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Forum 2005 – Reconciling labour flexibility with social cohesion
 
Closing remarks from Mr. Alexander Vladychenko, Director General of Social Cohesion at the Council of Europe

Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since yesterday morning we have been debating how to reconcile labour flexibility and social cohesion.

This challenge is crucial for the Council of Europe’s approach to social cohesion, as I already had the chance to underline yesterday.

Based on our commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, social cohesion, as outlined in our Strategy for Social Cohesion, represents a crucial element in the fulfilment of these rights. It is natural that the Council of Europe seeks to develop a rights-based approach to social cohesion.

As understood by the Council of Europe, social cohesion is “the capacity of a society to ensure the welfare of all its members, minimizing disparities and avoiding polarization”. A cohesive society is a mutually supportive community of free individuals pursuing these common goals by democratic means.

Welfare implies not only equity and non-discrimination in access to human rights but also the recognition of the dignity, the abilities and the contribution of each person to society; the freedom of each individual to pursue their personal development; and the possibility for each person to participate actively as a full member of society.

It is easy to see why labour flexibility often makes people feel less secure. Moreover, as we have heard from the World Health Organisation, this can affect people’s physical and mental health.

We have also seen how labour flexibility can represent an opportunity for some but tends to exclude others; how it can hinder people from accessing stable income, assured social protection and decent housing and how it can interfere with a healthy work-life balance and lead to people postponing parenthood.

On the other side, we have learned from entrepreneurs and managers of their needs for flexibility and a flexible work force so to be able to adjust to the global markets and to be competitive. And there is a widespread consensus that a dynamic, knowledge-based economy requires greater labour force flexibility. Social cohesion needs to be built on the firm foundations of a solid economic performance.

We have gained many insights which confirmed some of our fears and underlined the dilemmas we are facing, so that one starts to wonder whether it is really possible to reconcile labour flexibility with social cohesion.

But the first conclusion I can draw is an encouraging one. When we had all the stakeholders presenting their different needs for flexibility and stability, right at the beginning of the Forum, we could see that it is by no means impossible to bring together the different interests so as to find agreed ways of reconciling labour flexibility with social cohesion. They are not a priori mutually exclusive.

Labour flexibility is not only a necessity for employers. We have seen that while employees are averse to risk they are not necessarily against flexibility as such. They are indeed looking for the kind of labour flexibility that means the possibility of planning their lives and being able to reconcile their professional and family lives and have time to bring up children or care for the elderly. We have also seen that employers need stability and reliability in employment relationships. It became clear that labour flexibility is not the only variable on which competition and economic performance is dependent, but rather a complement to a series of other measures which need to accompany flexibility.

Bringing the stakeholders together has shown that there exists a potential win-win situation and there is a space for mutually beneficial negotiation.

During the last one and a half days we had the chance to hear about a series of innovative proposals and illuminating experiences. We started with the Danish flexicurity model and later with the Dutch model. We have heard of good practice from countries such as Austria, Spain or Italy. Entrepreneurs and NGOs have also advised how to tackle the problem. This morning we have heard the strategies of other international organizations, followed by the different visions of experienced politicians.

It is good to know that there are so many positive ideas for building new forms of social cohesion in a world of flexible labour markets. Even though we cannot simply transfer best practices from one country or region to another, it is important to learn about practical and innovative measures that can be part of a locally or nationally adapted strategy to achieve social cohesion.

In all these different ways, people are trying to combine flexibility and security so as to achieve what we inelegantly call “flexicurity”.

However, not all flexicurity strategies are equally compatible with social cohesion, as the debates on social protection and on activation have shown. The Council of Europe’s approach on social cohesion can, I believe, contribute a normative framework based on social rights.

This is why we have put before you the first draft of a “policy check list” which could serve to structure the ongoing debate and underline the various aspects that need to be taken into account. This debate can then help those concerned to design intelligent solutions that are compatible with social cohesion and inspired by good practice.

If we are to find the kind of flexicurity instruments that enhance social cohesion, it will be essential to include all the stakeholders and to develop a sense of shared responsibility. Social cohesion is not only an objective but a process which tries to make the best of everybody’s needs. However as flexibility makes traditional forms of social dialogue more difficult, we have to consider further new methods and new spaces for such dialogue.

The Council of Europe would like to start this process by proposing the policy checklist as a starting point for debate.

Despite the differences between the situations in Western European countries and those in transition countries, the goal of social cohesion is applicable everywhere. It will, however, need to be adapted to the different economic situations, institutions and traditions. The Council of Europe hopes that a pan-European forum can help to promote the exchange of experience and best practice and so help all our member States develop long term strategies.

The foundation of the Council of Europe’s action is the guarantee of fundamental social rights. We have seen that the right to work needs to be interpreted differently in the context of a modified working world. Fresh interpretations and developments of labour law are necessary in order to fill the right to work with new life. As we have seen, we need a right to employment, a right to good transitions and a right to autonomous development. We must look again at our texts in this light.

I hope we will all take this Forum as a starting point for action. Reconciling labour flexibility with social cohesion is entirely possible, but we still have a long way to go.