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Sikkut: Registered unemployed not all 'learned helpless'

Minister of Health and Labour Riina Sikkut (SDE).
Minister of Health and Labour Riina Sikkut (SDE). Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Claims that all of the registered unemployed with the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) are in a state of "learned helplessness" and only there for the benefits do not hold water. I likewise cannot agree with the opinion that helping the people of Southeastern Estonia is tragicomic, impossible or pointless, Minister of Health and Labour Riina Sikkut (SDE) said in response to Vikerraadio's Mirjam Nutov.

In recent commentary on Vikerraadio, Mirjam Nutov found that a plan to create jobs in Southeastern Estonia would not bear fruit, as people no longer want to work. This comment leaves the impression that the region's unemployed have never worked and that "they are registered with Töötukassa, but aren't planning on ever going to work." Instead, they allegedly want to retain their unemployed status in order to be able to live off of support paid for by the state. I cannot possibly agree with this position.

First of all, this position relies on the misconception that the state pays out benefits to all unemployed persons. The unemployment trap exists, but this doesn't affect everyone. In 2017, unemployment insurance benefits were paid out to 30% and unemployment allowance to 27% of the registered unemployed. With few exceptions (such as in the case of carers for children with disabilities), these benefits are paid only to those who had been employed prior to coming to Töötukassa.

Unemployment allowance is paid out for a maximum of 270 days, and unemployment insurance benefits up to 360 days. Thus, only nearly half of unemployed persons receive unemployment benefits, their payouts are tied to prior work experience and they are paid out for a fairly short period of time.

Of course, we as a society support people in other ways as well. For example, we pay out work ability allowance to those with reduced work ability, old-age pensions to the elderly, and subsistence benefits to those in distress. Old-age pensions and work ability allowances are also retained when the individual gets a job. As of the beginning of this year, subsistence benefits will continue to be paid during the first six months of employment. Thus these benefits do not reduce the motivation to work.

In other words, claims that all of the registered unemployed with Töötukassa are in a state of "learned helplessness" and only there for the benefits do not hold water. Such unemmployed persons are a small minority.

Southeastern Estonia faces number of issues

I likewise cannot agree with the opinion that helping the people of Southeastern Estonia is tragicomic, impossible or pointless. An already small society with a shrinking population cannot afford to turn its back on nearly 3,000 people. On that note, the majority of the unemployed find new employment within six months. Just 2.4% of the unemployed have been registered with Töötukassa for over 24 months. It remains unclear from the commentary why the people of Southeastern Estonia are considered more helpless than and inferior to the people of other regions.

Why, then, are the more unemployed people in Southeastern Estonia than elsewhere? There are many different reasons for unemployment, such as outdated skills, complicated transport connections, other health issues or indeed also low motivation to work. Many of these issues are more widespread in Southeastern Estonia than elsewhere. There is no point for employers, however, in keeping someone on the payroll to whom you have to pay at least the minimum wage each month but who contributes significantly less to the company. Add to this the fact that there is less entrepreneurship in Southeastern Estonia than elsewhere.

How do we help the unemployed? There are various opportunities and approaches, one of which is the payment of wage subsidies. If the state subsidises part of the wages and supports the development of a new employee, paying the wages of an unemployed person may become profitable and attract new entrepreneurs to the region. An individual's professional and social skills are developed in employment, as is the opportunity to find work in the future. Thus wage subsidies have a long-term effect as well.

In other words, had the support for Southeastern Estonia existed sooner, the large employer described by Nutov may have hired a 16th, 17th, and 23rd employee. And that is precisely what we want.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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