Flexicurity to feature on new social partnership agenda

The concept of flexicurity, which refers to the balance to be struck between labour market flexibility and worker security, is set to feature on the bargaining agenda for any new tripartite national agreement in Ireland in 2008. According to the social partners, the concept may be applied in the Irish labour market, with some ‘negotiated trade-offs’ possible in the area of continuous vocational training and lifelong learning, for example.

Since October 2007, the social partners in Ireland have been grappling with the concept of flexicurity – a hybrid term that is used to describe policies and measures that combine labour market flexibility, on the one hand, and employment protection or social security, on the other. The issue looks sure to feature in any new social partnership talks in 2008. It seems likely that trade unions and employers will seek negotiated ‘trade-offs’ around issues like vocational training and lifelong learning.

In September, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) held a conference to debate flexicurity and the challenges it raises for the trade union movement. ICTU has warned the Irish government that it must provide greater protection guaranteeing equal pay and treatment for vulnerable temporary agency workers, if there is to be a genuine engagement from the trade unions on flexicurity.

Commission promotes flexicurity

The European Commission strongly pushes the concept of flexicurity as a means of boosting the competitiveness of the European economy, while offering workers employment protection and social security. The European Council is expected to adopt a set of common principles on flexicurity by the end of December 2007, following the Commission’s Communication Towards common principles of flexicurity: More and better jobs through flexibility and security (90Kb PDF). In its communication, the Comission defines flexicurity as ‘an integrated strategy to enhance, at the same time, flexibility and security in the labour market’. According to the Commission, flexibility and security should be seen not as conflicting, but as potentially mutually reinforcing components (EU0707069I).

Temporary agency work remains big issue

Temporary agency work is an issue that is looming large in the flexicurity debate in Ireland. Firing a warning shot at the government in relation to temporary agency working, the President of Ireland’s largest trade union, the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), Jack O’Connor, remarked at the ICTU conference that ‘without the introduction of reforms to agency work, in particular those guaranteeing equal pay and treatment for agency workers, we will oppose this approach to flexicurity in the strongest possible way’.

Tackling some of the misconceptions surrounding the term flexibility and emphasising the importance of providing for stable employment, Mr O’Connor argued:

A certain level of employment stability of the workforce is ‘good’ for firms, as it is needed for productivity, human capital investment and worker motivation. Ironically, the more secure a worker is, the more flexible and risk taking they will be.

Protected mobility

SIPTU’s President, Mr O’Connor, raised the idea of ‘protected mobility’ that provides lifelong ‘employability’ training and income protection to workers. According to Mr O’Connor,

Ireland needs to establish new rights to learning for workers and place new responsibilities on employers to ensure that their employees have access to training. This could be achieved by legally requiring employers to provide continuing training for their workers and providing an entitlement to paid learning leave for employees.

The Minister for Labour Affairs, Billy Kelleher, indicated at the ICTU conference that the government intends to introduce regulations contained in a draft bill to protect temporary agency workers. Legislation on protection for temporary agency workers is already underway in the UK – a factor that may to some extent have influenced the Irish government to take action.

Meanwhile, Heidi Lockheed of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) stated that the employer representative body is still grappling with the concept of flexicurity. She highlighted that IBEC is wary of the idea of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the labour market, suggesting that many employers do not view part-time work, for instance, as offering a lesser form of employment contract. IBEC sees a legitimate role for good employment agencies as an intermediary in the labour market.

Danish ‘golden triangle’

The debate at the conference largely centred on the Danish model of flexicurity, in the form of its much vaunted ‘golden triangle’ of flexible labour laws, generous welfare payments and active labour market policies supported by high taxation (DK0506103F). However, given Ireland’s different historical and institutional starting points, and its low tax model, the country will have to follow a different flexicurity pathway than that of Denmark. In practice, while not explicitly labelled as flexicurity, participants in Ireland’s social partnership process would suggest that in recent years the process has sought to strike its own particular balance between issues such as labour market flexibility, employment rights, welfare benefits, income tax, as well as vocational training and upskilling.

Tony Dobbins, IRN Publishing

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