Vocational training negotiations restart

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In January 2003, some 15 months after the breakdown of earlier national negotiations on vocational training reform, French trade unions and employers’ associations convened new talks on the issue. At an initial meeting, they established the method to be followed and set up two technical groups to examine a range of issues.

Acceding to a request from the Minister of Labour, trade union confederations and employers’ associations met on 22 January 2003 to set out the procedure for negotiations on overhauling the vocational training system. Vocational training had been the last issue for consideration under the 'industrial relations overhaul' initiative launched by the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF), France's main employers' confederation, (FR0002143F). However, negotiations on the issue broke down in October 2001, with the parties 'agreeing to disagree' (FR0111123F).

Throughout the earlier negotiation process, the sharing of the cost of training between employers and employees, in terms of both time and money, was a major issue of contention between employers’ associations and trade unions. An employers' suggestion that sector-level training agreements take precedence over intersectoral training agreements also met with hostility from unions, which accused employers of seeking to overturn the hierarchy of accepted standards. A further major brake on the talks was disagreement among employers as to how training should be funded in large and small businesses.

Employers’ representatives, having had problems with this approach in the collapse of the last round of negotiations, have not come back to the bargaining table this time with a document setting out their reform suggestions. The negotiation process laid out by employers, and accepted by trade unions, involves setting up two technical groups to deal with various issues prior to the next round of negotiations, due on 4 April 2003. The goal, as stated by the head of the employers’ delegation, Alain Sionneau of the MEDEF Building Federation (Fédération du bâtiment), is to 'have genuine policy debates in plenary session'. One group will work on putting forward measures to deal with demographic changes (such as people starting their working lives later, and the issue of training the over-50s) and to address lifelong learning requirements. The other will look at sectoral and territorial coordination on training, as well as at how to get the best out of funding mechanisms.

The government is urging the social partners to reach an agreement quickly on an issue with the potential to give substance to the concept of 'employment insurance' (assurance emploi), developed by President Jacques Chirac during his successful election campaign in 2002, but which, for the time being, remains only an abstract notion.

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