Tripartite committee to examine training and lifelong learning

In autumn 2004, the Danish government and social partners set up a committee which, over the next 12 months, will undertake a thorough review of current provision in the field of adult and continuing vocational training. In August, the Prime Minister had invited the social partners to talks about how to upgrade the competences of Danish workers in order to deal with the effects of globalisation.

If Denmark is to continue to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world and at the same time secure a relatively even distribution of incomes, an important prerequisite will be a high level of knowledge and competences throughout the entire labour force and a flexible labour market. This was the message of a speech by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to parliament (the Folketing) on 1 October 2004.

During the past year, there has been a strong focus on the consequences for Denmark of globalisation and the relocation of Danish jobs. In this connection, the urgent question has been an upgrading of skills and competences through a strengthening of education and training measures. The argument is that Denmark will not be able to compete on low-skill production, but must, to put it simply, be a nation of skilled workers.

Invitation to close tripartite cooperation

The Prime Minister’s speech to parliament restated the vision underlying an earlier invitation to the social partners to engage in tripartite cooperation in the field of adult and continuing training. In August 2004, while a debate was going on about the importance of continuing training and about flexibility in the form of a higher degree of freedom of choice for employees within the framework of collective agreements (DK0410105F), the Prime Minister intervened by stating that employees should go into the next collective bargaining rounds with a demand for more education and training rather than higher wages. In his view, the time has now come for a much stronger focus in bargaining on education and training, if Denmark is to remain in the 'top league'.

Shortly afterwards, the government invited the social partners in the private sector, including the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) and the Confederation of Danish Employers (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) and the partners in the public sector to enter discussions, first separately and then together. The discussions were wide-ranging, dealing, in the words of the Politiken newspaper, with the 'entire Danish model'. Both LO and DA accepted the invitation in a very positive spirit and have expressed their views publicly. As a result, a new tripartite committee will over the next 12 months take on the major tasks of overhauling radically the whole field of education and training. The committee is to examine the financing and effects of current education and training programmes and the rights to education and training set out in collective agreements.

Parallels with 'labour market' pension system

The Prime Minister has made it clear that continuing training is to be partly financed through the collective bargaining system, and in this connection he has drawn a parallel with the occupational 'labour market' pension system that has been developed since the early 1990s. In this case, the Danish social partners have implemented through collective bargaining a new occupational pension scheme that covers major groups of workers who had previously not been covered by any pension scheme except the general state old-age pension (DK0310103F). In so doing, the social partners have assumed responsibility for a central element of the Danish welfare state. The pensions 'time bomb' that is threatening many EU Member States has, it is argued, been defused in Denmark, where virtually everyone will be guaranteed a reasonable income level during their retirement in the form of a labour market pension as a supplement to the old-age pension.

The analogy is that if the 'globalisation time bomb' is not defused now, and if the social partners do not share the responsibility for continuing training, Denmark will not, in the longer run, be able to cope in conditions of keen global competition. This theme has become a hot issue in Denmark during autumn 2004. There is no longer any disagreement with the view that a stronger focus in collective agreements on strengthening adult and continued training should be given top priority. Several studies have indicated a dramatic fall in continuing training activities in Denmark, although the system is regarded as one of the best in Europe. More than 25% of all employees have not participated in any form of continued training during the past year and it is, in particular, people little training and unskilled workers - ie the groups with the strongest need for education and training - who are missing out.

Initiative from LO

The reaction from LO to the Prime Minister's invitation was positive, but also critical. LO is concerned that the government might shirk its responsibilities and leave the regulation and financing of skills development to the social partners. LO also underlined that the government should not propose the content of the collective bargaining agenda, referring to the Prime Minister's proposal to employees to demand more training instead of wage increases.

Shortly after the publication of the terms of reference of the tripartite committee, LO presented a plan for a new training system, based on the idea that training is not only a right, but also a duty for everybody. The somewhat controversial initiative comprises 10 concrete proposals. One is that all employees should have a right to training for up to six months every five years. They should also be entitled to four hours’ educational counselling each year and to an assessment of their competences by a vocational counselling centre. The plan also points to a lack of motivation to participate in continuing training among many groups. In the opinion of LO, this may be explained by fear of 'going back to school', but also by lack of time, or by reluctance on the part of employers to offer continuing training. So far, the Minister for Employment, who is a member of the new tripartite committee, has not commented on the LO initiative. The fact that LO issued its plan so soon after the appointment of the tripartite committee suggests that this a proposal that it has been working on for some time.

Reactions from DA

DA has commented on LO’s 10-point plan. The employers believe that the initiative would lead to a drain from the labour market of the order of 200,000 people a year if employees have a right to six months of training every five years. In this connection, DA has itself published an analysis which indicates that both the public authorities and enterprises in Denmark invest more in competence development and continuing training measures than in any other country in the world.

Commentary

The relationship between continuing training and the general collective bargaining system first arose in the late 1980s. The number of issues covered by collective agreements has been increasing, with the inclusion of new provisions concerning a number of social and welfare-related issued such as pensions, pay during sickness and maternity/parental leave or access to education/training. This has led to a 'grey area' between the issues regulated by means of legislation and collective agreement and a discussion between the political system and the social partners as to who is to shoulder the responsibility for a number of welfare-related benefits, not least the financing thereof. The important breakthrough in this process was the introduction of employment-based labour market pensions (AMP) in the public sector as a part of the collective bargaining round in 1989, and in the private sector covered by LO/DA as part of the 1991 collective bargaining round. The discussions on the labour market pension reform started in the first half of the 1980s. At that time, a number of trade unions had a sceptical attitude toward the project as they thought that pensions should continue to be a general welfare benefit financed through the general tax system

It is interesting in this connection that the issue of strengthening continuing training was discussed at the same time as labour market pensions. These were two key issues in LO and its member organisations in the 1980s, and in both case the main issue was whether agreements or legislation should be the cornerstone of reform. During the 1990s, under the LO presidency of Hans Jensen, the answer was quite clear that agreements should play a greater role, both as a method to secure better conditions for members and at a way of supporting the agreement-based 'Danish model'.

An LO paper issued in 1999, entitled The welfare society in the future - welfare commits (DK9911155N), set out the idea that the social partners should, through collective agreements, shoulder a greater responsibility for ensuring the competence development of employees, and that employees should assume a greater responsibility for their own and their colleagues’ competence development, for instance through a higher prioritisation of time and financial means for education/training and development. However, it is also emphasised that the precondition for this greater and more individual responsibility is: 'that the state does not reduce its responsibility for and contribution to the necessary competence development in the society, but gives a higher priority to such measures in relation to the groups with the biggest need for competence development'. It is obvious that this precondition should be seen as the background to the relatively critical reaction from Hans Jensen to the recent proposal from the Prime Minister that the social partners should assume a higher degree of responsibility in the field of continuing and adult vocational training.

It is important to stress that the content of sectoral collective agreements does not fall within the competence of the central social partner confederations, but is the domain of their member organisations. It is thus expected that it will be the organisations that are actually parties to collective agreements that will play the leading role in developments in this area. It should be noted that compromise settlement for the bargaining round in the LO/DA area in the spring of 2004 (DK0403103F) included a clause on globalisation. The social partners are to draw up a report before 1 July 2005 on how the labour market can exploit the possibilities and challenges of globalisation in the light of competitiveness and employment. In this context, the competences of employees is singled out a major precondition in ensuring the necessary improvement in the competitiveness of the enterprises in the light of the challenges raised by globalisation. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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