No match for growth and taxation policies in fighting unemployment

Labor and Social Security Minister Dimitris Reppas says the government is preparing an overhaul of the Manpower Organization (OAED) and the introduction of private firms for the individualized treatment of the jobless in work placements. In an interview (excerpts from which follow), he also expressed the view that the result of the next general election, due within a year from now, will be marginal. The recent accident at the Corinth Pipeworks factory, which cost the lives of six workers, revealed a current contradiction: As labor inspections increase, deadly accidents are also on the rise. Is it perhaps that the economic downturn is driving many enterprises to lower hygiene and safety standards while also demanding harder work? The situation is largely related to the employment of large numbers of immigrants in labor-intensive industries. We have many accidents in construction, where immigrant workers are not always familiar with safety precautions. Also, to some degree, enterprises use workers for different jobs, in which they are not specialized. This implies a lowering of standards, which should not be the case. Did making overtime rules stricter have no effect on employment? Indeed, we did not gain anything, we did not create more jobs. This is something we shall see to shortly, but we do not intend to fragment the labor market. We do not want to break the eight-hour shift in two in order to have two workers. Does this mean you are preparing a new law on structural changes in the labor market? Let us have no illusions; any changes in the labor market are bound to have only a marginal effect. Battling unemployment is mainly effective through growth policy initiatives and taxation. A new law, which will be prepared with the agreement of the social partners, will be in the direction of reducing labor costs. We also intend to improve the functions of OAED, with a view to better coupling labor supply and demand. How will OAED overcome its typical ineffectiveness? Five hundred new employment consultants have now assumed duties. We believe that the individualized treatment of the jobless is the key. I intend to propose that this task is undertaken by the private sector. OAED’s Employment Promotion Centers fall rather short of the task. The view is increasingly heard that the downturn in the European economy necessitates the abolition of restrictions on layoffs. What is your reaction? That would be unacceptable. We must aim to improve public employment services. As regards broader policy, besides growth and taxation policy, we also have to encourage entrepreneurship among young people. But if we see the problems in its real dimensions, employment in the 24-64 age bracket is around 74 percent, which is above the target set by the Lisbon strategy for 2010. We fall very short in the 15-24 bracket, but it is not a bad thing if students do not work and concentrate on their studies instead. Are you happy with the level of unemployment? We now are better than in the past and shall see a further improvement by next year. Let me note that 17-18 percent of jobless people turn down placement proposals for various reasons; this implies that they have other means of support. How do you react to the unfavorable poll results for the ruling party? The pollsters measure people’s mood at a certain point, and their opinions tend to be critical of the government, in the knowledge that they are not committing themselves. But expressing opinions is different from casting votes. I believe that the result of the next election will be marginal but our government has the advantage. There has been a great deal of discussion lately over whether the strong anti-Americanism in Greece is harmful. What is your view? We have a strategic option to play our role according to our national interest, in an area where balances are fragile and conflicts of geopolitical and and military interests obvious. We are friends of, but not servile to, America; we are not servile to a policy that is contrary to our interests. Our interest is to help the EU acquire its defensive and political self-sufficiency.