An EU response to Disability in the Workplace, SIPTU, DISABILITY, EQUALITY - National Workshop on the Politics of Disability

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Address by Mr. Padraig Flynn
Member of the European Commission responsible for
Employment and Social Affairs
Dublin, 17 April 1998

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be with you today.

This conference takes place as European social policy passes into a new and challenging phase. It is one of modernisation, of the systematic pursuit of an agenda for change in how European labour markets operate.

The mark of the extent of this change is the commitment by Member State governments to put in place a co-ordinated strategy based on agreed, quantified, comparable targets for creating employment and preventing unemployment, above all long-term unemployment.

This strategy, with its strong, preventive thrust, will be of particular importance for disabled people at work or looking for work.

People with a disability are at higher risk of becoming unemployed. And when they do, they remain unemployed for longer than average periods. Long-term unemployment is a reality for many people with disabilities.

This is why a preventive strategy - one which intervenes early to identify an individual's needs and insists on early action - is so crucial and so necessary for all vulnerable groups in society, including people with disabilities.

1997 was a watershed year. It saw the Treaty of Amsterdam incorporating a new Title on employment, a recognition on the part of Member States that they must act together to solve the problems of Europe's labour markets.

The adoption of the Treaty of Amsterdam has given us a platform for the renewal of European social policy. Not only do we have the new Employment Title but we have new provisions on equal opportunities, social inclusion, anti-discrimination and public health. I see the Treaty of Amsterdam as in a true sense a Treaty for people.

At Amsterdam, European leaders created a mandate for the Union-wide co-ordination of employment policy very like that which has for some time been in place for monetary and economic policy. They moved quickly to call a special Jobs Summit .

That Jobs Summit of November 1997 can be said to have put the finishing touches to this new EU employment strategy. Its objectives are clear: to create new jobs, to equip people with skills and to give them the ability to adapt to the demands of modern working life.

The needs of disabled people are built into the thinking of the new strategy in a very fundamental way.

At the Jobs Summit, I proposed new guidelines for Member State employment policy. These have now been enthusiastically endorsed by the Council and will form the basis for Member State employment policies in 1998. The guidelines have four main strands, all designed to deliver a very different employment policy stance in Member States.

The first is about promoting entrepreneurship to generate new jobs. The second seeks to boost the employability of people by giving them the skills needed in a rapidly changing market. The third urges Member States to develop, through co-operation between employers, workers and governments new adaptable approaches to work organisation. And the fourth is about promoting equality of opportunity.

On the equality issue, Member States have agreed to pay particular attention to the problems that people with disabilities face in the labour market.

Today I want to underline that the whole approach of the new jobs strategy is of relevance for people with disabilities.

Why? Above all because the strategy is about the urgent need to prevent long long-term unemployment by providing the education and the training and the support that help people to develop new skills. People with disabilities drift more easily into long-term unemployment than their able-bodied counterparts.

They need this preventive strategy.

They need to feel employable, to know that they are employable and for employers to know it too.

None of this implies huge additional spending. Rather it is about a more intelligent use of the resources that we already have.

Up to now, Member State labour market policies have not taken the true capacities, difficulties and sheer potential of people with disabilities into account.

Our policies have been about dependency and basic maintenance. What they must be about is development and the improvement of the life chances of all our people, including people with disabilities.

Income support systems have in the past served to trap people in passive dependence. This is not a safety net. It is a ghetto. Disincentives to work and to train must be swept away and the equality issue tackled head on.

People with disabilities themselves have always criticised the shortcomings of a system which marginalises whole groups of our population, regardless of their potential, regardless of their power to contribute. They know, I know and you know that people with disability in the Union continue to be worse affected than their able-bodied fellow-citizens by unemployment, poverty, poor education and discrimination.

With the new post-Amsterdam policy approach, Member States have agreed to offer the encouragement and support that people with disabilities need not merely to cope with their disability but to flourish as citizens and to make the best use of increased job opportunities. What steps Member States have taken to put the preventive part of the strategy into reality will be the subject of particular focus by the Commission in our report to the European Council in Cardiff in June.

But Government action can be only part of the response. It's also about attitudes and approach, especially in the relationships between employers and employees. It is vital that both employers and employees' representatives become active players in this field. And they must do so working alongside people with disabilities.

It's a strange fact that most people will gladly contribute to charities which help disabled people. But when it's a matter of accepting a disabled person as a member of your staff or as a fellow- worker, well.. that's a different story.

It will not be easy to change the way that people who do not have disabilities think about those who do. But if those attitudes change at work, they will change everywhere.

Which is why the European response to this problem will not only put the spotlight on what Member States are actually doing to improve the way they help disabled people to enter and remain in the labour market. It will also put special emphasis on the role and responsibility of the Social Partners in insisting on equal opportunities in the workplace.

May I just say here how much I welcome the close working partnership of SIPTU and the Irish Council of People with Disabilities. If there is this greater awareness of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, it is in no small part thanks to the work done by disability organisations in heightening this awareness. Their voice is being heard ever more strongly in all parts of the Union and they are playing an increasingly influential part in EU policy planning. Organisations such as the European Disability Forum, with its Union-wide membership base, its democratic structure, and its proven local community support, have the credibility and legitimacy to engage in public policy debates. They have worked with the Commission in the past and we intend that this work with representative, broadly based organisations like the Forum should continue.

This partnership between SIPTU and the Council of People with Disabilities is a powerful demonstration that the core ideals of labour and the core ideals of civil rights are essentially one and the same. They boil down to one thing: JUSTICE, economic and social.

Our common aim is to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are fully met within the overall strategy for jobs in the Union. We have the building blocks. Advances in new technology are especially important in this area and are helping us to build the foundation that will enable us to meet those needs in practice.




Let me say something about where the Structural Funds fit into this process.

The European Social Fund, for which I have special responsibility, will be in a real sense the driving force of the new employment policy strategy. It is our main human resources policy instrument.

In the six years up to 1999 the ESF will have made available 47 billion ECUs in all the Member States. This support has unlocked funding at national level for projects which benefit disabled people. I would go further and say that the ESF has often proved - not least in Member States such as Ireland - the primary instrument driving active labour market policy for people with disabilities.

The Employment-Horizon initiative has complemented this mainstream ESF support. HORIZON has been a catalyst for new and exciting approaches which bring together the resources of all involved. It has helped to build partnerships at many different levels and has made possible the Europe-wide sharing of ideas and best practice.

HORIZON has proved an invaluable stimulus for employment specialists, administrators, consumers, people and their families, advocates and all those who want to see a sharp increase in employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

By 1999, over 1200 projects throughout the Union will have explored new pathways for integrating disabled people into employment.

With the reform of the Structural Funds, we can intensify the drive to reduce unemployment, social exclusion and discrimination. As part of the reform we will be trying to simplify our administrative and financial procedures. And we will be seeking to re-model the partnership between the Commission and the Member States in a way that will make sure these changes last and are successful.

In particular, we will be looking to see that Member States make the best use of the contribution of regional and local authorities and the economic and social partners, including non-governmental organizations. In the past this has not always been the case and I believe that it has made structural support less effective as a result.

Finally we intend to create for the ESF a single new Community initiative which will address the root causes of discrimination and the resulting poor job prospects of various groups of people.




All those who suffer discrimination - whether they are of ethnic minority origin, women, people with disabilities, older people, the low-skilled or some other group - experience it as a complex and long-term problem. Its impact and persistence lock them in social and workplace disadvantage.

It is all the more vital that we act with an understanding of the factors that cause discrimination rather than assuming that somehow the problem originates with the characteristics of different groups of people. No individual with a disability, any more than a person of different racial origin, is to blame for the discrimination which society directs at him or her, although some would have it that way.

So, as we prepare for 2000 and beyond, I want to see the Union actively working on the cluster of issues arising around the new Article 13 of the Treaty on equality and anti-discrimination.

This new provision, combined with the Declaration made by the Amsterdam Conference that the needs of disabled people must be taken into account when national legislation is harmonised, has underlined the serious task, even duty, of the European Union to see that there is respect for the principle of equal treatment for people with disabilities and that progress is made in this area.

The 15 governments at Amsterdam gave a strong signal and we will be looking for ways of making that signal mean something in practice. An illustration of how we intend to operate came with the recent Commission proposal for a directive on upgrading buses and coaches. Ease of using public transport is a basic precondition for giving people with disabilities better access to job opportunities.

In the coming months, I will be asking the Commission to adopt a Code of Good Practice, as a clear statement of the European Institutions' own policies in relation to the employment of people with disabilities.

But even this is not enough, far from it. For example, we need to ensure that public spending programs all take disability into full account. I was shocked - and I must say angry - to learn that some public works, made possible with the support of EU funding, had ignored access for disabled people in their design. This will not happen again where I have a say in the matter.

On citizenship, we need to recognise that a democracy is only as strong as the participation of its citizens. Debates on public policy cannot be restricted to those who are in best position to make their voices heard. In building a strong civil society, we are enhancing - not reducing - our potential economic development. Social and economic progress go hand in hand. Failure to strike a balance can be disastrous over time, as the experience of Far Eastern economies has painfully demonstrated in the last few months.

Ultimately, the notion of citizenship means nothing to people who are marginalised economically. People with disabilities need to feel, and to be included, not excluded. And at present it is less their disability that excludes them that a system which continues to impose a sense of dependence and powerlessness.

My personal experience has taught me at first hand the value of diversity and the value of diverse abilities in every individual. It is by regarding our diversity as a resource that we make our society a stronger and inclusive society, one that offers a promise to all who live in it.