Shaping a Resilient Future: Insights from the DEFEN-CE Project’s Final Conference

On October 5th, 2023, the final conference of the DEFEN-CE project, “Social Dialogue in Defence of Vulnerable Groups in Post-COVID-19 Labour Markets,” took place in Brussels. The event commenced with an opening address by Minna van Gerven, representing the University of Helsinki. Within the introductory remarks, Minna van Gerven provided a comprehensive overview of the DEFEN-CE project’s journey. Throughout its course, the project has illuminated the vulnerabilities that have impacted diverse groups, underlining the instrumental role of social dialogue. Moreover, the project has highlighted the critical policies that have come into effect at both European and national levels in response to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, this research has emerged as an invaluable resource, providing insight into the pandemic’s profound implications for policy development and social dialogue. Consequently, the DEFEN-CE project not only functions as a guiding compass in navigating the persisting challenges but also as a cornerstone for constructing a more resilient and well-prepared future.

Keynote speaker Ragnar Horn, Ambassador of the European Union and representative from DG Employment at the European Commission, brought to the audience a wealth of expertise in areas such as the European Semester, social policies, long-term care, and the protection of vulnerable groups. Horn emphasized the gravity of the challenges confronting Europe, exacerbated by external events like the Russian conflict in Ukraine. These challenges have led to rising inflation, energy crises, and increased living costs, disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups. Furthermore, he spotlighted often-overlooked long-term structural challenges, including the green transition, an aging population, and decreasing growth rates. Horn echoed the goals of the European Pillar of Social Rights for employment, training, and poverty reduction by 2030 and the recent First Employment Social Rights Forum’s role in advancing social Europe. His call for unity and collaboration in these challenging times resonated with the audience.

Ragnar Horn, Ambassador of the European Union and representative from DG Employment at the European Commission, on screen as keynote speaker.

Research directors Minna van Gerven (University of Helsinki) right, and Marta Kahancová (CELSI)

In the session “Covid-19 Measures to Protect Vulnerable Groups in the Labor Market in the EU,” chaired by Monika Martišková, the DEFEN-CE project offered a deep dive into the protection of vulnerable groups. Chaitawat Boonjubun and Barbora Holubová presented EU-level findings, where data was gathered from stakeholder interviews in 12 countries, focusing on 5 pairs of similar welfare state and social dialogue systems. Their research revealed that vulnerability is not solely about exposure to specific risks but is also shaped by factors such as age, gender, and ethnicity. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified the vulnerability of these groups, with EU-level policies primarily concentrated on general labor market and business protection. National governments and social partners played a crucial role in shaping policies, highlighting the complex power dynamics in the labor market and the significance of social dialogue in safeguarding vulnerable workers’ rights.

Mark Bergfeld from UNI Europa provided a thought-provoking presentation that shed light on macro issues that surfaced during the COVID-19 crisis. His insights encompassed labor shortages, stagnant real wages, the balance of power between trade unions and employers, and the evolving definition of essential workers. He emphasized the renewed vigor in the trade union movement and the role of labor shortages in driving wage growth, particularly in traditionally low-wage sectors. This session illuminated the multifaceted challenges and opportunities emerging in the wake of the pandemic, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive and inclusive approach to protect vulnerable workers and uphold their rights.

Mark Bergfeld shedding light on macro issues that surfaced during the COVID-19 crisis. From the left – Barbora Holubova (CELSI), Mark Bergfeld (UNI Europa), Monika Martiskova (CELSI), and Chaitawat Boonjubun (University of Helsinki).

Rense Nieuwenhuis (Stockholm University) querying the panel.

During the conference session, Marta Kahancová discussed the role of social dialogue in protecting vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 crisis across Europe. She highlighted the diversity in social dialogue systems and how different countries responded to the pandemic. Marta emphasized the stability of social dialogue, especially in Central and Eastern European countries, and discussed the use of personal connections to access the government for collaboration. The Q&A session further explored the power and mobilization of trade unions during the crisis and their relevance in an evolving labor market. Marta stressed the need for unions to adapt to meet the diverse needs of various worker groups and how diversification of union activities could be a way forward. The conference provided valuable insights into the lessons learned from the pandemic’s impact on social dialogue across Europe.

Comprehensive publications rooted in the findings of the DEFEN-CE project are on the horizon, promising a deeper exploration of its research outcomes. All current and future DEFEN-CE reports and policy briefs can be found on the project webpage. To stay up-to-date with the latest developments, be sure to follow the DEFEN-CE project’s official Twitter account.

Lessons from the DEFEN-CE Webinar: A Comparative Analysis of Germany and the Netherlands’ Pandemic Response

On the 11th of October 2023, the DEFEN-CE project hosted an enlightening German-Dutch comparative webinar. The event was opened by Professor Minna van Gerven and Senior Researcher Karen Jaehrling. Here are the key takeaways from this comparative analysis.

The Netherlands features a well-established labor market with strong institutional involvement of social partners. It maintains stable labor relations, a broad bargaining coverage (76.6%), and declining union density. Despite a significant GDP drop in 2020 (3.9%), it rebounded impressively in subsequent years, outperforming its neighbors. In the Netherlands, pandemic responses included wage payment continuation, support for self-employed individuals, and assistance with fixed costs. Their social dialogue was marked by value sharing and collaboration. Early pandemic collaborations led to quick and effective responses, though some conflicts arose later on.

In Germany, pandemic responses leaned towards unilateralism due to limited central and tripartite social dialogue. However, established social dialogue systems and protection mechanisms were expanded to serve as stabilizers. This benefited vulnerable groups, such as solo self-employed individuals, youth, and working parents. Germany experienced an increase in the number of employees in short-term work schemes, and youth unemployment spiked during the pandemic. Certain sectors, like accommodation and food services, retail, manufacturing, and airport transport, saw a dip in average monthly earnings.

Germany faced specific challenges in its agricultural sector, which historically lacked labor protections. The pandemic provided a unique opportunity to address these disparities. New policies aimed to improve the living and working conditions of seasonal workers. Natioinal responses were supplemented by new EU-Level policies: the EU introduced “social conditionality” in its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2023-2027. This ties payments to farmers with the rights of seasonal workers. However, the implementation and enforcement of this conditionality are still under debate.

Comparing Germany and the Netherlands’ pandemic responses revealed both differences and similarities. While the Netherlands relied on established collaboration and interactive bargaining, at least some actors in Germany used the pandemic as a laboratory for innovative social dialogue, especially in vulnerable sectors.

DEFEN-CE Country Case Study Findings: Finland and Sweden

On 13th October 2023, The DEFEN-CE project hosted a webinar on the Finnish and Swedish case studies. During the webinar, the Finnish and Swedish DEFEN-CE teams delved into the key findings from the country studies, shedding light on the protection of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rense Nieuwenhuis (Stockholm University) inaugurated the event with a warm welcome, setting the stage for an enlightening discussion. Minna Van Gerven, lead investigator (University of Helsinki), provided an overview of the DEFEN-CE Project. The heart of the webinar was the presentations of the country studies conducted in Finland and Sweden. Zamzam Elmi (University of Helsinki) and Jakob Strigén (Stockholm University) presented the findings from these studies, providing a deep dive into each country’s pandemic response and its impact on vulnerable groups.

Similarities between Finland and Sweden:

• Both Finland and Sweden experienced the global challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic and had to adapt swiftly.
• Vulnerable groups in both countries included workers from various industries and sectors, making it evident that the pandemic’s impact was widespread.
• Social dialogue played a pivotal role in both nations’ responses, with collaboration between social partners and the government being highly effective.
• The trust in public officials and established dialogue structures was high in both countries, emphasizing the importance of maintaining social dialogue even outside of crisis situations.

Differences between Finland and Sweden:

• One striking difference was the strategies employed to mitigate the virus. Finland implemented stringent mitigation strategies to protect the elderly and prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, whereas Sweden relied on individual responsibility and maintained a more relaxed approach.
• Sweden faced specific challenges within its healthcare sector due to weak crisis preparedness, increased pressure on the personnel, and insufficient protection gear, which led to conflicts between the social partners, elucidating ongoing changes in the power resources among them. In contrast, Finland dealt with the critique of certain safety measures, school closures, and restaurant restrictions.

The webinar highlighted several lessons from the experiences of Finland and Sweden, demonstrating that although the challenges were universal, the responses and approaches were distinct. The strength of institutional and historical path dependency was evident, and the well-established social dialogue structures played a significant role in both countries. The insider-outsider dilemma was another common thread, emphasizing the importance of equal representation.


Rense Nieuwenhuis (right) and Jakob Strigén (left) from Stockholm University hosting the meeting from Stockholm joined by Chaitawat Boonjubun (back left) and Minna van Gerven (back right) from the University of Helsinki.

Rense Nieuwenhuis (right) and Jakob Strigén (left) from Stockholm University hosting the meeting from Stockholm joined by Chaitawat Boonjubun (back left) and Minna van Gerven (back right) from the University of Helsinki.

DEFEN-CE team in Vilnius for Midterm Seminar!

On 2 March 2023, the Social Dialogue in Defence of Vulnerable Groups in Post-COVID-19 Labour Markets (DEFEN-CE) organized the Midterm Seminar in Vilnius, Lithuania, in which partners gathered together to share their preliminary findings of national-level qualitative research and plan for reporting and disseminating the results of the project. During the morning session, a poster presentation was utilized to communicate research findings so far. Twelve printed posters summarizing the preliminary findings from 12 countries including Sweden, Finland, Czechia, Slovakia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia and Turkey were presented and discussed. Partners shared their research experiences and insights on the aspects of vulnerable groups and the role of social dialogue in influencing policies and COVID-19 measures aimed at protecting vulnerable groups in labour markets. The studies raised a wide range of topics to be analysed further and highlighted both similarities and differences across countries during the extended period of Covid-10 waves. In the afternoon session, teams brainstormed on individual country reporting, two-country comparisons, EU-level reporting, and how to prepare policy brief papers for European Commission. This was followed by a discussion on wider dissemination of the research findings, incl. stakeholder webinars, publications, video production, and national policy briefs. Deadlines for reports, dissemination events, and the final conference in Brussels were agreed upon by all partners.

A sign pointing towards the seminar room at the seminar location./ Photo by Minna van Gerven

The Midterm Seminar was hosted by Inga Blaziene and her team at the Lithuanian Centre for Social Sciences, Lithuania. Partner organizations participating in this Seminar included the University of Helsinki, Finland; the Tampere University, Finland; the University of Stockholm, Sweden; the Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI); the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany; the FONDAZIONE ADAPT, Italy; and, the University of Belgrade, Serbia.

Two researchers discussing the posters./ Photo by Chaitawat Boonjubun

Researcher in debate in front of the poster./ Photo by Chaitawat Boonjubun

Research team gathered around a poster and listening of a presentation./ Photo by Chaitawat Boonjubun

Two researchers in a team presenting their posters./ Photo by Chaitawat Boonjubun

The whole research team gathered into a group photo in front of a beautiful old red building./ Photo by Minna van Gerven

Workshop on methodology guidelines for the DEFEN-CE database

On September 6, 2022, the DEFEN-CE project, led by the Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI), invited experts from the EU member countries and Turkey and Serbia to participate in an online workshop on methodology guidelines for the DEFEN-CE database. During the workshop, participants were advised about the selection and scopes of the policies relevant to the project that experts are expected to identify and collect, the key areas of indicators including policy, target groups, and social partners’ involvement, and the data collection guidelines. In line with the project’s implementation plan, data collection by the experts will take place in the autumn of 2022.


Kick-off meeting of the DEFEN-CE project held in Helsinki

The first meeting of all project partners of the Social Dialogue in Defence of Vulnerable Groups in Post-COVID-19 Labour Markets (DEFEN-CE) was held in Helsinki on December 2nd, 2021. The meeting was organized, on-site and online in parallel, focusing on establishing a common understanding of the aims, tasks, administration, and deliverables of the project and determining platforms for successful project collaboration.

The kick-off meeting was led by Professor Minna van Gerven, Overall Project Coordinator, from the University of Helsinki and Doctor Marta Kahancová, Scientific Coordinator, from the Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI). Participants from project partner organizations including the University of Helsinki and the Tampere University, Finland; the University of Stockholm, Sweden; the Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI); the Lithuanian Centre for Social Sciences, Lithuania; the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany; the University of Belgrade, Serbia; and the FONDAZIONE ADAPT, Italy provided inputs to the overall management and expectations of the DEFEN-CE and gave an overview of vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19 measures and the role of social partners in their project countries. Decisions concerning project planning and next steps were made.




Photos by Minna van Gerven