Under-fire minister launches €7mn anti-unemployment project

The opposition has attacked the government over soaring unemployment figures as Labour Minister Rudolf Hundstorfer promises a multi-million Euro support initiative for women out of work.

Freedom Party (FPÖ) General Secretary Harald Kickl claimed today (Weds) the coalition was not facing the reality as more than 300,000 people living in Austria had no job last month. He claimed figures released yesterday were “manipulated” due to the high number of people sitting re-education courses. These lectures are provided by the Labour Market Service (AMS) in partnership with the labour ministry. Fewer than 66,000 people sat such lectures in October, down by nine per cent compared to the same month in 2010. Kickl claimed the AMS was working inefficiently.

Kickl suggested businesses interested in hiring trainees should get more support. Referring to the fact that Austria’s joblessness rate was the lowest among all 27 European Union (EU) states, the right-winger said the country’s government was also “champion in disguising real figures.”

Sigisbert Dolinschek of the Alliance for the Future of Austria (AMS) accused SPÖ and the People’s Party (ÖVP) of “hiding” jobless people in the AMS courses. He appealed on the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition to crack down on “privileged groups” like former staff of Federal Railways (ÖBB) and other companies close to the state. Dolinschek added the government must do more against the high number of people retiring early.

Greens labour market issues spokeswoman Birgit Schatz accused Hundstorfer of trying to fight the crisis by telling jokes after the minister claimed yesterday that the government was “well prepared” against a possible further worsening of the situation on the job front.

Schatz called for more speed in reforming the labour sector to achieve higher efficiency in fighting the trend of growing unemployment in Austria while Hundstorfer claimed there was no crisis on the Austrian labour market. He described the increase as “just a bump” in the statistics and made aware of detail figures showing an increase of employment. Around 3.5 million citizens of Austria had a job last month when the country’s unemployment rate was 3.9 per cent. Vienna (plus 8.2 per cent) and Burgenland (plus 6.9 per cent) registered the strongest joblessness jumps from October 2010 to last month. Vorarlberg (minus 7.6 per cent) was the only one among the country’s nine provinces to achieve a decrease.

Schatz warned that previously successful measures would not work this time around. She referred to the government’s short-time subsidisation initiative which had helped to avoid the dismissal of tens of thousands of industrial sector workers since 2008. Under the scheme, the coalition paid financial compensation to struggling firms for their accord to put superfluous staff into short-time instead of sacking them when order volumes tumbled. Schatz said today the government had no money for labour market incentives anymore. However, Hundstorfer revealed an additional seven million Euros would be spent on job programmes for women this autumn.

The minister said that especially women aged 50 and over experienced immense difficulties looking for work these days. He told radio station Ö1 this morning that the money would be spent on “qualification and integration initiatives” for older women out of work. Hundstorfer refused to reveal when the project would start. He did not elaborate on detailed functions and contents of the planned initiative.

Hundstorfer dismissed speculations that the government was considering a new economic stimulus programme as a continuation of the current trend of rising joblessness was expected, accompanied by a lower-than-expected rise of the gross domestic product (GDP). The labour minister identified the fight against the increase of invalidity pension figures as one of his key priorities of the coming months.

Reducing youth unemployment was named as another important task by the SPÖ-ÖVP government member earlier this year. Hundstorfer said last month he suggested to his EU member country counterparts to pour one billion Euros from the union’s funds into a new anti-unemployment programme aimed at reducing the number of jobless youngsters. Around five million young EU citizens are out of work at the moment. Speaking about fears of riots and turmoil as poor and rich are drifting further apart, Hundstorfer appealed to “defuse potential social explosives.”

The left-winger also showed an unequivocal approach to immigration. “There are too many old and too few young people in Austria. We need immigration,” he said last week. Hundstorfer said good education and high-quality traineeships were crucial when it came to integrating young foreigners into the domestic job market. He said the plan was being able to guarantee educative measures leading to work to every resident of Austria under 18. The minister said a programme of that kind which prevailed in the Netherlands – where unemployment is almost as low as in Austria – was his role model in developing a functioning Austrian scheme for youngsters.

ÖVP Integration State Secretary Sebastian Kurz suggested the creation of a task force helping immigrants to find work as people with other nationalities but Austrian were more often affected by unemployment than Austrians. Hundstorfer made clear there was no need for such a committee, claiming that his ministry, the AMS, the Labour Chamber (AK) and other institutions were already closely cooperating in this regard.

The Austrian government coalition reformed integration and immigration earlier this year. It introduced a so-called Red White Red Card (RWR Card, Rot-Weiß-Rot Card) with the intention to convince scientists, engineers and high-skilled workers to settle in Austria. The RWR Card features a points system considering language skills, work experience and the applicants’ job prospects among other aspects.

SPÖ and ÖVP have been criticised for providing information about the programme in German only for several weeks before details about the RWR Card were put online in other languages as well. Integration experts have expressed concerns the initiative may come too late as many of those skilled in the most-wanted professions had moved elsewhere in the past years.