TBY talks to Fizuli Alekperov, Minister of Labor & Social Protection, on key reforms, the eradication of poverty, and the Azerbaijani workforce.
TBY What have been the key reforms in the social sphere in Azerbaijan since you took office in 2006?
FIZULI ALEKPEROV Azerbaijan is a country that gives high priority to targeted social principles, and is always mobilized to build a welfare society, creating economic opportunities for all people. Social reforms in the country have been aimed toward securing social justice, and ensuring equal and fair development in the social security system for all sections of the population. We also target favorable and effective employment opportunities and hope to see real growth in people’s income, the development of qualified human capital and social infrastructure, as well as the protection of low-income citizens and evolution of a public-driven welfare system. Over the years we have been strengthening the social security system and improving the wage system in Azerbaijan as a result of the application of international experiences that we have been observing. Since mid-2006 Azerbaijan has applied state social support systems, and according to our data 120,478 families were receiving state social support at the end of 2011. Each family is paid an average of AZN106.45 per month. In the last few years we have improved the system by expanding its coverage and the type of assistance for poor families so that more families can benefit from these opportunities.
Azerbaijan has targeted the eradication of poverty by 2015. What are the core policies your Ministry is implementing to achieve such an important goal?
In general, 2011 was a significant year for the dynamic progress of our country in all fields. In this regard, we continued to implement effective measures to increase social welfare. As you know, one of the important factors in reducing poverty is to create new jobs as well as to promote the efficient employment of people. In 2011, 94,000 new job vacancies were created, 73,000 of them were permanent positions, and for the time being the number of work places is over a million. As a result, the unemployment rate in Azerbaijan fell to 5.4%. In addition, the average income of the population is growing from year to year, and in 2011 alone it increased by 19.6%, double the 7.9% inflation rate. One of the factors causing poverty is that vocational and labor skills do not meet the requirements of the modern labor market. Therefore, we have been focusing on providing effective employment opportunities and improving the quality of people’s labor potential in line with the needs of the economy. In the last few years new vocational training centers have been established, enabling a large number of people to broaden their professional skills and improve their future. At the same time we have developed a series of social security programs to provide assistance to poor families. However, as we do not want these families to depend on state aid, we have been implementing a “one-time social assistance and self support program” to use their potential to increase their income. Overall, the economic growth of Azerbaijan, which currently represents more than 80% of the overall South Caucasus economy, and the measures implemented in the social sphere have helped to sharply reduce poverty to 7.6%.
What’s the significance of Azerbaijan’s Public Council of Social Protection, which started operating in 2011?
Cooperation with civil societies is always a focus of attention for the government, and the establishment of such a council enables us to work toward transparency in our work. Such an entity will contribute to encouraging civil participation in the social sphere, process citizens’ appeals, and conduct better investigations while providing better services to society. The Public Council actively participates in all these processes, improving the effectiveness of our services. I am certain that such an entity will improve the living conditions of the Azerbaijani population and further involve people in an active role within social protection activities.
What steps is the Ministry taking in order to improve the welfare of disabled people in Azerbaijan and achieve their active integration into society?
Today, Azerbaijan prioritizes policies promoting the integration of people with disabilities into society. In the last few years we have adopted new legal normative acts to provide disabled people with state benefits and complementary services. Financial support to people with disabilities has been constantly strengthened and the amount of benefits given to them increases each year. In recent years we have also expanded rehabilitation and treatment network centers, and now there are 14 such centers in Azerbaijan, where more than 8,000 people are treated every year. In order to ensure better and more effective social rehabilitation for people with disabilities, we are developing specialized centers such as an education-rehabilitation center for eye disabilities, social rehabilitation centers and social asylums for underage children, a center of social adaptation for prisoners released from penitentiary institutions, a specialized rehabilitation center for the victims of Chernobyl, and a help center for human trafficking victims. Finally, at the expense of the state, we are building individual residential houses and tenement apartments for disabled people in different regions of the country. About 5,000 citizens with disabilities, including the families of people who died protecting the territorial integrity of the country in the Karabakh war, were given modern new apartments. During 2012 we expect to build approximately 1,000 new apartments. At the same time people with disabilities were provided with nearly 3,250 cars, increasing the overall number of disabled people with cars to 7,500.
How would you describe the Azerbaijani workforce to potential foreign investors?
The Azerbaijani workforce is diligent, efficient, and determined. In the fields of traditional labor, the professional skills in the workforce are sufficient. However, the continued development of our country, its integration into the world economy, the creation of a transparent business environment, and the flow of foreign investment make it necessary to improve the country’s labor force. At the same time, and in order to intensify such processes, we have started implementing programs to improve professional standards and related learning standards jointly with the World Bank. The aim of this project is to prepare the legal and institutional framework for the establishment of over 100 vocational centers and courses according to international standards within the next three years. Such a project will play an important role in the development of the workforce at the level of international requirements.
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