BUDAPEST - At the recent 7th ILO European Regional Meeting, gender issues where high on the agenda. The placement of a round table on gender equality on the agenda reflected the solid support of the ILO for gender mainstreaming, according to local ILO Office Director, Petra Ulshoefer.
One example is the Social Security project, which seeks to ensure equal treatment of women and men in pension systems, particularly given the spread of private schemes in some countries in the subregion. Another major effort is the project on Labour Market Flexibility and Employment Security ("flexicurity").
Flexicurity is a policy strategy that attempts to enhance the flexibility of labour markets together with employment security and social security - notably for weaker groups on the labour market. "It was very important to include a gender dimension in the larger flexicurity project, as women tend to form a majority of the workers in the flexible forms of employment; moreover, women have a different life cycle than men and tend to have weaker links with the labour market" said Sandrine Cazes, an ILO Employment Expert.
Women generally show lower rates of economic activity than men in Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. Even in Sweden, which from a gender standpoint is an egalitarian labour market in European terms, population-wide female inactivity in the workplace was 42.3 per cent in 2003, compared to 34.3 per cent for men. This meant a "gender gap" of 8 percentage points.
In Croatia, Hungary and Poland, the gender gap was 14.5-15.5 percentage points. However, this was still lower than in some Western European countries, such as Ireland (21.3 percentage points) and Spain (23.3 percentage points).
"In general, employment rates are lower for women than for men, and women are less present in the labour market than men", said ILO Consultant, Maria Anna Knothe. "Meanwhile, in post-communist countries there is a decrease of female participation, contrary to the increasing trend in western countries."
However, there is much higher participation of women in part-time employment than among men. Part-time employment is less widespread in CEE countries than in Western Europe, but there is a high level of involuntary part-time employment. This and other sources of insecurity are what the ILO's flexicurity project seeks to overcome.
"What is gender discrimination?" asks Ms. Knothe. "The answer is: to be in an insecure situation because of gender." Flexible forms of work are often associated with insecurity - including fixed-term, short-term or civil contracts rather than full employment contracts, agency work, multiple jobs, self-employment and "entreployment", where the employee takes on entrepreneurial risk in place of the employer. Security can be measured through access to or coverage by social security schemes, including pensions, health care and other forms of social assistance.
In order to achieve this security while providing flexibility, the ILO project recommends labour market institutions that protect workers during the transition from one job to the next such as, unemployment insurance, active labour market policies and social assistance systems. At the same time, it suggests promoting job creation with employer-friendly tax systems and targeting specific needs by gender budgeting.
"We need to raise awareness that flexibility is an irreversible, but beneficial phenomenon if accompanied by employment and income protection," said Ms. Knothe.
Kinga Göncz, the Hungarian Minister of Youth, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, and keynote speaker of the gender equality side event, underlined the importance of gender mainstreaming in labour market policies.
She said that Hungary had begun to introduce programmes that are tailored to the specific needs of women in the labour market, but that lasting success would require that women are adequately represented in decision-making bodies as well as in bargaining between social partners.
Western Europe also has gender gap
"These problems are not so different from one country to another", said Christiane Bertrand-Schaul, an Employers' Representative from Luxembourg. "There are discrepancies between Western and Eastern Europe, although the numbers are similar in terms of activity levels and wage gaps." One key divergence is seen in Western Europe, where women are coming from a low but increasing level of activity in contrast to post-communist countries where activity rates that were formerly high have fallen.
Employers see promise in the flexicurity concept as a means for improving the situation of women workers. "It has real potential in the labour markets if implemented properly", according to Ms. Bertrand-Schaul.
However, she acknowledges that these efforts might have their critics. "Women's organizations are always afraid that women will be the 'part' in part-time work. But part-time employment can be an interesting alternative, allowing women to take up an activity again."
Although Scandinavian countries have made much progress, Karin Theodorsen, a Workers' Representative from Norway, recognizes that more efforts still need to be made. Involuntary part-time work is a problem, as not all women in this form of work choose to be. In addition, women must be more visible in the trade union movement, taking positions as spokespersons and negotiators and be included in all tripartite bargaining teams.
If women are present in discussions on flexicurity, Ms. Theodorsen is confident that their concerns will be reflected. "This fight we have to do ourselves", she said. "Men won't always raise these issues."