Social dialogue for inclusion in education and skills development

This week’s European Training Foundation (ETF) #LearningConnects livestream has focused on the importance of social dialogue for inclusion in education and skills development, coinciding with the European Commission’s launch of a major new initiative in the field.

The discussion, streamed across Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitter to an international audience, focused on how social dialogue with partners from education, business, government, trade unions and other sectors, can better influence positive policy development in skills training.

The event, Wednesday 25 January, which featured Susan Flocken, European Director of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Georgios Zisimos, the ETF’s Head of Policy Advice and EU Programming Unit, hosted by the ETF's Communication Officer, Denise Loughran, coincided with a presentation by the European Commission of a new initiative to boost the involvement of social partners across the EU and its institutions.

The initiative would, the Commission said, renew 'our strong commitment to social dialogue as a cornerstone of the EU social market economy and its competitiveness'.

Social dialogue is a powerful tool 'to adapt to the changing world of work and new trends on the labour market, against the backdrop of the transitions to a digital and climate neutral economy and the emergence of new forms of employment'.

By engaging with social partners that include employers and workers, collective bargaining could be used to 'help improve living and working conditions, such as pay, hours of work, annual leave, parental leave, training, and health and safety measures'.

Social fairness, and democracy at work, could 'boost Europe’s prosperity and resilience', the Commission said in a launch statement.

Noting that union membership and coverage of workers by collective agreements had declined in recent years – from 66% in 2000, to around 56% in 2019 – and the emergence of new forms of employment, such as platform work, the Commission set out a range of recommendations for encouraging social dialogue. These include:

  • Ensuring the consultation of social partners on the design and implementation of economic, employment and social policies
  • Encouraging social partners to look at new forms of work and atypical employment
  • Enabling an increase in workers and employers’ organisations’ capacity for ensuring they have access to relevant information, and support from national governments.

Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said: 'Trade union membership is in decline, and many sectors, like care or platform work, are missing out on collective bargaining. To make sure that Europe remains competitive and inclusive, we need strong social dialogue and strong social partners.”

The Commissioner’s point was taken up by Susan Flocken, of ETUCE, which represents 11 million teachers in 51 countries across and beyond the EU.

'Membership of social partners is diminishing [in the education sector]. This is partially the result of a very severe shortage of teachers – which is related to working conditions, and the status of the profession, particularly in vocational education and training.'

'This is a very challenging time; if working conditions were more attractive and professional recognition higher, there would be a bigger change in the teaching profession.'

Despite the challenges, her union continues to engage with social dialogue as an instrument for improving conditions and influencing policy changes.

'The most pressing issue we face at the moment is a lack of staff; there are huge teacher shortages across Europe. We are currently pursuing a campaign to address the attractiveness of teaching as a career,' Flocken said.

Ensuring that trade union representatives – and others engaged in social dialogue – had access to all the facts and figures they needed before engaging in discussions with employers or government representatives was crucial, she added.

'A big issue is inclusion and inequality. Education and training is a means to lift people out of poverty. We want to ensure equal access for all. Continuous professional development is a key part of this.'

Georgios Zisimos agreed that social dialogue and engaging with social partners was a key to successful policy development in education and training.

'Using social dialogue as an instrument in policy development is fundamental to the work of the ETF. As an EU agency that works to support partner countries outside the EU to develop their human capital, we look at this across the labour market, from the perspective of education and training provision, and from a holistic view – lifelong learning. Working with networks of social partners is key to our work.'

He cautioned that working with social dialogue was 'not a straightforward process'. It took 'choice and commitment' and time.

'It may seem easier for a government not to involve others – but there will be problems down the line. For sustainable policy making you need to have social dialogue in place to bring in different views and represent them, especially for a field such as education and training.'

Asked by viewers among the international audience of the livestream – which included observers from Morocco, Ethiopia, Albania, Greece, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine and Montenegro – to describe what successful socially inclusive dialogue looked like, Flocken highlighted regularity and results.

'There need to be regular consultations; it is not necessary for social partners to push governments to have meetings, but they are to be welcomed. It is not just a listening exercise – meetings need to lead to meaningful outcomes, concrete plans, commitments and goals.'

Zisimos stressed that training and preparation of those involved in social dialogue was also important.

'There is a lot of preparation involved. As the nature of work is changing and there are new trends in the labour market, the role of trade unions and other social partners is changing. There is more need for education and training positions to be put forward – not just talking about wages and conditions.'

This was, he added, an area where the ETF can help social partners – by providing information about new developments, such as platform work and what it means to those involved in it.

Social partners can also benefit from the experience of those in other countries, both the speakers in the livestream emphasised. Sharing good practice or taking part in networks – such as the ETF’s Network for Excellence – can all help support stronger social dialogue.

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