At the upcoming International Labour Conference (5-16 June 2023), the International Labour Organisation will discuss the terms of a new international standard which could mark an important step in the improvement and development of national apprenticeship systems.
For many years the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has promoted the benefits of high quality apprenticeships, focussing on how they can help the transition from education to employment, match skills supply to fast-changing labour market needs and promote sustainable enterprises and productivity.
The ILO’s body of labour standards has not kept pace, so this month, a tripartite Conference Committee of unions, employer organisations and governments will hold the second and final discussion to agree a Recommendation that offers a framework for national systems.
For the ILO Workers’ Group this marks an opportunity for the Recommendation to reflect our vision of high quality, well planned, and resourced education and training in an apprentice’s chosen occupation. It requires that apprentices are secure and protected in their learning and work, and are on a route that opens opportunities. It’s a vision which is human-centred and which looks to the achievement of ambitions as well as the acquisition of skills. We have heard shocking cases of clear exploitation of apprentices, with scandalous working hours, low pay, menial tasks, absent supervision, and denial of union support. Some apprentices complain of being provided with little in the way of off-the-job learning and sketchy support for skills development. Government subsidy schemes can be open to misuse, such as when workers who are already employed are moved to an ‘apprenticeship’ contract, doing the same work for lower pay. Stepped subsidies can lead to a cycle of apprenticeships being discontinued after the period of highest subsidy, with new recruits then taken on as replacements.
The heart of the framework will be a central public body, which includes social partner representation at every level, with the role of developing high standards by promoting the best practice and stamping out the worst. It will determine whether an occupation is suitable for apprenticeships, and will set the shape of the provision and the curricula, working closely with other bodies to ensure an integrated system.
For unions it is critical that the Recommendation affirms the international consensus that apprentices cannot be used as a form of cheap substitute labour. Host employers must of course respect all fundamental rights at work, ensuring that apprentices work in a safe and healthy work environment free from discrimination, can join a union and bargain collectively and are protected against any forms of forced labour and child labour. Apprentices should receive benefits which compare with those of regular workers: with limited working hours, study time, paid sick leave, holiday and other leave, and access to social protection benefits. And it is fundamentally important that there is an enforceable guarantee of adequate pay, because without this only the lucky few who can afford to support themselves will be attracted. All the details should be recorded in clear language in a written agreement, which also sets out how long the apprenticeship will last, how supervision and mentoring will be provided, and the sites at which apprentices will work.
Successful implementation of the Recommendation will rely on high quality education being available. That requires national public technical and vocational education and training (TVET) systems which are well resourced, offering well-planned courses taught by qualified professionals. Off-the-job education must be broader than the skills needed for the chosen occupation, it needs to support personal and educational development. Apprenticeships must be within reach for those who have been let down or forced to drop out of secondary education, offering a viable route to further education and skills. Each successful apprenticeship should result in a recognised, portable qualification which opens routes to further education opportunities as well as to employment.
It will be challenging to realise this vision of apprenticeships, and the aspirations are more distant for some. While formal apprenticeships are a well-established tradition in some countries, in others the majority will be ‘informal apprenticeships’ which offer a chance to accompany and learn from an experienced and expert craftsperson in order to master a skill. In these informal apprenticeships, the training period may not be paid, there may not be any learning outside the particular skills of the trade, there is unlikely to be formal external regulation of the relationship. If the Recommendation is to have wide relevance, it will offer a model which can help governments to build the strength of legal, regulatory and educational structures towards our vision of a well-resourced and regulated system. Those in the informal economy need to be supported on a path to formality, in a way which lifts their working lives and life chances.
If the discussion in June is successful, the Recommendation will set a clear framework to be taken forward by governments working with social partners. For the trade unions involved, the test of the success of the Recommendation will lie in the improvements that it prompts in apprenticeships and working lives. But we believe a strong Recommendation is also in the interests of governments and employers. Revitalising and improving national systems of apprenticeship can only assist governments to develop their offer to the young and not so young, extend the knowledge and skills base, and contribute to a fair, inclusive and secure future of work that offers enhanced employment opportunities for all.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.