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EU: Report Upbeat On Job Trends, Commends Candidate Nations

The European Union's latest report on labor-market trends says the 15-nation group is catching up with the United States and Japan in performance -- mostly due to structural reforms that have spurred the so-called "knowledge sector." The report finds similar structural changes taking place in most Central and Eastern European candidate countries.

Brussels, 20 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Unveiling the European Union's latest report on labor-market trends, EU officials said today in Brussels that the 15-nation group is catching up with the United States and Japan in terms of job performance.

Commenting on the European Commission's year 2000 labor-market report, Kirsty Hughes -- a top official in the Employment Commissioner's office -- said a "massive structural shift" had become evident in the EU labor markets. She said the shift was spurred by the fast growth of the "knowledge sector" -- high technology and its applications in the economy.

According to the most recent data, nearly two-thirds of new jobs in the EU are created in the knowledge sector, although it only makes up one-third of the total economy. Hughes ascribes the shift mainly to greater investment in lifetime training within the EU -- especially in information technology and digital skills -- and greater worker mobility.

At their Lisbon summit in the spring of last year, EU leaders committed themselves to making the Union the most "competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy" in the world by 2010, while retaining high levels of social protection and aiming for full employment.

A similar structural shift is evident in most Central and Eastern European candidate countries. Georg Fischer, another official from the EU Employment Commissioner's office, said that many candidate states had chosen the path of radical employment restructuring even though this usually leads to increases in unemployment rates.

"In Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, in the Baltic countries -- in particular in Estonia -- there is a very strong process of employment restructuring -- which of course has a price in terms of losing employment and increasing unemployment. But it is clearly a move towards a healthier employment structure [and] a shift out of agriculture."

Fischer also noted that important shifts were taking place within the industrial sector in the candidate countries. He said that while overall employment levels within industry remain relatively stable, positive realignments have taken place within the sector.

Fischer said another positive trend was the increasing importance of the service sector and its restructuring in most candidate countries. Although overall employment levels within this sector remain comparatively low, there has been a shift toward financial and business services -- a development that Fischer says "is expected in a market economy."

But another report released yesterday by the EU's statistical office, Eurostat, says overall unemployment in candidate countries has continued to rise in recent years, reaching 12.5 percent in 2000.

The increase was most marked in Poland and Lithuania, nearly 5 percentage points in both countries last year. Slightly lower increases in unemployment also troubled labor markets in Bulgaria, Estonia, and Slovakia. The only candidate country to experience a decrease in its jobless rate between 1999 and 2000 was Hungary, where it fell from 6.9 to 6.6 percent.

Unemployment rates were lowest in the Prague region of the Czech Republic, as well as in southwest Romania and much of Hungary, barely reaching 5 percent of the working-age population.

At the other end of the scale, unemployment rates ranged between 25 and 31 percent in some areas of Poland, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. The Eurostat report notes that joblessness among those under 25 years of age is a particularly troubling phenomenon, peaking at 73 percent in northwestern Bulgaria.