By: Vida Kocjan
We spoke with the Minister of Labour, Family, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities, Janez Cigler Kralj.
Janez Cigler Kralj (42) graduated from the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana and obtained the title of university graduate political scientist in the field of policy analysis and public administration. In 2006, he joined the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, namely in the NSi parliamentary group as a public relations expert. In 2008, he joined the media network Infonet media, JSC. In 2010, he continued his career at the Public Fund of the Republic of Slovenia for Human Resources Development and Scholarships as a senior public relations consultant. From 2012 until his appointment as Minister of Labour, Family, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities, he was employed as an expert assistant undersecretary in the NSi – Christian Democrats parliamentary group. He is constantly working professionally in the fields of work, family, social affairs, and the disabled. Since 2015, he has been leading the NSi Workers’ Association, which is an organisational form within the party and is a member of two workers’ organisations at EU level: EZA and EUCDW. Since 2019, he has been a member of the presidency of the EUCDW (The European Union of Christian Democratic Workers), which is an association of the European People’s Party (EPP). He also actively participates in the work of the EZA (Das Europäische Zentrum für Arbeitnehmerfragen), wherein he regularly cooperates with representatives of trade unions and employers from Slovenia and the EU. The main goal of these organisations is to strengthen social dialogue.
DEMOCRACIJA: In answer to one of the parliamentary questions at the end of January, you pointed out that you very much understand the hardships that families go through during the COVID-19 epidemic, the family is also a high priority for you personally. How much did the ministry spend on helping families last year, and what were the changes compared to previous years? One of your priorities is also to strengthen family policy.
CIGLER KRALJ: It is true and I am always grateful for the questions that touch on an extremely important area for me, which is family policy. After all, I am a father of four and I know things first hand. Families ensure the future of the nation and society, so a smart state will support and encourage them. The state must constantly ask itself in what way to support families. I am pleased that we are doing well in this mandate.
It is right and very important that we speak publicly and take the right measures to alleviate the burdens and hardships faced by families and children who are among the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 epidemic. In my term so far, we have provided the most funding for families in the last eight years, close to € 600 million in 2020. The government has listened to me that intervention laws and families in general have priority.
Important steps have been taken. Let me mention just a few. Childbirth allowance as a one-off benefit at the birth of a child rose from € 286 to € 350. It is one of the elements of family policy and the promotion of fertility. The parental allowance is raised from € 258 to the amount of the basic amount of the minimum income, i.e. € 402. It is intended for parents who are not insured for parental care, such as students or the unemployed, and receive it for one year from the birth of the child. In the last ACP 7, we provided a solidarity allowance for all children up to the age of 18, then we supplemented the proposal for ACP 8 with the same amount for adult students. All large families receive an additional € 200 or € 100 during the epidemic, and we have increased the childcare allowance by € 100.
We are also in constant contact with social work centres. We are continuously resolving the problems that arise, and the centres have received instructions from the ministry that during the period of emergency measures the existing legal provisions must be interpreted flexibly and, where possible, adapted to the situation. We hear people’s troubles and respond to them in the best possible strength and faith. We want to be close to families in the future as well, so we will soon make the system of social and family transfers even more clear.
DEMOCRACIJA: Slovenia’s unemployment did not suffer as much during the epidemic as some other EU countries. The ministry is actively responding to the unemployment trend in the country. What measures have you taken and what are your expectations for 2021?
CIGLER KRALJ: I have been paying attention and care to the preparation and adjustment of measures to preserve jobs and help the economy since the beginning of my term. I have set a responsive labour market as one of my central priorities. By responding in a timely manner, we maintained about 300,000 jobs.
The key measures to prevent the increase in the number of unemployed are undoubtedly measures to wait for work and part-time work. The part-time work measure is implemented until June 30th, 2021. We also plan to extend the implementation of the measure for waiting for work until the end of April 2021, with the possibility of a maximum of two extensions of 1 month each. At the same time, we have complemented these key measures with compensation for self-employed income and fixed costs for companies, and last but not least with incentives for soft loans to the economy. In my opinion, it is not easy for anyone, thus I tried to listen to the plight of workers as well as the difficult situation for employers and proposed raising the minimum wage to 1,024 euros gross, with part of the burden being assumed by the state. Last but not least, the success and correctness of the actions of this government are also proven by international comparisons and constantly good credit ratings of our country.
DEMOCRACIJA: How is it with the youth unemployment?
CIGLER KRALJ: Without our measures, the situation on the labour market would certainly be significantly worse. Unfortunately, despite all the measures to preserve jobs during the epidemic, we have a fifth higher number of unemployed young people. Youth unemployment growth was higher than total unemployment. In 2020, just over 30,000 young people aged 15 to 29 re-registered as unemployed, 26.5 percent more than in 2019. Therefore, we are paying a lot of attention to this problem.
We want to prevent the probable scenario from 2013, when the then economic crisis led to the highest youth unemployment rate to date. In ACP 7, we therefore adopted a measure to promote the employment of all actively working people, especially young people. It is a termination of employment upon fulfilment of the conditions for old-age retirement, whereby the employee may continue to work with the consent of the employer. The adopted measure primarily opens new employment opportunities for young people in Slovenia, which will consequently reduce the outflow of young people abroad, which is also urgently needed from the economic recovery’s point of view. On the other hand, the adopted measure increases employment opportunities for all able-bodied people.
At the moment, the ministry is also intensively preparing the basis for drawing additional EU funds. We are planning additional measures to enable a more intensive treatment of unemployed young people and to encourage the fastest possible transition to the labour market and employment for an indefinite period. In order to make it easier for young people to enter the labour market, the ministry is also implementing a series of measures that will be implemented during their education.
DEMOCRACIJA: Your big concern is also the elderly. What are your priorities with them?
CIGLER KRALJ: Since taking office in March this year, we have been responding to the needs and conditions related to the spread of COVID-19 in the form of a number of anti-corona measures, additional budget funds, and through intensive and enhanced cooperation with the Community of Social Institutions of Slovenia and other stakeholders. We are in constant contact with the directors of the homes, daily by phone, weekly through videoconferences, where we discuss current topics, open issues, and present good practices. After 15 years, big steps in the field of staff and space shortages were realised in 10 months. If we only mention that due to the funds provided by the Ministry, more than 500 new staff were employed in the homes, this confirms that movements are possible. With this, we have very successfully started to solve one of the major problems that social welfare institutions have been facing for many years, namely the lack of staff, which in turn causes many other problems, including overburdening of staff. We are also strengthening our spatial capacities and allocating five times more funds to this than the previous governments have allocated since 2008. For day care centres and temporary accommodation for the elderly, which will be built throughout Slovenia, € 21.5 million is earmarked, and we have allocated more than € 845 thousand for the energy rehabilitation of dilapidated homes for the elderly, which is almost three times as much as the elderly homes were intended for in 2016.
Pensioners with a pension of less than € 700 were paid a solidarity allowance totalling more than € 66 million. We also introduced the same supplement with ACP 7, thus helping all recipients of the lowest pensions and disability benefits.
DEMOCRACIJA: What about the disabled, is something moving for the better for them?
CIGLER KRALJ: People with disabilities are a particularly vulnerable group, so we have always and everywhere included it in intervention legislation, including through solidarity allowances, as I mentioned. An amendment to the Personal Assistance Act is also being prepared, which represents an important milestone for all those who need the help of another in their daily lives, which enables them to live independently and have a better quality of life.
DEMOCRACIJA: The government has so far adopted 7 anti-corona laws, so called ACP, to mitigate the effects of the epidemic on the population and the economy. Your ministry has been very involved in this. What was the biggest focus?
CIGLER KRALJ: In parallel with the preparation and implementation of mitigation measures for COVID-19, the work at the ministry remains focused on achieving three central priorities, namely a responsive labour market, integrated care for the elderly, and a transparent and user-friendly system of rights from public funds. These are also the key points that we at the ministry have included in all previous anti-corona packages. We placed great emphasis on solidarity allowances. It has been received by practically all groups of people, we estimate that we have covered over a million citizens with it.
Unemployment growth slowed down in the following months after the first wave of the epidemic in April, and the reason for this can also be attributed to the rapid implementation of aid on the basis of all the intervention measures we have taken.
Let me add that when the epidemic was first declared, we proposed measures with ACP, which aimed at guaranteeing people’s rights from public funds as soon as possible. The measures proved to be successful, so we proposed them again with ACP 7 at the time of the declared second epidemic, wherein we really wanted to alleviate the hardships during the epidemic for those who are facing the biggest problems. Thus, we also included those who lost their jobs due to the epidemic, in addition to families also to parents who receive childcare allowance, as well as low-paid employees and companies, as we must not ignore the fact that they are the backbone of Slovenian life.
DEMOCRACIJA: What is the response to these aids, did the vulnerable recognise them, what was the outcome?
CIGLER KRALJ: The proposed protective measures have been taken very well. Time and again, the responses of people and the economy have confirmed that we are doing well and are going in the right direction. That is the key. To respond to real needs with the right measures.
DEMOCRACIJA: The government has also adopted ACP 8. What has your ministry placed the greatest emphasis on in this legal package?
CIGLER KRALJ: The proposal of ACP 8 was prepared by the ministry I lead. It was not the first time we were responsible for drafting the law since many measures from the intervention legislation refer to many areas that fall under my portfolio. In writing the bill, we again pursued the goal of providing measures to preserve jobs and help the economy. Therefore, we are also extending the subsidising measure of waiting for work, and it is also planned that the state will bear part of the burden of raising the minimum wage. We are once again providing solidarity allowances to all those who were not included in the previous package of measures, including high school students over the age of 18, students studying at a foreign higher education institution in the 2020/2021 academic year, recipients of disability insurance benefits who are entitled to part-time work, war veterans, and the disabled under the law governing the social inclusion of the disabled, etc.
DEMOCRACIJA: How much work and energy did you put into preparing all that, what was the purpose?
CIGLER KRALJ: It is difficult to describe the rhythm of work and life we all have in the government team with our colleagues since the first wave of the epidemic was announced. If I tell you that sometimes I only see my children for the first time in the evening when I tuck them in bed, you will probably find it easier to imagine what kind of world we live and work in. But we are all aware that our only option to manage the situation is in responding and constant monitoring of the situation. And when we see, especially on the field, that measures are working, that we helped people in real trouble and distress, it all pays off. Therefore, it is also not difficult to get up early or return home late from long sessions, because working for people and for us to be able to live normally again after the epidemic is what guides us.
DEMOCRACIJA: Did you follow the example of other countries? Maybe you know how it is with this aid elsewhere in the EU?
CIGLER KRALJ: All ministers, including the Prime Minister, have regular contacts with colleagues from other EU countries, so we know the measures taken there and they are very similar. The EU has also guided certain measures to some extent by making available funds under the Sura loan scheme and React-EU and the Recovery Fund, which we have also used to our advantage in planning measures. In doing so, we are obliged to respect the goals and priorities set at the European level, which are in line with the priority axes of the government and the ministry. Our colleagues in the EU also acknowledge the success of our action, especially in the context of the trio of presidencies, I have very good and high-quality exchanges with ministers from Germany and Portugal.
DEMOCRACIJA: The opposition parties LMŠ, SD, Levica, and SAB have filed an interpellation against you, which surprised many connoisseurs of your work. Were you surprised yourself? What do you think was the real reason for this action of theirs, is it their despair?
CIGLER KRALJ: The allegations in the interpellation are unfounded. We will present this clearly in response to the interpellation. Since taking office in March this year, we have been responding to needs as a matter of priority in the form of a number of anti-corona measures, additional budgetary resources, as well as through intensive and enhanced cooperation with all. I am proud of the work done and I will defend it without hesitation.
DEMOCRACIJA: The LMŠ, where the text of the interpellation appears to have been prepared, accuses you of responsibility for ineffective action in curbing the spread of the new coronavirus in homes for the elderly. LMŠ and other signatory parties led the government until March 13th, 2020. What did you actually take over in the homes for the elderly when you took office, what was the situation like?
CIGLER KRALJ: Homes for the elderly have been one of the most undernourished and neglected areas for more than a decade. The COVID-19 epidemic has revealed in detail the long-standing staffing problems and space constraints in homes, and I inherited this in my role as Minister when the biggest health crisis to date began. Let me add that the growing likelihood of a faster spread of infections in homes that are older and spatially unsuitable for organising work in a situation of infections is the result of years of neglect of infrastructure. Thus, at the beginning of my term of office, we at the Ministry began with priority activities to provide additional capacity for the elderly as soon as possible – by granting concessions, intensive absorption of European funds, and within the available budget. I mentioned that we have provided almost € 25 million to invest in the capacity of the elderly. In total, we provided another 30 million euros in the next two years, which is significantly more than in previous years.
Also in the new financial perspective 2021-2027, the funds will be used to adapt the infrastructure in view of the necessary measures due to the risk of infection with the new coronavirus. In all ACP measures, in 2020 and 2021, a total of just over 56 million euros is provided.
DEMOCRACIJA: They say that in the context of the epidemic, you have not properly regulated labour legislation. What situation did you find here and was it even possible to sort things out during these difficult months?
CIGLER KRALJ: The proponents’ allegations relate in particular to the spread of infections in the workplace. Issuance of quarantine decisions is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health or the NIJZ. The area of labour rights is under the jurisdiction of our ministry. In the first wave of the epidemic, the Act on Intervention Measures in the Field of Wages and Contributions provided 80% compensation in the event of quarantine. In the second wave, the law on temporary measures to mitigate and eliminate the consequences of COVID-19 at the end of October 2020 brought a new regulation of quarantine at home.
We constantly urge employers to enable as many employees as possible to work from home, in accordance with the law, which has simplified the procedures for registering work at home.
DEMOCRACIJA: Their argument about the lack of social dialogue on your part is also sad, when it is known that you are a man of cooperation and agreement. How do you view this allegation?
CIGLER KRALJ: The proposed protection measures have been well received and largely coordinated with the social partners. Measures from other departments also received positive responses and were mostly adopted with a high degree of consensus among the social partners. Therefore, I cannot accept these allegations and I consider them unfounded.
As Minister of Labour and until recently President of the Economic and Social Council (ESF), I make sure that the voice of social dialogue is heard in government, as social dialogue is important and I respect it. The commitment to social dialogue of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia and me personally in the role of the Minister of Labour is also confirmed by numerous ESF sessions and numerous proposals, which were discussed and successfully coordinated by the social partners. In the current term of the government, 14 ESF sessions were convened in just over 10 months. For comparison, in the mandate of Marjan Šarec, there were 15 regular, two extraordinary and one correspondence session of the ESF in the period of 18 months.
DEMOCRACIJA: You have repeatedly explained your role in allocating tender funds to the Iskreni Institute to the public. However, we ask for a brief explanation of this.
CIGLER KRALJ: The public tender for vulnerable populations due to COVID-19 is financed by European funds and was designed to help vulnerable groups most affected by the epidemic crisis. The Ministry prepared this tender, which was the first of its kind, in good faith, so that the assistance would reach as many vulnerable groups as possible. Among the applicants who formally met the tender conditions, the expert commission evaluated the highest 17 out of 135 registered organisations, among which 1,911,951.66 euros were distributed. Six applications arrived late, 129 applications were formally complete, of which 7 did not meet the conditions. 122 applications met the minimum quality criteria and were submitted for evaluation by the commission, where each application was evaluated by three evaluators. The Iskreni Institute is one of those that received the funds.
I joined the co-founders of the Iskreni Institute 12 years after the establishment of the institute, and then I exited from them and the bodies of the institute last year, before taking up the ministerial position. I have no influence on the operation of the institute. My wife and I have been participating in various preventive and educational programmes of the Iskreni Institute for more than 15 years, and for the last decade also in the community of Iskreni families, thus defending family values and supporting family support programmes throughout Slovenia. I did voluntary work for the Iskreni Institute, from which I did not have any financial benefit. As I also perform a ministerial function, I have excluded myself from all procedures that could be potentially conflicting – both on the part of the ministry and the institute.
DEMOCRACIJA: You also said that the interpellation will be an opportunity to set a mirror to Slovenian society and to ask ourselves at what level freedom of thought, religion, and speech is in our country.
CIGLER KRALJ: True, I expect the debate on the interpellation to be an opportunity to confront opinions and views on freedom of speech, acceptance of difference, and on the standards of public political debate. I will also have the opportunity to present the state of affairs of the previous government, which was extremely poor, and at the same time I will present all the work done by the ministry under my leadership from the beginning of my term until today.
DEMOCRACIJA: More and more organisations are supporting your work, and the Prime Minister’s first response was that you are doing your job very well and enthusiastically. Do these supports encourage you even more, give you strength, after all, those who filed the interpellation are taking a lot of your time in these difficult times, which you might otherwise spend on something else?
CIGLER KRALJ: I am grateful for all the signs and messages of support which I have received a lot these days, days that have been difficult especially for my colleagues and family, who are exposed by name in public debates and the media. It is the hardest for them and they do not deserve it, because they did their job professionally and honourably. I myself am always committed to performing my function, taking into account all legal and ethical criteria and the culture of dialogue. Above all, I take this as an opportunity to present to the general public the results of joint work at the ministry and to draw attention to the state of mind that prevails in Slovenian society.
DEMOCRACIJA: What do you expect from all this?
CIGLER KRALJ: I certainly expect a wider debate to be opened on the use of public money and the purpose of funding NGOs. I would also like them to consider a different, freer model of funding NGOs, namely by allocating a higher percentage of personal income tax on a voluntary basis like they have it organised in several European countries. This year we managed to increase this percentage from 0.5 to 1 percent. I welcome any debate on the clarity of funding and on the values in our society, which should always remain respectful.
DEMOCRACIJA: Let us dedicate another word to vaccination against COVID-19. Will you be vaccinated?
CIGLER KRALJ: As soon as it is my turn. The safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 represents a turning point in the fight against the new coronavirus and the possibility of a return to everyday life. Especially for vulnerable groups, which also include residents of elderly homes. The first condition for achieving this goal is the vaccination of our society.
DEMOCRACIJA: Is there anything else to emphasise, but we have missed it?
CIGLER KRALJ: I thank the readers of Demokracija magazine for all the messages I receive through social media and in the field, there are many of you! I wish all of you and your loved ones to stay healthy.