By Alberto Sisto
ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government will pass labor market reforms even if trade unions do not give their consent to the measures, Labour Minister Elsa Fornero told union leaders on Thursday, according to an official close to the discussions.
Fornero is holding talks with unions and employers to change a rigid system blamed for chronically low employment rates, especially among young people and women, which in turn stifle economic growth.
Prime Minister Mario Monti's government has moved quickly to pass new budget measures and present economic reforms since being appointed last year as Italy risked being sucked into an uncontrollable financial crisis.
"There is a dialogue but the government will not miss the opportunity; if we do it together, then we'll be happy but if not, the government will still seek to do it," Fornero told the meeting, according to the official.
Attention has largely focused on Article 18, a section in the labor law which obliges companies with more than 15 workers to re-hire workers judged by the courts to have been unjustly laid off.
The provision has become symbolic of the battle for the future of a system unions say offers much-needed protection for workers but critics say shields only some privileged categories while condemning growing numbers to precarious, short-term jobs with few benefits.
In a television interview late on Wednesday, Monti repeated the government's line that there was no taboo over changing Article 18 but he has been careful to try to avoid making it the focus for a fight with unions.
He also said that young people had to get used to the idea that jobs are not necessarily permanent.
"A fixed job for life? How monotonous," said Monti, sparking angry reactions on online social networks and some mild criticism among the parties supporting his government.
"A fixed job becomes monotonous when you have one and you can look around. When you don't have one it is desirable," Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Party told journalists.
Fornero told the meeting at Monti's offices in Rome the government wanted to pass the reforms swiftly and hoped to have a package in place within two weeks.
The government has passed a 33 billion euro ($43.5 billion)package of spending cuts, tax hikes and pension reforms and has put forward a separate package of deregulation measures.
However, the labor reform package is widely considered to be the most difficult and potentially important element of his policies so far.
(Reporting by Alberto Sisto; Writing by James Mackenzie and Catherine Hornby; Editing by Sophie Hares)