Unemployment hits eight-year low

LABOUR Minister Ľudovít Kaník was happy to report that the official unemployment rate in Slovakia dropped below 11 percent, the lowest in eight years.

LABOUR Minister Ľudovít Kaník was happy to report that the official unemployment rate in Slovakia dropped below 11 percent, the lowest in eight years.

At the end of August, job centres across the country registered 281,549 unemployed workers ready to take up new jobs immediately. Compared to July, the number of unemployed fell by 3,700 and compared to August 2004, by 65,200.

The numbers come from calculations made by the Office for Labour, Social Affairs and Family, which looks at the number of unemployed registered with state labour offices and that are ready to take up jobs immediately.

"We will not be satisfied until all who want work find work," Kaník said.

The Statistics Office has different things to say about Slovakia's job market, however, as it calculates the number based on surveys. The Statistics Office reported the unemployment rate at 16.9 percent for the first half of 2005.

Meanwhile, a non-governmental organization, the European Action Citizens Service, told the daily SME that based on its estimations, about 150,000 Slovaks are currently working abroad.

Some see a link between the growing number of Slovaks working abroad and the dipping unemployment in Slovakia. The Labour Ministry rejects this line of reasoning as "misleading".

"The numbers [that the NGO presented] seem real and close to the data that the Labour Ministry has. However, talking about these numbers as the main motor driving decreases in unemployment is very misleading because there is real economic growth in Slovakia, a growth that no one has been questioning," Labour Ministry spokesman Martin Danko told The Slovak Spectator.

According to Danko, there are tangible increases in employment opportunities in Slovakia. It is Slovakia's economy, not that of other countries, that is responsible for the positive developments in Slovakia's labour market.

"The fact that part of the population works abroad is absolutely normal because we are part of Europe. But after entering the EU, there has not been a mass exodus of Slovak labour to EU countries. When we take into consideration the numbers [of Slovaks working abroad] that were reported four or five years ago, the difference between then and now is not huge," Danko said.

The media recently reported that Austria would mostly likely keep its labour market closed to Slovaks at least until the end of 2009.

Next year, the established EU countries will revisit their decisions on so-called transition periods for allowing new EU members to work in their countries.

Although Austria has not yet made its final decision, reports indicate that restrictions on Slovaks will stay in place for at least the next three years.

The Labour Ministry still hopes that established EU members will evaluate the experiences of those countries that did allow Eastern European labour into their countries immediately after May 2004.

"We expect that many countries will re-evaluate their position on the temporary restrictions and will remove these soon," Danko said. However, the ministry wants to remain realistic about the approach of Austria and Germany.

"As far as Germany and Austria are concerned, it is a specific situation and we assume that opening the labour market is a complicated internal political issue and Slovaks realize that these countries will most probably decide on an extended transition period," Danko told the Spectator.

Austrians have been concerned about the possibility of an influx of cheap labour.

Currently, Austria legally employs around 8,000 people from Slovakia. Experts are refusing to speculate how many Slovaks are working in Austria illegally.

The ministry claims that it will continue making efforts to negotiate the best conditions for Slovakia.

"We will keep stressing the need to cancel the transition period for employment at the earliest possible time. Not because we need to see our citizens massively take up jobs abroad, but because it is a psychological and political issue. We want to be treated as full-value citizens of the union," Danko said.

In June, Doris Bures of the Austrian Social Democratic Party said that Slovakia wanted to move its unemployment problems to neighbouring states. She was reacting to a measure of the Slovak Labour Ministry that grants travel benefits of up to €52 per month for a maximum period of three months to those who find jobs in Slovakia's neighbouring states.

However, on September 20, Minister Kaník said that only 27 people have been granted this benefit so far.

The Austrian Economy Ministry warned that there is a seven-year transition period for Slovaks in Austria, preventing the free movement of labour.

The Czech Republic has also taken note of the planned travel allowance, but does not fear a huge influx of workers from Slovakia.

The benefits are planned in the form of a pilot project, within which a maximum of 4,000 unemployed Slovaks, who will be selected by the Slovak labour authorities, would be entitled to receive the allowance.

To qualify for the benefit, recipients must have been registered as unemployed for at least three months. The stipend will be given only for a maximum of three months.

"I think the number [27 persons approved for the benefits] talks volumes and I think that the panic that emerged was completely unjustified and it rose out of disinformation of the measure that the ministry installed. I think that in the future, this number might slightly rise, but I in no way think that it will have any mass increase," Danko said.

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