action Plan for employment. The social partners have been involved in various ways, mostly at the strategic and economic level.
In June 1999, the Institute for Employment and Vocational Training (Instituto do Emprego e Formaçao Profissional, IEFP) held a seminar bringing together Portugal's "regional employment networks" (redes regionais de emprego). The networks aim to implement labour market policies at regional level in line with the objectives of Portugal's National Action Plan (NAP) for employment (PT9904137F), in response to the EU Employment Guidelines. According to an IEFP report, these networks have already completed around 100 projects. They have another 538 underway and 454 others are in the initial stages.
Over 400 entities are involved in the networks, including public service agencies, companies, municipalities and other local agencies, regional development associations, social solidarity associations (non-governmental organisations) and the social partners. Some of these actors had already established partnerships among themselves previously. According to IEFP, the networks - in contrast to territorial employment pacts - do not have their own financing and do not set their own goals, but are rather a mechanism for mobilising local actors in order to achieve the objectives of the NAP and of regional employment plans, of which there are two - one for Oporto and one for the Alentejo.
The Alentejo was one of the regions represented at the seminar. It is one of the poorest regions in Europe and the one experiencing the sharpest decline in population. This region has been very active in implementing the employment networks. The local partners have been supporting the networks' efforts to overcome the region's problems. Currently in the Alentejo there are four networks in 31 counties and one territorial pact (according to Redes regionais para o Alentejo, IEFP, April 1999).
The role and attitudes of the social partners
Trade unions and employers' organisations are represented on the administrative board of IEFP, which is the national-level coordinating body for the regional employment networks. The social partners are also represented on the administrative boards of each regional employment centre. In the case of the Alentejo, the social partners were invited to participate in drawing up the networks' articles of constitution. This involvement means that they have been present from the networks' inception.
At national level, representation in the networks is through the main confederations - the Confederation of Portuguese Industry (Confederação da Industria Portuguesa, CIP), the Confederation of Portuguese Farmers (Confederação dos Agricultores de Portugal, CAP), the Confederation of Portuguese Commerce (Confederação do Comércio e Serviços de Portugal, CCP), the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP), and the General Workers' Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT). At district level, representation is through business groups, trade associations and trade unions.
In the first phase of the creation of the networks, local bodies and the social partners have been holding meetings to identify problems and set goals for action designed to promote local employment. The idea is to:
- look at employment and unemployment from a local standpoint, since all regions are not alike; and
- bring together parties interested in taking an active part in addressing the problems of unemployment and development, training and employability.
In the Alentejo, for example, the chosen lines of intervention have so far been oriented towards:
- keeping young people in the region;
- attracting outside investment; and
- developing tourism, handicrafts and outreach programmes.
The actions and projects in which the social partners have been involved in the Alentejo region have included:
- actions designed to promote self-employment and the creation of small businesses in the areas of support services for families, children, recreation and leisure;
- restoration of historical buildings, and preservation and restoration of marble;
- marketing, promotion of investment opportunities on behalf of the area, providing assistance to investors through an office set up for this purpose, promotion of local companies in external markets and identifying bureaucratic problems;
- public information campaigns and training in the area of environmental protection;
- organising groups to achieve an entrepreneurial "critical mass" capable of influencing the regional labour market; and
- creating a special office to provide support for handicraft activities and associations
All the social partners may act as fieldwork coordinators, or they may be involved in undertakings without being coordinators.
According to the network coordinators, the social partners' involvement has been very positive for a number of reasons:
- the analysis has had a local perspective;
- right from the moment that an activity is begun, the network has access to a variety of opinions and analytical perspective;
- the partners' attitudes are positive, because they are actively involved in the development process and in making things happen;
- fieldwork provides experience in and perspectives on management; and
- it has helped to redefine areas of intervention while avoiding overlap between the "social economic" area and the traditional economic areas, as its focus is more on social intervention. Local development associations concern themselves with issues that larger institutions have neglected, such as the environment and certification of regional products.
Involvement in the networks has emerged as a non-traditional approach to social intervention for the social partners. Analysis of actions and projects undertaken in the Alentejo shows that the social partners have kept up their traditional modes of intervention, particularly in the economic arena, getting involved both at the strategic level - in terms of overall coordination and reflection on the issue - and at the action level - by presenting and coordinating projects. The trade unions have acted primarily at the strategic level and in actions involving the coordination of multiple bodies and optimisation of available resources. They have focused on self-employment, improving skills, and the personal and social development of unemployed people. Recently the secretary general of UGT called attention to the importance of the "social employment" market as a secondary form of economic growth. The employers' associations, in addition to being involved at the strategic level, are involved in actions to promote economic activity to a greater extent than the unions. In the case of the Alentejo, this means dealing with an extremely low density of economic activity and low levels of job skills. (Maria Luisa Cristovam, UAL)