Work-life balance, skills on labour minister’s agenda

Labour minister Georges Engel wants to focus on lifelong learning ahead of the elections next year Photo: Romain Gamba/Maison Moderne

Labour minister Georges Engel wants to focus on lifelong learning ahead of the elections next year Photo: Romain Gamba/Maison Moderne

Labour minister Georges Engel (LSAP) talks about making jobs more flexible, reducing working hours, the future of teleworking and how to keep Luxembourg an attractive place for employees.

Cordula Schnuer: The pandemic changed working life for many people. What stood out for you?

Georges Engel: The sentences ‘can you hear me’ or ‘turn your mic on’, which were never uttered before. Teleworking took on a dimension during the pandemic that it absolutely didn’t have before. For some people it was very pleasant to be working from home. For others it was probably less pleasant, in a small apartment, with children, a partner who’s also at home. But I think it will be difficult to imagine life without it in the coming years.

Feedback from HR departments is that flexibility is more important, for example, than salaries. What is the risk for companies if they simply fall back into pre-pandemic patterns?

I think that would be difficult. Teleworking is established. It needs to be regulated, and that’s important. It needs a framework. Too much teleworking isn’t good for a company. A maximum of two days per five-day week, to me, seems to be a good rule, with fixed days where people need to be in so that the team in a company can see each other and exchange.

For some it’s an opportunity to work remotely, but for others it will simply never be an option. Nurses or educators will never be able to work from home, which is why it will be difficult to introduce a right to remote working.

To what extent are cross-border workers part of the equation, as there are limits to what they can benefit from?

Until now, there was an agreement between employers and labour unions to regulate teleworking. That’s a good thing. But there is now a need for a series of legal frameworks to accommodate all aspects--legal, social security and other social aspects. And that includes the question of cross-border workers, where at EU level not more than 25% of working time should be outside the country.

We have agreements with neighbouring countries significantly below this and if it’s more than a certain number of days--depending on the country--then workers fall into the tax system of that country. In that case, teleworking might not be so interesting or there could still be a benefit--you might lose some money but, in return, you don’t have to drive to work, can organise yourself better. A new world has opened up.

If we’re speaking about legal frameworks, what are projects you’re working on concretely?

In parliament, there’s a working group for teleworking that stems from the labour committee. This examines all these aspects--social security, work accidents, what’s the situation when you get injured at home, how does that work when you weren’t working, what is or isn’t working time.

Reducing the 40-hour week and working fewer hours would be social progress.
Georges Engel

Georges EngelLabour ministerLSAP

There’s a number of things to regulate, and that working group addresses this and should make proposals on how we should adapt our laws to this new situation.

Talking about flexibility, there are countries across Europe that are testing a four-day workweek. What future do you see for such models in Luxembourg?

The discussion came up because Belgium said it would introduce a 38-hour week spread over four days instead of five. I’m not convinced. Here in Luxembourg, that would be a 40-hour week, no longer divided into five times eight hours but four times ten. Under Luxembourg law, if you agree with your employer, that’s already possible. But I’m not sure if that’s social progress. Add a one-hour commute each way and you’re gone for 12 hours. Reducing the 40-hour week and working fewer hours, on the other hand, would be social progress.

Work-life balance is very important to me, and that must be discussed with social partners. But it brings other problems. We have a shortage of qualified staff. If we reduce their hours, that won’t make it any easier for employers to get the job done. We must start this discussion now, which is why I would like to commission a study to gather data on which we can base the debate. But in the coalition agreement there’s nothing that allows me to push through a working time reduction.

If it’s not a topic in the coalition agreement, will it be a topic for the next elections?

Absolutely. It will be a topic for the next elections, and I know what I will propose to my party.

A study by the Chamber of Employees says that a quarter of employees are thinking of quitting their job. A jobs.lu survey says that two-thirds of people are unhappy with their salary. Are we seeing a shift in mentality, that people want to get out of the corporate hamster wheel?

In times of crisis people ask fundamental questions--whether it’s the right decision to stay in the hamster wheel, work more and more for a bit more money in the bank, have less and less time at home and for the things you enjoy.

There are people who have the option to earn a little less money and live better. But there are also people who don’t because they rely on every cent. Politics needs to do something. Parliament will hold a debate on tax justice, which is very important. Paying less taxes could allow people to work less for more life.

One of the priorities in the coalition agreement is skills--upskilling, reskilling, identifying what the market needs. Where are the biggest gaps between offer and demand?

We have a very particular job market. We have around 17,000 job seekers registered with Adem and 10,000 vacancies. That should be simple. You match them and have no vacancies, and only 7,000 unemployed. But it’s not that simple. The demand from the market isn’t met by the offer. People don’t have the skills they need to find a place. We need to bring them closer together.

The demand from the market isn’t met by the offer. People don’t have the skills they need.
Georges Engel

Georges EngelLabour ministerLSAP

A part of that isn’t waiting until people are unemployed to upskill or reskill them but to do this while they are working, so they can learn things they maybe don’t need for the job they’re doing right now but that will open doors to something else. And to help them before they risk losing their job, to get them fit to move with the times.

We have a series of programmes, also with Adem. We carried out a skills assessment in seven sectors. Based on this study, we’ll adapt our programmes. There will be a second study in the health and social sectors. It’s up to Adem, but also schools and education, to get people on the market who have what’s needed.

In how far is it also the responsibility of employers to offer training opportunities?

The onus is also on employers to make sure their staff don’t stand still. It’s in everybody’s interest, also the employers’, that things keep moving. Lifelong learning is one of the things I want to expand during my mandate, to introduce a sort of training account. This would include a number of days you have for training, staggered through the year. We’re working on different models. There’s always the question of who pays, and we’re looking at how to best manage this.

To what extent is the private sector in competition with the state for staff?

It’s definitely a topic. And I can understand that employers in the private sector aren’t happy. They have someone, train them and when they’re done, that person goes to the state. That’s not great. And that’s why I know employers who hire people that aren’t eligible to work for the state, so they don’t abscond.

Luxembourg depends on talent from abroad, but immigration procedures are still lengthy and complicated. Is there room to facilitate access to the labour market?

Yes. We should make it as easy as possible. But that also has risks. If we make it too easy, we risk attracting a lot of people whom we need to accommodate. It’s a double-edged sword. But we should make it easier for people who are already here, refugees who want to work. In the areas where we lack staff, we should make sure they can work as quickly as possible.

We must ensure not to create a two-tier society among refugees.
Georges Engel

Georges EngelLabour ministerLSAP

The Ukrainian refugees have a different status--temporary protection is different from being an asylum seeker. This means they can enter the job market more quickly. That can help us in some areas, but we must ensure not to create a two-tier society among refugees.

In the December tripartite it was decided to make it easier for accompanying spouses of third-country nationals to access the job market. Where is that project at?

I wasn’t yet in the December tripartite. But we’re working on making it easier and faster to access the job market for people who arrive as a partner. Discussions are ongoing.

The pandemic shone a spotlight on difficulties for self-employed workers. For example, they couldn’t access partial unemployment. What progress is there to reviewing their status?

I’m still in the prospection phase with the different federations and unions to see where the biggest problems are. The status of self-employed workers was an issue in several talks. There’s a paper developed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Skilled Trades and Crafts with a series of recommendations. We’re examining this paper, and there are some measures that we can implement quickly. One of them is to introduce father’s leave for independents, so they are compensated during those 10 days.

Another idea is for independents to request partial unemployment when their activity has ceased and they’re eligible for the labour market, or to create a mutual insurer, to which the state would contribute money and from which independents could then finance partial unemployment. We’re analysing this. The status of independents should be valued if we want to have companies here, so that not everyone goes to the state and communes.

Luxembourg is in a greater region and European labour market. But the job market is also becoming increasingly globalised. What are points where Luxembourg must be careful not to lose in competitiveness?

We rely heavily on the financial sector, and you can do that from everywhere. It’s not something that’s tied to a country. They go where conditions are best. We must offer an attractive environment. We must ensure that non-wage labour costs aren’t too high.

Social peace is important. Here in Luxembourg, we have an index that means people earn 2.5% more when prices go up. That also means that we don’t have exaggerated collective bargaining, with discussions of 8, 10 or 12% loan increases. All these elements mean that we have a good climate, and we must preserve this.

A question that comes up in every portfolio is housing. To what extent does it impact your ministry?

If you want people to come here… they don’t all have to live in Luxembourg, but people want to live close to their place of work. It’s a topic that must be addressed. Not enough has happened--I agree with everyone who says this. We missed addressing the problem, tightening the screws, targeting those who are sitting on land and aren’t putting it on the market. We should look at banks, giving out loans of €1m or €1.5m for a field. Is that field worth it?

I was a mayor for 15 years--I can tell you, it’s a catastrophe. We don’t build fast enough and that has several reasons. We need an offensive. We must build faster. We need people, we need materials. It sounds so simple, but unfortunately, it’s not.

Under the European Pillar of Social Rights, the European Commission is looking to have a greater say in social affairs, including labour. What impact will directives--for example on minimum wages or gig economy workers--have on Luxembourg?

I’m happy that we were able to agree in Europe to have a social minimum wage everywhere. Of course, this cannot be the same in every country. It has to be proportional. We’re working actively on this. We always wanted--and we have defended this--a secure minimum wage to enable people to live decently in their country.

We’re also working on platform workers. We have two statutes--employees and self-employed workers. But there are trends between these. We’ve spoken out against this. You’re either self-employed or an employee. We don’t have big platforms here in Luxembourg, but still we’re looking to draft our own law.

You have to be realistic, know how long it takes for a law to be voted… October 2023 isn’t far away.
Georges Engel

Georges EngelLabour ministerLSAP

The social pillar also includes lifelong learning, the fight against poverty. We’ve sent a paper to the commission where we set our targets to get people into work, to lift them out of poverty. There is room to catch up, and there will be actions to reach those targets.

It won’t be long before Luxembourg gears up for the 2023 elections. What’s on your list of priorities until then?

There’s a directive on work-life balance. There’s a number of things in there that should, for example, allow employees to take care of a sick child. The directive is also about paternity leave. Those draft laws are almost done and will be submitted soon [this interview was conducted before the minister presented the drafts on 19 May, editor’s note]. I’ve mentioned paternity leave for self-employed workers. And lifelong learning is something I want to tackle.

There’s a lot that could still be done, but you also have to be realistic, know how long it takes for a law to be voted. There are laws in the pipeline, such as the anti-bullying law. October 2023 isn’t far away.

What’s the challenge to pick up this mandate in the middle of the legislative period?

I was less involved in the coalition agreement, but I was the president of the labour committee in parliament for the last eight, nine years. This has given me an insight into the work underway. But you’re right--to pick it up along the way isn’t so easy. A bunch of stuff has already happened, which you need to catch up on. Perhaps you have a slightly different view than your predecessor, and you want to adjust things without turning everything upside down. It’s not so easy, but I wanted to tackle this challenge.

This article first appeared in the June 2022 HR supplement of Delano magazine.