Negotiations open on unemployment insurance

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In March 2000, France's social partners started renegotiating the agreement on which the UNEDIC unemployment insurance scheme is based, with the talks due to conclude by the end of June. The negotiations form part of the process of discussions on overhauling French industrial relations launched by the MEDEF employers' confederation's "new social constitution" project.

On 17 March 2000, following a six-month postponement (FR0001134F), trade unions and employers' organisations started talks on a renegotiation of the agreement on which the UNEDIC unemployment insurance system is based, and which sets the terms of eligibility for, and levels of, unemployment benefit. Several meetings have been scheduled for the period up to 30 June 2000, when the provisions of the agreement are due to be finalised. The talks form part of the process of talks on overhauling French industrial relations launched by the MEDEF employers' confederation's "new social constitution" project (FR9912122F), and agreed with the trade unions in February 2000 (FR0002143F).

The initial meeting was given over to the issue of the access of young people to the labour market and the struggle against precarious employment. Unemployment benefit was not on the agenda during these particular talks and will be reviewed in later meetings. MEDEF set the schedule and the agenda for the negotiation process. This organisation challenges the current unemployment insurance system, which it considers to be overly passive since it places very little emphasis on getting unemployed people back to work. Several proposals have been put forward to correct this situation.

First, the employers want to replace the current active labour market measures, which are deemed ineffectual, by new and more restrictive provisions for unemployed people, such as:

  • a new" return-to-work assistance contract" (Contrat d'Aide au Retour à l'emploi). This would give jobseekers the opportunity to undergo a skills review, so that they may be directed to training in an area where employment opportunities exist. The stated goal of the employers is "to enhance the employability of jobless people and to help them back to work"; and
  • offering every jobseeker one or more possible job vacancies, matching their skills. If employment is refused, the people involved could see some of their unemployment benefits cut, since MEDEF views this attitude as indicating a lack of "genuine and serious" effort to find a job. However, in the event that the unemployed person's skills cannot be matched to job vacancies, they will continue to receive benefits until they have been retrained.

Second, MEDEF wants to facilitate access to the labour market by enlarging the range of temporary jobs, with the aim of fighting precarious employment. The proposed new employment contracts would be based on the "site contracts" (contrats de chantier) which exist in the construction and public works industry, or the five-year "youth employment" (emplois-jeunes) contracts in force in the public sector.

It appears that the general rationale behind these proposals is based on the principle of "rights and responsibilities, which has been" the driving force for many reforms implemented in other countries as different as the United Kingdom, with its low unemployment benefit levels, and Denmark, which has one of the highest levels of unemployment benefit in the European Union. Much thus depends on the particular national framework of benefits into which these new provisions are integrated. In light of the fact that the issue of the benefit framework has not yet been addressed in the French talks, the unions have not reached consensus on the rights and responsibilities principle, with unemployment benefits in France having been significantly eroded over the past 15 years.

The various unions have reacted differently to MEDEF's proposals. As far as CGT and CGT-FO are concerned, priority must be given to enhancing benefits for unemployed people. The fact that the UNEDIC fund has posted surpluses adds weight to these unions' argument. CGT therefore stated that it was not ruling out funding for active programmes, but that it first wanted to discuss "decent levels of benefit and eligibility terms." CGT-FO shares this opinion and refuses to accept any new benefit penalties on unemployed people. It contends that the priority must be to boost unemployment insurance coverage.

CFDT, CFE-CGC and CFTC called the employers' proposal "interesting". CFDT did, however, issue the following warning to employers: "If your aim is to set up a new mechanism to link benefits, training and return to employment, we will come on board, but if you just want to use training as a jobseekers' 'shunting yard', then do not count on our support."

The next few meetings should clarify somewhat the framework for the new UNEDIC agreement, and in particular a major shortcoming of the unemployment insurance system: the outstanding issue of coverage levels for young people and those in precarious employment.

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