Worker training crucial to economic recovery, EU ministers agree

Minister Owen Bonnici participating in a virtual meeting of employment and social policy ministers from across the EU. Photo by Omar Camilleri (DOI)

Employment ministers from across the EU emphasised the importance of training the labour force as they discussed how employment and social policies can be strengthened to overcome the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ministers responsible for employment and social affairs held an informal online discussion: their third during the pandemic, but the first to focus on recovery. Malta was represented by Employment Minister Owen Bonnici.

The present holder of the presidency of the European Council – Croatia – prepared a number of questions to steer the discussion, focusing on flexible working arrangements, upskilling and reskilling employees, and the promotion of gender equality.

Though ministers welcomed the EU’s Recovery Package, they highlighted that the crisis brought about by the pandemic gave rise to serious challenges, identifying social isolation, data protection, workers’ health and the protection of workers’ rights among the most serious issues.

They emphasised that the crisis emphasised the need for upskilling and reskilling of the labour force to support economic recovery, and Bonnici was no exception to the rule. He highlighted the government’s Skills Development Scheme, through which it will be investing €5m on the in-house training of employees, as well as the €5,000 grant made available to companies wishing to re-engineer their business models.

But as far as Malta was concerned, Bonnici also pointed out that addressing early school leaving remained a top priority.

“Thus, upskilling and reskilling strategies are also being supported by long-term approaches towards open-ended education pathways within compulsory education to prepare individuals from a young age with the necessary transversal skills needed to thrive in today’s changing labour market circumstances,” the minister maintained.

The benefits of remote working

The pandemic saw the widespread use of flexible working arrangements, with Bonnici highlighting how it showed that ICT could “continue to revolutionise the world of work as we know it.” Such flexible arrangements, he argued, would prove to be both economically and socially beneficial in the long run.

“Moving forward and taking into consideration the positive impact of remote working, Malta deems that such work-life balance measures should be strengthened and sustained in the new world of world of work we are living in,” Bonnici added.

But in line with this, the minister also highlighted need to intensify efforts to prepare the labour force for such arrangements, whilst assessing the needs of sectors which have shown weaknesses in digital preparedness.

The threat of domestic violence

The debate also touched on the protection and promotion of gender equality, with many ministers – Bonnici included – identifying domestic violence as a serious issue in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. He observed that the pandemic exposed victims of domestic violence to more possible instances of violence and fewer opportunities to seek assistants; furthermore.

“In view of this, various awareness campaigns were carried out to encourage people to seek help and report domestic violence. Malta also introduced a form of silent reporting through the 112 app. Additionally, we also made sure that victim support services and access to domestic violence shelters remained open and accessible throughout this,” he explained.

Ministers broadly agreed on that recovery policies should be designed with gender equality in mind, particularly since many key duties during the current crisis were carried out by women.

Bonnici himself highlighted the effort of Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci, who he described as a role model for young women and girls.

“We believe that a holistic approach to strengthen our human capital should not only seek to enhance our capacity for the ongoing transitions in the world of work but which also strengthen gender equality and work-life balance in order to ensure that no talent is left behind and maximise our future potential for growth,” he concluded.

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