We are doing science for policy
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, efforts to "flatten the curve" include unprecedented containment measures that are having a profound impact on economies, jobs and daily life.
Enrique Fernández-Macías and Ignacio González Vázquez, both economists working at the JRC’s site in Seville, have been exploring these issues since the start of the crisis. We asked them how lockdown is effecting their own work, and what their research tells us about its impacts on labour markets across Europe.
How long have you been at the JRC? Where are you from originally?
IGV: Both Enrique and I are Spaniards and happened to join the JRC exactly on the same day two and a half years ago, and to work on similar issues. This has proved a great advantage because we work very well together, despite being in different units, and our profiles are quite complementary.
Enrique is a top researcher on employment issues in the EU. He joined the JRC after many years in academia and at Eurofound, the EU agency providing knowledge to help develop better social, employment and work-related policies. My previous experience in national government and Commission departments for employment, social affairs & inclusion (EMPL) and economic and financial affairs (ECFIN) is a plus on the policy side.
What does your research for the JRC usually entail? What’s a normal day like for you?
EFM: It´s certainly a strange time to speak about normality! I would say a third of our normal work is about reading and thinking about the world we live in and how we can better understand it. Another third is practical research, which in my case is mostly quantitative analysis of big socio-economic databases, with some qualitative research now and then. A final third (perhaps a bit less) is meetings, planning and administrative work. In that respect, it has not really changed that much with the confinement. I am still doing more or less the same, although in a very different environment and with different day-to-day colleagues (my wife and two daughters!)
What else has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic?
IGV: We are now teleworking full time, like the rest of our teams. For us there are both positive aspects and important challenges: in general we are working very well with all colleagues involved, perhaps more closely than ever.
At the same time, both Enrique and I have small children of different ages and reconciling work and family life in these circumstances, with a particularly heavy workload, is quite an adventure. In any case this real-life experiment will certainly help us in one of our ongoing projects, where we are analysing the implications of the quick transition to teleworking for millions of workers in the EU.
You’re looking at the impact of the pandemic on Europe’s labour markets. What are you trying to find out? How might it help with the response to the crisis?
IGV: Our efforts are part of the much broader JRC endeavour to analyse and anticipate the potential economic and social impacts of the coronavirus crisis and to support the development of the EU’s policy responses. This project is one of 22 recently launched initiatives in this direction.
In this project, we analyse how restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic are affecting both European economies and the dynamics of European labour markets. This information is necessary for policymakers because there are no precedents of a similar crisis in the history of the EU, both in terms of its nature and its pace of development. In this context, it is extremely useful to produce evidence shedding light on its implications for the labour market.
The information about the countries and the workers that are being most affected by the crisis helps to identify vulnerable workers in Europe, information that is needed to design adequate policy responses. This information also serves as a basis to speculate about potential future scenarios.
We have just published the first analysis, but we are already producing more research on the impact of the crisis on occupations, the dynamics of teleworking in light of the crisis, and other related topics.
What has been the most interesting observation with your research so far?
EFM: The main argument of our paper is that the employment impact of confinement measures is very asymmetric, both across European countries (with a larger impact in Southern Europe because of their specialisation in the most affected services) and within European societies (with a larger impact on the most vulnerable workers, those with lower wages and precarious working conditions). These asymmetries are likely to continue or even deepen as the crisis unfolds beyond the initial confinement period.
In our view, these asymmetries in socio-economic impact of the crisis highlight the need for decisive policy responses at the EU level, along the lines of the measures under discussion in the Council. In the short term, these policies should alleviate the worst socio-economic impacts of the crisis, providing income support for those who need it and financial support for the most affected countries.
In the medium to long term, we should consider even more decisive and innovative policy action that creates new and better employment opportunities in a post-coronavirus world, such as an ambitious European Green Deal as proposed by the Commission, as well as ongoing work to shape Europe's digital future and for an action plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights
Are you collaborating with other European/international experts?
EFM: Over the last two years, we have developed a strong network with other Commission departments and with many other experts from other international research institutes, including Eurofound, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop), the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Our flagship report on the changing nature of work, published last September, was a good opportunity to work with top researchers and exchange views with the OECD and the MIT. For the work we are doing to analyse the crisis from a labour market perspective we are leveraging on these networks and have created a ‘COVID and employment’ working group composed of researchers from the JRC, Eurofound and EU-OSHA.