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Denmark: Government proposes 37-hour work week for migrant women to qualify for social benefits (Traduction non officielle)

The Social Democrat government of Denmark has launched a proposal for a new reform plan, which aims to increase the size of the country's work force and the percentage of citizens who are self-supporting.

One of the elements in the plan reads: "37 hours - a new work logic, designed to get more migrant women into the labour market". This has been met with massive criticism from all sides, a key problem being that the country has previously tried something similar with very limited results. Additionally, the idea goes directly against the results achieved and recommendations made by many publicly funded projects in recent years.

The proposal states:

"The target group is people who have received social benefits during three of the last four years and have not passed an exam in Danish 2, or at least sixth grade. This group consists of 20 000 people. (…) A prerequisite for receiving benefits will be working 37 hours per week in a "useful job" provided by the local job centre (run by the municipalities). These jobs can be cleaning beaches or forests, or renovation and maintenance work on the municipal institutions."

Statistics from the government say that 6 out of 10 in this group are not working (more widely in Denmark, only 3 in 10 women do not work). But, according to the government's own calculations, only 250 of the defined group of 20 000 people will actually be able to find a job through the new initiative. The extra cost for the new proposal is expected to be 200 million DKK, which is equal to 800 000 per person who finds a job. This clearly illustrates that the main issue is not, after all, to encourage more people to self-support, but rather to send the message that everybody in Denmark is expected to work.

In this particular group, not all have yet earned the right to receive the full social benefits to which those born in Denmark are entitled: some are receiving benefits amounting to only half of this, which is the amount awarded to newcomers. These low benefits fall under the official EU poverty limit, which has been criticized by the Danish Institute for Human Rights as being in breach of the Danish constitution. If the new reform plan goes ahead it will cut even these low benefits day by day, if recipients do not carry out the appointed work.

In reality, the proposal is not a new idea. The concept of "useful jobs" has been tried before in Denmark, with limited success. Unions are strong in the country, minimum wages are high in comparison with most European countries, and the unemployment rates are low (3.8% in July 2021). Many companies struggle to find employees, and the need for skilled workers within the building and care sectors is rising rapidly. It is predicted that Denmark will be short of thousands of employees over the next ten years.

Finding extra jobs outside the official labour market is difficult for job centres in Denmark. At present, Danish rules already state that in order to receive unemployment benefits a person must be available for the labour market, make a plan for their future and actively apply for vacant jobs. Refugees and other foreigners within the "integration programme", running for the first three years after their arrival, are already required to be "active" for 37 hours a week through a combination of language classes, internships or other kinds of job training. However, most municipalities are unable to support new arrivals to meet these criteria today. On average, newcomers are active for 19 hours per week, but for foreigners with a longer stay in the country the number of active hours is, on average, only six. In general, ethnic Danes who are unemployed receive much more attention and help from the job centres than foreign citizens.

Reactions in the Danish media have been mainly negative since prime minister Mette Frederiksen presented the proposal. Here are a few examples:

Mads Bilstrup, chair of Danish Association of Social Workers, said:
"We know that "useful jobs" do not help people back into the labour market. The ambition should be to do something which works for this group. Finding these kinds of pseudo jobs is very time consuming, as we are not allowed to push real jobs aside".

Mads Lundby, chief economist in liberal think tank Cepos, said:
"If this activation costs more than 360 euro per year per person, our calculation is that it will be a deficit in the public budgets. The huge activation circus needed for this does not balance the results. In my opinion this will be very, very expensive".

Rasmus Brygger, founder of the Danish Knowledge Centre on Integration, said:
"The ambition behind the proposal is good. But the focus on useful jobs is wrong, as we know from several major surveys that the main problems for this group to enter the work market are language barriers and competencies".

The Danish government has had a special focus on helping more migrant women into being self-supporting for several years. The results from various related studies and projects point in a very different direction from that of the new proposal.

The general conclusions are:

  • Most migrant women want to work and are happy when they succeed in finding a job;
  • Many migrant women have health issues, making it hard for them to work fulltime;
  • Language barriers and a lack of education and/or work experience makes it hard for migrant women to secure employment;
  • Individual programmes and personal mentors can overcome many of these barriers.

Other articles on EWSI about migrant women in Denmark:

Utilising the skills of migrant women

Syrian refugee women in the labour market

Neighbourhood Mothers

Annual Integration Summit 2020: Women in the labour market