29th Sep 2023


Von der Leyen overlooks cost-of-living crisis and job quality

  • Labour shortages are most prevalent in sectors such as construction, health, science and technology (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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In the eyes of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the socio-economic challenges for the coming year remain the same: labour and skills shortages, inflation and creating an attractive business environment. Von der Leyen spoke in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (13 September) in her yearly state of the union speech.

The EU's unemployment rate remained at an historic low of 5.9 percent in July, following the double shock of the coronavirus and the war in Ukraine, and the subsequent activation of the SURE mechanism [a European instrument for temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency], which has saved some an estimated 40 million jobs.

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The quantity of jobs is not the problem of the current labour market, noted the president of the EU commission. "Instead of millions of people looking for jobs, there are millions of jobs looking for people," she said.

Labour shortages exist in a wide range of occupations and skill levels, but are most prevalent in sectors such as construction, health, science and technology.

There is a shortage of nurses, drivers, carpenters, bricklayers, and even telecommunications specialists. "Two-thirds of European companies are looking for IT specialists," said the commission president.

Sociodemographic challenges and the dual digital and green transition are exacerbating this labour shortage and skills mismatch.

At same time, labour markets have shown resilience and jobs have certainly been created — but what kind of jobs?

"Without looking at the quality of jobs and focusing only on measures of quantity, we ignore the real impact of jobs on people's livelihoods," the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) researcher Agnieszka Piasna told EUobserver in June.

According to a report by ETUI, between 2019 and 2022, job vacancies increased in lower-paid jobs, and labour participation tended to be higher in countries where jobs were of better quality.

"They [the EU commission] didn't pay attention to what kind of jobs they were creating, whether they were precarious or how much people earned in those jobs," Piasna said.

In addition, specific groups such as women, young people or people with disabilities continue to face high unemployment rates due to numerous obstacles.

Work-life balance

"Millions of parents — mostly mothers — are struggling to reconcile work and family, because there is no childcare," von der Leyen said.

Increasing participation in childcare for those aged 0-2 could also boost the participation of their mothers by five percentage points in Italy, 10 in Hungary and 17 in Austria, according to the EU commission.

However, no concrete new measures were announced to tackle this issue. Von der Leyen merely stated that no woman should earn less than a man for the same work, underlining the work done with the pay transparency directive.

She also highlighted another concrete fact: Eight million young people are not in employment, education, or training (the so-called NEETs).

"Their dreams put on hold, their lives on standby," she said. "This is not only the cause of so much personal distress. It is also one of the most significant bottlenecks for our competitiveness".

'Disconnected' from reality?

Trade unions, political groups and organisations saw some missed opportunities in the hour-long speech to present a roadmap for social Europe.

"While president von der Leyen's speech focused on achievements, millions in Europe are facing a different kind of reality as they struggle with the rising cost of living and insufficient levels of social protection," Laura de Bonfils secretary general of the Social Platform, an umbrella of some 40 representative European networks of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), told EUobserver.

The Left Group spoke of a "disconnected" speech, with no mention of poverty or the cost of living.

"There were no solutions for workers struggling today with the cost of living crisis or fearful of losing their jobs," the ETUC said in a statement following the speech.

The head of the socialists and democrats group in the parliament, Spanish MEP Iratxe García, said she would have liked to have heard more commitment from von der Leyen to strengthening the social pillar.

"Inflation, high-interest rates and the rise in mortgage prices make it difficult for people to fulfil their life project," said García, after stressing that employment parity, social housing, a minimum living income and an anti-poverty strategy must become a reality.

"We need a Europe that delivers for people by championing strong social policies, like adequate minimum income schemes, that guarantee everyone can live above the poverty line," Bonfils said.

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