Estefania Mirpuri, Director of the Technical Office of European Affairs ONCE General Council

    Introduction: Context of the adoption of the first European Employment Strategy - The Lisbon Strategy

The first European Employment Strategy, also called "The Luxembourg process", was adopted by Heads of State and Government during the Luxembourg Summit in November 1997, based on progress made by the EU employment policy proposed by the Amsterdam Treaty. This sets in motion an instrument to coordinate national employment policies at European level.

  • Historical and social contexts

This progress and these initiatives originated from the social and economic problems showing that in the nineties the European Union was suffering from significant shortages and delays in its updating in relation with the new agenda set by the impending globalization.

Thus, the EU had to face necessary reforms in the field of social and economic cohesion, its financial system and its own institutional structure, in view also of the enlargements planned for 1995, 2004 and now 2007.

  • Lisbon Strategy

In March 2000, the so-called Lisbon Strategy was launched to make Europe the most competitive and most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth accompanied by quantitative and qualitative improvement of employment and greater social cohesion, by 2010. The European Employment Strategy is thus becoming the key EU instrument for the development of the social sector of the Lisbon Strategy.

The current European Employment Strategy

A revision and update of the Lisbon Strategy took place between 2003 and 2005 in order to have it focused on a lasting growth and creation of quantitative and qualitative employment. This update of the Lisbon Strategy led to a complete revision of the European Employment Strategy.

The current European Employment Strategy covers the period 2005-2008 and from 2005 the employment guidelines for this same period are included in the so-called "Integrated guidelines for growth and jobs", that gather in a single text the Commission's recommendations on the Broad Economy Policy Guidelines (BEPGs) and the proposals on employment guidelines. They are the main policy instrument for developing and implementing the Lisbon Strategy.

In the framework of these integrated guidelines for the period 2005-2008 the Commission has presented eight specific guidelines to fulfil the three priority objectives in the field of employment: 1) full employment, 2) quality and productivity at work and 3) social and territorial cohesion. Special emphasis is put on policies designed to achieve full employment, by improving the inclusion of people at a disadvantage, greater investment in human resources, adaptation of education and training systems and more flexibility combined with employment security.

Operation: the Open Method of Coordination

From the start, the EES introduced a new working method at EU level based on five key principles: subsidiarity, convergence, mutual learning, integrated approach and assessment of results according to final objectives.

    1) Subsidiarity: This principle intends to secure a balance between coordination and definition of common objectives at European level, and concrete competences and measures at national level in each one of the Member States.
    2) Convergence: The purpose is to agree on common objectives in the field of employment, in order for each of the Member States to contribute to improve global results at EU level. The Lisbon Strategy confirmed full employment as the global objective.
    3) Mutual learning: Mutual learning is based on the need to exchange good practice in order to help Member States to find common solutions to common or similar problems and challenges in the labour market. The exchange includes concrete measures and policies as well as examples of good practice concerning practical implementation.
    4) Integrated approach: The employment guidelines, which we will mention in detail later, are not restricted to handling the active labour market; they also deal with important areas such as education, social cohesion, regional and tax and business policy, on the basis that structural reforms will not be achieved only with measures that are limited to the labour market.
    5) Assessment of the results: From the start, it was established that the success of the EES would be evaluated according to preset objectives and challenges, to be able to analyze progress and necessary adaptations or improvements for future stages. Indicators to carry out this evaluation of the results are both quantitative and qualitative.

Contents of the European Employment Strategy

    The key components of the European Employment Strategy are as follows:

      1) Integrated employment guidelines, which are listed further down. They are adopted by the Council of Ministers.
      2) National Reform Programmes that replace national employment programmes and are developed by the Member States.
      3) Joint employment report in which the Commission and the Council analyze each national Programme and its application, comparing them with the EES integrated Guidelines and objectives. The report also includes a summary of developments at European level.
      4) Some Recommendations are presented on the basis of this joint report, at global EU level as well as specifically for each Member State with a view to preparing their future National Reform Programmes. The recommendations are proposed by the European Commission and adopted by the Council.
      5) Annual evaluation report prepared by the European Commission.

    The employment guidelines and their implications for people with disabilities in general and for blind and partially sighted people in particular

    Although in principle the employment guidelines were annual, from 2005 onwards they cover three-year periods, so the current guidelines will be in force until 2008 in order to give a framework of continuity and an integrated approach. They are part of the so-called Integrated Guidelines for Growth and Jobs, as part of the implementation of the Lisbon Strategy.

    The employment guidelines for 2006 were agreed upon by the Council of Ministers of Employment and Social Affairs in June this year and they are the following ones:

    Guideline 17: Implement employment policies aiming at achieving full employment, improving quality and productivity at work, and strengthening social and territorial cohesion

    From the point of view of blind and visually impaired people we think that It is in the general interest of people with disabilities to "reduce unemployment and inactivity". We would like to see Member States setting "national employment rate targets" for all categories of people with disabilities, as well as for the other groups of disadvantaged people mentioned in this guideline. People with disabilities have both a general and a particular interest in the priorities recommended, viz: "attract and retain more people in employment, increase labour supply and modernize social protection systems, improve adaptability of workers and enterprises, increase investment in human capital through better education and skills." Like all other people, people with disabilities wish to live in a society that is "socially inclusive". whilst ensuring a safety net for those unable to work." They would also benefit from "a new lifecycle approach to work and modernizing social protection systems to ensure their adequacy, financial sustainability and responsiveness to changing needs". And we agree that "The quality of jobs, including pay and benefits, working conditions, employment security, access to lifelong learning and career prospects, is crucial," so far as people with disabilities are concerned, "as are support and incentives stemming from social protection systems.

    Guideline 18: Promote a lifecycle approach to work

    Here again, people with disabilities have an interest with all others in "employment pathways for young people" and reduced "youth unemployment"; in "resolute action to increase female participation and reduce gender gaps in employment, unemployment and pay"; in "better reconciliation of work and private life and the provision of accessible and affordable childcare facilities and care for other dependants"; in "support for active ageing, including appropriate working conditions, improved (occupational) health status and adequate incentives to work and discouragement of early retirement"; in "modern social protection systems, including pensions and healthcare ... so as to support participation and better retention in employment and longer working lives." The same is true of their interest in "Facilitating access to employment for job seekers, preventing unemployment and ensuring that those who become unemployed remain closely attached to the labour market and increase their employability" as essential measures "to increase participation and combat social exclusion." And we agree that "This requires breaking down barriers to the labour market by assisting with effective job searching, facilitating access to training and other active labour market measures and ensuring that work pays, as well as removing unemployment, poverty and inactivity traps."

    We welcome most warmly the statement in Guideline 18 that "Special attention should be paid to promoting the inclusion of disadvantaged people, including low-skilled workers, in the labour market, including through the expansion of social services and the social economy, as well as the development of new sources of jobs in response to collective needs. Combating discrimination, promoting access to employment for people with disabilities and integrating immigrants and minorities are particularly essential."

    In order to deliver these aims for blind and partially sighted people, the Commission and member states should strive to ensure that best practice pertains everywhere with regard to:

      (a) Facilitating the education of all blind and partially sighted people from pre-school to higher education, by providing learners with access technology, support teachers and all other appropriate assistance.
      (b) Facilitating lifelong learning for blind and partially sighted people by providing transport to centres of learning and appropriate technology to make their inclusion effective.
      (c) Enacting measures to promote the retention of blind and partially sighted people who acquire sight loss during their working lives, e.g. by the introduction of rehabilitation leave and the construction of impairment-appropriate services for rehabilitation and job seeking.
      (d) The provision of supported employment appropriate to visual impairment and the construction of an employment continuum to enable blind, partially sighted and other people with disabilities (whenever possible) to move gradually from economic inactivity to mainstream employment.
      (e) The removal of all financial barriers to the employment of people with disabilities, e.g. by introducing a system of income compensation for less productive workers and a wholly adequate system of compensation for the additional costs of disabled living.
      (f) Overcoming the "digital divide" by ensuring that all blind and partially sighted people have access to information and communications technology, both for work and leisure.

    It follows from the above comments that blind and partially sighted people also have a strong interest in all the remaining guidelines.

    Guideline 19: Ensure inclusive labour markets, enhance work attractiveness, and make work pay for job-seekers, including disadvantaged people, and the inactive

    Blind and visually impaired people requires a functional assessment programme appropriate to visual impairment triggered by a system of work directed interviews by personnel of the national employment service], job search assistance, guidance and training as part of personalised action plans must be impairment-appropriate and may be best delivered in partnership with voluntary agencies which specialize in visual impairment), provision of necessary social services: including social rehabilitation services appropriate to blind and partially sighted people] to support the inclusion of those furthest away from the labour market and contribute to the eradication of poverty by provision of income compensation and compensation for the additional costs of living with blindness or serious sight loss, continual review of the incentives and disincentives resulting from the tax and benefit systems, including the management and conditionality of benefits and a significant reduction of high marginal effective tax rates, notably for those with low incomes, whilst ensuring adequate levels of social protection, development of new sources of jobs in services for individuals and businesses, notably at local level."

    We agree that] "To allow more people to find better employment, it is also necessary to strengthen the labour market infrastructure at national and EU level, including through the EURES network, so as to better anticipate and resolve possible mismatches which requires that all information relating to jobs is accessible to blind and partially sighted people, e.g. by the provision of access technology for computers in job centres]."

    Guideline 20: Improve matching of labour market needs

    Through the modernisation and strengthening of labour market institutions, notably employment services, also with a view to ensuring greater transparency of employment and training opportunities at national and European level, (see comments made in Guideline n? 19), removing obstacles to mobility for workers across Europe within the framework of the Treaties by ensuring, in the case of blind and partially sighted people, transferability between Member States of social security benefits providing compensation for the disadvantages of blindness or serious sight loss.

    Guideline 21: Promote flexibility combined with employment security and reduce labour market segmentation, having due regard to the role of the social partners

    We think that, it is always essential that the special needs of blind and partially sighted workers are thoroughly taken into account when delivering these outcomes.

    Guideline 22: Ensure employment-friendly labour cost developments and wage-setting mechanisms

    These aims are as relevant to visually impaired as to any other workers and it is essential to take account at all times the access and other issues outlined previously in the text

    Guideline 23: Expand and improve investment in human capital

    Here again blind and partially sighted people have a very strong interest in the guideline and care should be taken at all times to provide the assistive measures outlined previously in the text.

    Guideline 24: Adapt education and training systems in response to new competence requirements

    Access to education and life long learning is, as we have already indicated, of paramount importance to blind and partially sighted people as preparation for entering the labour market. Besides the assistive measures outlined previously in the text, it is important to note that special educational provision is sometimes necessary to supplement the provisions in mainstream schools and colleges. We have in mind (a) special schools for the education of children with complex needs and (b) special centres for the education and/or training of blind and partially sighted people who have failed to achieve appropriate work skills and who require special provision to enable them to catch up.

    Each one of these specific employment guidelines is of obvious interest for people with disabilities, as their main objective is to reduce unemployment, in particular for people at a disadvantage, as well as to promote an integrated approach in the labour market.

    Importance of the National Reform Programmes

    National Reform Plans are prepared at the end of each year by the governments of each Member State based on the employment guidelines and presented to the Commission. They offer an evaluation of consolidated progress over the preceding 12 months. They also contain a detailed description of how employment guidelines will be applied at national level.

    This way, those plans will respond to the concrete situation and characteristics of each national situation in the field of employment and they will set concrete measures and models of implementation that will be activated in each Member State.

    Member States' governments have already presented to the European Commission last October their 2006 National Reform Programmes, with an evaluation on progress made this year and the 2007 national strategy. The Commission will then carry out an evaluation of those programmes that will be finalized by early 2007 and that will be taken into account for the new European Employment Strategy for the period 2008-2011.

    It is, therefore, important to be informed on the contents of this year's national programmes and the concrete measures that they contain for 2007, in order to be able to initiate a dialogue and an active cooperation with the governments so that next year's initiatives include concrete measures for the community of blind people or people with some visual impairment.

    Strengthening of the EES at regional and local levels

    Although in the first place the implementation of the EES was focused on national and EU levels, at present there is a general consensus on the essential role to be played by local and regional authorities of the State Members. The level of implication depends to a large extent on each Member State's own structures and responsibilities. Equally, at European level, the active participation of other partners is promoted, such as civil society and industry, all this is aimed at implicating all parts that will play a basic role in policies of employment and social cohesion.

    It is, therefore, also necessary that interested local and regional organizations start an active cooperation with those partners to plan effective strategies and concrete measures at local and regional levels. The strategy would be to delimit a territory with the local or regional social actors, to establish a diagnosis of the situation in that territory, to identify other possible partners, such as the industry, and to involve all local and regional authorities in the region. The ideal would be to adopt regional or local plans of action. These actions could offer significant results en fields such as information and awareness or exchange of good practice.

    How to ensure that National Reform Programmes include effectively the guidelines that are of special importance for people with disabilities - Some recommendations

    1) Importance to be well informed As we mentioned before, it is vital to be informed of the calendar and contents of the National Reform Programmes. It will be essential to carefully analyze the programme and identify measures of interest for blind people or people with some visual impairment. Once they have been identified: At national level 2) To know the national/regional/local partners
      It is essential to know who the key actors are at national, regional and local levels that will be or could be implicated in the development and implementation of the plan and programmed concrete actions.
      3) To participate in the definition and planning process at national/regional/local levels - late 2006/early 2007

    Once they are identified, it will be necessary to contact them and meet them to start/consolidate a dialogue on how to carry out the measures most adequately for this community and how there could be active cooperation in order to optimize the results, the planned calendar and the most adequate instruments to carry out these actions.

    This work will have to be done each year in order to initiate the activities and measures for the following year and ensure their effectiveness.

    At European level

      4) Extended and permanent dialogue at European level with DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities

    In 2007, it would be advisable to establish a regular dialogue with key people at European Commission's level, in order to cooperate with the evaluation work that the Commission carries out each year and ensure that the interests of the community of visual impaired people are taken into account in the best way. The concrete objectives of this dialogue would be the following:

      i. To identify the guidelines that have not been totally or adequately implemented at national level and communicate the improvement needs and proposals to the European Commission;
      ii. To participate and contribute directly in the annual evaluation and recommendations as well as in the preparation of employment guidelines for the period 2008-2011.