Immigration and training may ease labour shortage

A lack of qualified labour has become an issue in Slovakia, particularly since 2004 when the country acceded to the EU. The shortage is caused by increasing foreign direct investment, which has created thousands of new jobs, as well as by large numbers of people leaving to work abroad. An international ministerial conference considered the topic in September 2008 and concluded that this problem is common to most of the new EU Member States.

Conference attracts wide participation

On 25–26 September 2008, an international ministerial conference entitled From the shortage of job opportunities to the shortage of qualified labour force was held in Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava. The conference was organised by the Slovakian Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family (Ministerstvo práce, sociálnych vecí a rodiny Slovenskej republiky, MPSVR SR) under the auspices of the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, with the financial support of the Equal Community Initiative as part of the European Social Fund. Funds were made available in the framework of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) project. The conference was also held under the auspices of the Slovakian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministerstvo zahraničných vecí Slovenskej republiky, MZV SR), supported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The importance of the conference was emphasised by the participation of representatives of the:

  • European Commission – namely, the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimír Špidla, and the Head of the European Commission representation in Slovakia, Andrea Elsheková-Matisová;
  • IOM – Ricardo Cordero and Zuzana Vatráľová;
  • Department for International Migration of the OECD – Jeane-Christophe Dumont;
  • International Labour Organization (ILO) Subregional Office for Central and Eastern Europe (ILO SRO-Budapest) – the sub-regional coordinator, Anita Anna Farkas.

Almost 150 experts from Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia attended the conference, and Latvia submitted a paper. The participants welcomed the topic of the conference, which is becoming increasingly important mainly in new Member States (NMS) of the European Union. Slovakia was represented by senior officials of MPSVR SR and the Centre for Labour, Social Affairs and Family (Ústredie práce, sociálnych vecí a rodiny Slovenskej republiky, ÚPSVaR SR).

Conference agenda

Views of public authorities

Representatives of public authorities responsible for employment and social issues outlined the current situation in the NMS labour markets. Prime Minister Fico welcomed the topic of the conference and highlighted the need for better coordination of the social security system and employment policy in Slovakia. The State Secretary of MPSVR SR, Emília Kršíková, informed the participants that Slovakia plans to solve the problem of a shortage of qualified workers by a set of measures including controlled immigration. Key speakers, including an expert at MPSVR SR, Zoja Čutková, and the Director General of ÚPSVaR SR, Ján Siheľský, explained the current situation in the Slovakian labour market.

Experiences with migration were also presented by representatives of IOM, OECD and from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovenia. The presentations clarified the situation in national labour markets and outlined policies on labour migration and integration. Successful examples from these countries were also provided.

A panel discussion took place with Commissioner Špidla, the employment ministers from Bulgaria (Emilia Maslarova), Hungary (Erika Szücs) and Slovakia (Viera Tomanová), as well as the State Secretary from Lithuania, Rimants Kairelis. The discussion aimed to clarify the following questions:

  • Do we really have a lack of qualified labour? Is it a serious problem? What are its causes?
  • Do we have our own resources? If yes, how to use them? What must be changed, what must be done?
  • Can it be solved at national level? Can common solutions be used? What should be done by the EU and what by us?
  • What should be done efficiently by us now and what later?

Useful ideas and proposals were presented on how to improve the current and the expected situation in the EU labour market. Commissioner Špidla explained that the European Commission has been dealing with the issue in a serious manner and has a clear idea about the framework for its solution through a step-by-step implementation of mutually interconnected measures. EC directives currently under preparation – for example, on seasonal work and on undeclared work – were mentioned.

Commissioner Špidla emphasised the need to involve not only employers but also trade unions in tackling this issue. According to Minister Tomanová, measures of active labour market policy aim to better meet employers’ needs, for example, by the implementation of a systematic classification of occupations and qualifications. She pointed out the high rates of long-term unemployment, low mobility and low wages in Slovakia. Representatives of Bulgaria, Hungary and Lithuania provided specific information regarding their countries. Significant numbers of qualified workers had left those countries in order to find work abroad – about half a million workers from Bulgaria and 200,000 from Lithuania. Discussions confirmed that these countries face many common problems, which could be effectively solved in a coordinated way.

Opinions of social partners

The conference also provided an opportunity for the social partners to present their views. Employer representatives described the current challenges in the Slovakian labour market and provided examples concerning the hiring of properly qualified workers. The President of the Automotive Industry Association of Slovakia (Združenie automobilového priemyslu Slovenskej republiky, ZAP SR), Jozef Uhrík, outlined the present problems in the industry, for example in Volkswagen Slovakia. In addition, the representative of the National Union of Employers (Republiková únia zamestnávateľov Slovenskej republiky, RÚZ SR) and President of the human resources service provider Trenkwalder, Luboš Sirota, shared experiences about employing temporary agency workers. Secretary General of the Italian-Slovak Chamber of Commerce, Alessandro Villa, considered the issue from a bipartite perspective. Moreover, employer representatives emphasised that the vocational education system in Slovakia is still failing to respond properly to the changing demands of the labour market.

Trade unions were represented by the President of the Confederation of Trade Unions (Konfederácia odborových zväzov Slovenskej republiky, KOZ SR), Miroslav Gazdík. The unions consider that unrestricted labour migration is inevitable in Slovakia. Since 2004, this issue has been one of the priorities of KOZ SR, which has organised several seminars aiming to harmonise labour migration in the ‘Visegrad 4’ countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, as well as Austria. Mr Gazdík underlined the need to solve labour market problems through effective social dialogue with employers. He also addressed the weaknesses of current labour migration, such as the risk of social dumping and undeclared work. Trade unions support the implementation of flexicurity policies, aiming to combine employment flexibility and security, and demand a better balancing of the economic and social aspects in active labour market measures.

Main conclusions

The main message of the conference was that labour migration is an inevitable trend, which can help to combat the existing lack of qualified labour. The conference showed that migration is becoming an increasingly normal part of the labour market in the NMS, and highlighted that the solution to this challenge is a long-term issue requiring the active involvement of employers and trade unions.

Overall, the meeting confirmed that, despite several differences, many common features exist regarding this topic in EU Member States. Migration needs to be addressed in a serious manner, and comprehensive policies for its effective management should be adopted at all levels. Coordinated implementation of measures at EU level, as well as in individual Member States, is needed. The European Commission has been developing directives, but Member States must also make greater efforts to facilitate migrants and improve their working conditions.

The lack of a qualified workforce should also be solved by better use of internal resources. In this regard, improving the education and training of the workforce is considered as an essential tool. Commissioner Špidla emphasised the necessity of effective lifelong learning to enable workers to adequately respond to changes in the EU labour market. The moderator of the panel discussion – Argentina Szabados from IOM Budapest – summarised the discussion using keywords like flexibility, mobility, migration, dialogue, planning, education and long-term process.

Commentary

The shortage of qualified workers in Slovakia has been caused by increasing foreign direct investment, mainly in the automotive and electrical industries, which created thousands of new jobs in the last five years. In 2007, employment grew by almost 2.5% and by 2.8% in the first half of 2008. At the same time, the number of workers, mainly young and qualified ones, finding jobs abroad has significantly increased since Slovakia became an EU Member State in 2004. For example, some 160,000 Slovakians are working abroad in 2008, which represents about 6%–7% of those employed in the national economy. This combination of factors has led to a gradual lack of qualified workers.

Employers have responded to the labour shortage by employing more migrants. According to ÚPSVaR SR data, at present more than 15,500 migrants work in Slovakia; nevertheless, in the Czech Republic, for example, this figure is higher than 250,000 migrants. The unemployment rate in Slovakia has declined from 18% in 2004 to 11% in 2007. However, long-term unemployment has increased significantly – from 60% of total unemployment in 2004 to nearly 70% in 2007.

Furthermore, Slovakia still has weaknesses in its vocational training system. Draft legislation proposes that employers should take a more active part – in professional and financial terms – in planning the educational profile of school leavers. This should improve the balance between labour demand and the available workforce in the country.

Ludovit Cziria, Institute for Labour and Family Research

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