LO and DA sign agreement on integration of refugees and immigrants
In late January 2002, the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (LO) and the Danish Employers' Confederation (DA) agreed a set of common objectives for the better integration of refugees and immigrants in Danish society. According to the social partners, current integration policy has failed because its attachment to the labour market is too loose. They state that labour market integration measures should be the responsibility of the existing coordination committees, on which the social partners are represented, and that the only way to ensure good integration is through earlier attachment to the labour market and quicker acquisition of sufficient language skills.
Issues related to the presence of refugees and non-EU immigrants in Denmark and, in particular to their integration into Danish society, have been the subject of intensive and often heated debate in recent years (DK0005179F). Following the general election in November 2001, when the previous Social Democrat-led government was replaced by a coalition of the Liberal Party (Venstre) and Conservative People's Party (Konservative Folkeparti) (DK0112147F), the issue was again placed in the spotlight by the new government's proposals on integration, which include a proposed reduction of social security benefits and allowances for refugees, with the aim of getting them into employment.
In the midst of this political debate concerning new objectives and instruments for integration, on 29 January 2002 the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) and the Danish Employers' Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) issued a joint proposal entitled 'Better integration of refugees and immigrants on the Danish labour market'.
This joint proposal emphasises that better integration can be achieved only through labour market integration. This has been a neglected aspect, both in the political debate and in practice. The factors identified as contributing to this neglect have included overly long work-introduction programmes, ineffective language courses and reluctance on the part of employers to recruit immigrants. The central point in the DA-LO proposal is to establish contact with an enterprise as quickly as possible in order to ensure an active interplay between learning and work for the immigrants and refugees concerned. Flexibility is a decisive factor and the emphasis in the new proposal is on individual integration programmes which do not necessarily fit into the current fixed three-year integration period. It may take a shorter or longer time, but there should be certain fixed standard requirements which must obligatorily be met.
Jobs and training in focus
LO and DA state that the lack of results achieved by the present the integration policy can be explained by this policy's insufficient links to the labour market. Only a strong attachment to the labour market and a good knowledge of the Danish language will create the necessary motivation for immigrants' successful integration. Seen from this perspective, LO and DA make a number of proposals, with the workplace in the centre of the initiatives:
- refugees and immigrants should, as quickly as possible, have a contractual relationship with an enterprise;
- Danish language teaching should be started at once and should preferably take place in the enterprises or close to them. Language teaching could take place during working hours;
- it should be ensured that the already acquired educational skills and professional qualifications of immigrants and refugees are as quickly as possible 'translated' into corresponding Danish qualifications – so that it can be established if formal conversion of these skills and qualifications is required, or if supplementary training should be provided. It is a waste of time to postpone education/training initiatives;
- the integration period should be individualised. The present fixed period of three years no longer serves any purpose and is inefficient in relation to motivated integration. Specific, national standard requirements should be laid down and achieved in the course of the introduction programme. When these requirements have been met, irrespective of the time it has taken and irrespective of whether the person concerned has obtained employment or not, the programme can be considered completed. However, courses in Danish may be continued after the completion of the programme – irrespective of whether the person is in employment or not; and
- the municipal authorities play an important role in integration measures, including courses in the Danish language. LO and DA propose a more simple structure with a clear division of labour between 'integration councils' and 'coordination committees'. Local labour market-oriented measures should be transferred to the coordination committees, which already focus on employment. The interaction between municipalities and social partners should be closer within the coordination committees, which are seen as the central actors in this field.
According to LO and DA, it is of decisive importance to ensure that rights and duties go hand in hand. If individual immigrants fail to participate fully in the activities of their integration programme, this should have financial consequences for them.
The joint proposal was signed by the president of LO, Hans Jensen, and the director of DA, Jørn Neergaard Larsen. In an interview, they both pointed to the necessity of ensuring a new supply of labour, due to the demographic imbalance which Denmark will be facing in the near future. They see refugees and immigrants as a natural asset and, in their opinion, the best route to fuller integration and mutual respect is through enterprises.
Minister welcomes agreement
On 30 January, the new Minister for Employment, Claus Hjort Frederiksen of the Liberal Party welcomed the initiative and the social partners' invitation to cooperate by asking the social partners to participate in discussions with himself and the Minister for Integration. The government has decided to accelerate the part of its action programme entitled 'More people into employment' which deals with initiatives to bring more refugees and immigrants onto the labour market. By drawing up their joint proposal on better integration, LO and DA have pointed to themselves as natural participants in such discussions.
The agreement between LO and DA was concluded at a very favourable time for the social partners – on the same day that the government tabled its proposal for the 2002 Finance Act. Not that the agreement as such will have any impact upon the Finance Act, but because the tabling of the budget proposal is a signal of the start of negotiations, when the politicians get down to do the hard work on policies. The timing was also good because the government's 2002 budget proposal completed the political – some call it 'ideological'– 'purge' after the Social Democrat-led government.
Last, but not least, it is important that the social partners have – in partnership and in consensus - taken up the immigration issue in this joint initiative to make themselves heard. There has for some time been an increasing focus on the issue of integration policy in Denmark. The government has to mark out its policies in this area in relation to the party on whose support it relies - the Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF), which has strong nationalist principles. DF wants to impose significant restrictions on immigration to Denmark. The government's recent integration initiative – which was among the first of its new initiatives – thus reflects a wish to fulfil its promises to the voters to 'do something effectively' about the immigration issue and also to show how far the government is prepared to go to meet the wishes of DF.
However, it is also in itself an important signal that the social partners have taken this joint initiative. The new Minister for Employment's 'offensive' against the established trade union movement on a number of issues (DK0112147F), in combination with the coalition parties' traditional very 'employer-friendly' policy, could undermine the otherwise solid cooperative relations between LO and DA, which have for more than a century been based on a mixture of mutual confidence and interdependence. With the new joint proposals on integration, the social partners have signalled that they can still reach agreement on vital issues – in spite of upheavals and major political changes. As to the substance of the agreement, there is not much new in it, although there is an increased focus on flexibility. The truth that the best way to achieve integration is through labour market attachment and good linguistic skills is a long-established one. However, this does not make it less true, especially if the social partners' initiative turns out to be a success. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)