Focus needed to address European employment disparities amid some progress, by Leonardo Palumbo

22 April 2015

The latest EU Employment and Social Situation Quarterly Review highlights significant positive trends, such as the continuous fall in unemployment, an increase in full-time employment, the first decrease in long-term unemployment, and a decrease in youth unemployment.  This report published by the European Commission follows social and employment updates every quarter. As employment is an important determinant of health, this should be good news to health promoters.  But what should cause concern for health equity practitioners, like EuroHealthNet members and partners, are the growing disparities:

  • A rise in employment at EU level hid marked differences between Member States.  The majority of Member States experienced an increase, including countries with very high unemployment rates such as Greece and Spain. The only exceptions were Portugal, Croatia and Cyprus which registered a quarterly decline (1.4%, 0.9% and 0.6%, respectively).
  • Large differences remain among Member States. The unemployment rate ranges from around 5% in Germany and Austria to very high 23% in Spain and 26% in Greece.
  • The employment rate went up by 0.6 pp for young people aged 15-24 and noticeably by 1.2 pp for 20-24 year-olds. For those aged 25-54 it increased by 0.7 pp and more significantly, for older workers aged 55-64 by 1.7 pp.
  • There is a noticeable gender gap, which remains significant at more than 10 pp (76% versus 64%).   

Youth unemployment in the EU fell by 1.8 pp in the year to February 2015, to reach 21.1% - but the number remains below par for the next generation. Evidence shows there will be long-term physical and psycho-social health consequences to having more than one-fifth of young people unemployed at a formative transitional stage of life.

The fact that more permanent contracts represent an additional 1.3 million full-time workers is a positive development.  But the survey does not clarify socio-economic status, or if positive developments in employment include people from most vulnerable groups.  From a health equity perspective a stronger focus on quality employment would be important.  However the survey does measure underemployment.  Unfortunately, that measure has not changed since the height of the financial crisis and remains at 4.0% of the labour force.

These trends suggest that more targeted approaches are needed to tackle the remaining employment gaps between Member States, age groups, and genders. Data on the employment status across the gradient is needed to see if all social groups are experiencing benefits from an increase in employment. EuroHealthNet will also bring the evidence from the DRIVERs research project on employment protection into the policy debate.  The European Commission is preparing a proposal for a ministerial Council Recommendation on integration of the long-term unemployed. This is important for cross-sectoral work on determinants of health by providing a consistent framework for Member States to strengthen support given to the long term unemployed and encourage cooperation between organisations providing this support. EuroHealthNet will respond to the consultation to make links with tackling health inequalities. Improvements in quality of work, particularly for people in lower occupational groups, contribute to a significantly healthier and more productive Europe.

To contact Leonardo Palumbo, click here