THOUGH unemployment, along with regional disparities, remains one of the most painful issues in the country, the June jobless figures, which were the lowest since 1996, give valid reasons for optimism.
Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník reported that the unemployment rate in Slovakia fell to 11.09 percent in June.
"Slovakia is experiencing the most dramatic fall in the number of unemployed among European Union member states," Kaník said.
The latest data from Eurostat also confirms that in Slovakia more people are finding work and are less dependent on state aid.
Eurostat says that the jobless rate in Slovakia stood at 15.5 percent in May 2005 compared to 18.7 percent in May of last year.
Despite the fall, Slovakia still ranks as having one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU.
In May 2005, the lowest rates of unemployment were registered in Ireland (4.2 percent), Austria (4.6 percent) and the United Kingdom (4.6 percent, data for March).
The highest jobless rates were posted in Poland (17.8 percent), Slovakia (15.5 percent), Greece (10.2 percent in December 2004), Spain (9.9 percent) and France (9.8 percent).
However, Eurostat also reported that Slovakia was among the countries that posted the largest relative decreases in the unemployment rate, down from 18.7 percent to 15.5 percent annually.
The unemployment rate in the EU stood at 8.8 percent in May 2005, compared to 8.9 percent in April.
The jobless rate has been dropping continuously since 2002 and the Labour Ministry claims the trend will continue.
"Though summer is traditionally a period when the unemployment rate drops the most dynamically. During the autumn, it might climb moderately by one percent or so because of the end of seasonal work" Peter Húska, of the Labour Ministry's Press Department, told The Slovak Spectator.
Slovak officials attribute the sinking jobless rate to the ongoing reforms of the social system that in their initial stages brought massive worries to the socially weak, and fed the rhetoric of the parliamentary opposition, which dubbed the reforms anti-social and inhuman.
"The main factor behind this positive development [of lower unemployment] is the social reform, which has implanted immense changes into the employment and labour market. I would just mention the activating initiatives, which are intended to activate the long-term unemployed and develop their chances of being employed at a later date.
Then there is the new law on illegal work and illegal employment. After several actions, the social insurer has recorded 60,000 new applicants, who in fact were people who legalized their employment," Húska explained.
According to Húska, the assistance provided to employers who give jobs to the long-term unemployed people has also had its impact.
In fact, the number of unemployed fell by 5,306 month-on-month and by 74,000 year-on-year. There were 287,000 unemployed people available for work in June.
According to Minister Kaník, the Slovak welfare system is no longer acting as a web in which people get trapped, but is now designed to help them to get back to work as soon as possible.
While in June 2004, 80,000 unemployed people received unemployment benefit, in June 2005 only 30,000 received the benefit, the TASR news wire reported.
However, the long-term unemployment rate remains worrisome, as it has not been dropping as dynamically as short-term unemployment.
Experts agree that the best cure would be the creation of new jobs through foreign investments into the country. However, foreign investors often require qualified labour, and the long-term unemployed are the very people who lack those qualifications.
"These are people with a low education and training level and it is often tough to find employment for them because the demands of the employers are continuously increasing. There are higher demands in terms of quality of work too," Húska said.
"This is the main challenge. One of the options is to use EU funds either through the EU social funds or the fund of social development, which is directed at communities who are socially excluded," Húska added.
In May, Eurostat revealed some disturbing statistics, suggesting that 47 percent of unemployed Slovaks are living below the poverty line, which is a much higher level than in Slovakia's neighbouring states.
In the Czech Republic 30 percent, and in Hungary 31 percent of unemployed people live below the poverty line.
Analysts agree that high level long-term unemployment pushes people below the poverty line.
According to the EU definition of poverty, a poor person is one whose income is less than three-fifths of the national median wage.
The median wage is calculated as a middle value of income achieved by half of the nation's inhabitants. In Slovakia a poor person therefore earns less than Sk8,452 per month (€212.5).
contributed to the article
25. Jul 2005 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová