ECONOMY

Government to boost social economy to fight unemployment

The government has prepared plans to improve an array of services through the use of «social economy» agencies – cooperatives that will provide services directly to citizens in areas where the public or private sectors prove wanting, thereby contributing to employment and the fight against social exclusion. In December, Deputy Labor and Social Security Minister Lefteris Tziolas presented the Cabinet with an analytic proposal for tax incentives designed to promote the growth of such agencies in social services. Following suit, Deputy Economy and Finance Minister Giorgos Floridis has now worked out a draft pilot program in a number of services, ranging from hospital care to culture. Social economy, called by some the «third sector» or «third system,» has grown rapidly in the European Union in recent years. Contributors to a special conference held in Athens last November at Tziolas’s initiative noted its contribution to employment, combining voluntarism, the collective spirit, the inventiveness of young people and the needs of public administration. In the EU, there are now 900,000 cooperatives, accounting for as much as 10 percent of total employment. In Greece, the respective rate is just 2 percent, almost exclusively accounted for by cooperatives in the agricultural sector. Tziolas’s proposals included a drastic reduction in tax rates for production and commercial cooperatives of women, particularly in rural and mountainous areas, and zero taxation for enterprises to be created by people with special needs or long-term unemployed over 50 years of age. Statistics support the idea; the rate of growth in employment in social economy agencies in the EU has been much higher than that of the economy as a whole. This rate is estimated to be 25 percent in France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. Employment in social economy agencies represents more than 20 percent of new jobs; of these, 75 percent were in the sectors of education, health and social services. Many other jobs were created in the domains of sports and cultural activities. According to Floridis’s plan, cooperatives may be formed in 19 areas, but the pilot program will include just eight: hospital care, where demand is strong but the government is constrained by hiring limits and money; day-care services (kindergartens, creative centers for children, help and care at home); guarding of schools against vandalism; improvement of services provided by social insurance funds; mass sports services; environmental services and cultural services. The new agencies may also be set up by non-governmental organizations, social cooperatives, local government enterprises and existing enterprises in the services sector, provided they modify their aims appropriately. The plan is projected to create 35,000 jobs. The funds required are estimated at 300 million euros, while the management of resources is proposed to be undertaken by special social economy funds that may also tap resources under the EU-subsidized Third Community Support Framework investment plan. The plan is particularly expected to benefit the nursing profession, where unemployment is high. In day-care services, the program aims to increase the working hours in kindergartens in the afternoons and Saturdays. Low-income families will receive «care coupons» that may be used either at home or in licenced facilities.