Sectoral Social Dialogue: The promising side of industrial relations in the EU

Since it was set up in the 1990s, sectoral dialogue has clearly gained the upper-hand over cross-industry dialogue. [John McSporran/FLICKR]

The 44 Sectoral Social Dialogue Committees promote better working conditions in sectors as varied as the chemical industry or the footwear sector. It enjoys a lot of support and has received rave reviews but currently only affects a limited number of sectors. reports

Of the two levels of social dialogue established in the European Union during the 1990s, sectoral dialogue has clearly gained the upper-hand over cross-industry dialogue.

Sectoral dialogue is less politicised, more in tune with economic realities and ultimately more extensive and efficient.

“The 2008 crisis strengthened the role of sectoral dialogue. By affecting almost all sectors it accentuated the need for social partners to find common orientations and positions to influence policies. In an unfavourable economic climate, defending industries also means defending jobs”, says Sylvain Lefebvre, deputy general secretary of IndustriAll European Trade Union.

Three-quarters of the EU workforce

As a representative federation of millions of European workers in industrial and manufacturing sectors, IndustriAll participates in a dozen of Sectoral Social Dialogue Committees (SSDC). Sylvain Lefebvre himself sits on several of them..

SSDCs were created by the European Commission in 1988 as joint committees involving employees and management, to rationalise, at European level, a dialogue that had previously been conducted informally in some sectors.

Since then a total of 44 SSDCs have been set up, which has allowed European social dialogue to expand gradually to cover areas as diverse as shoe-making, telecommunications, gas, shipbuilding, the performing arts and even professional football.

According to the Commission, the scope of these committees covers more than three quarters of the EU’s labour force. Other SSDCs could be formed in the future, particularly in the glass sector where social partners are discussing the idea.

Although the creation of sectoral dialogue committees has to be approved by the the EU executive, which provides logistical support (translators, meeting rooms, transport funds, etc.) and financial aid for their work, such committees are a mark of the independence of social partners.

Comprising a maximum of 54 members, split between trade union representatives and employer representatives, they meet for two working sessions and one plenary session every year.

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More than 30 years after it was launched by Jacques Delors, the European social dialogue is still struggling to reach workers. This is the main finding of a detailed survey published this week by Humanis. EURACTIV France reports

Developing common/joint texts

The aim of these meetings are to find common ground in key areas for their sector, whether they relate to health and safety issues, training, employment, working conditions, or future challenges such as digitalisation. These meetings give rise to a broad range of texts, agreements, recommendations and common positions or statements.

A total of 847 joints texts have been adopted so far by the European sectoral social partners according to a calculation made in 2017 by the European Trade Union Institute.

These texts may be addressed to the sector itself, committing it to various degrees to a given objective. This was the case of the Code of conduct adopted by the footwear industry in 2000, inspired by the standards defined by the International Labour Organisation and which different countries have implemented in their own way (in Italy it was included in the industry collective bargaining agreement).

Joint defence of sector interests

But in the last few years, the SSDCs have increasingly tended to produce texts aimed at an external audience, in which the social partners jointly address the European institutions in order to defend the interests of their sector.

Is this lobbying? “Call it what you want, but the goal is to make our voices, as experts, heard, as the people working within companies both as employees and within management, about the possible social consequences of issues being considered by the Commission, such as climate change” says Sylvain Lefebvre.

Extensive interaction with the Commission

The SSDCs are free to develop their own rules of procedure and determine their own work programmes. Nonetheless, interaction with the Commission takes place, as the SSDCs can be consulted by it. If they wish they can also nominate one of their representatives to preside over them.

In the same way, they do not hesitate to invite to their meetings the representatives of the Directorates-General dealing with subjects of interest in their sector.

“Social dialogue is and always has been of benefit for both sides of our industry”, says Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano, the secretary general of COTANCE, the European Leather Association.

”But it is also the only instrument of industrial relations that allows the leather sector to benefit from visibility with the Commission. In addition, it is thanks to the SSCD that we can invite Commission representatives to keep us informed on, for example, the results achieved in free-trade negotiations, which are a crucial issue for us.”

The end of European labour agreements?

Barely a dozen sectoral agreements have been finalised ever since social dialogue was established in Europe. The social partners’ contradictory objectives and the progressive disinvestment of the European Commission are to blame for this.

Uneven activity from one sector to another

Conditioned in part by the EU’s political agenda, activity varies sharply from one SSDC to another. In the gas sector, for example, social dialogue is on standby. Eurogas, the employer’s organisation, has decided to pull out of investments.

On the other hand, the chemical sector’s SSDC, on which IndustriAll and the ECEG (European Chemical Employers Group) sit, has turned out to be one of the most prolific SSDCs in terms of joint positions and declarations since it was set up in 2006.

Those positions and declarations have focused on health and safety, climate change, the revision of carcinogens and mutagens directive and youth, and the committee has lots more projects for the future.

”The extremely positive relations we have built within the chemical sector’s SSDC have positive spin-off at national level. When dialogue works well at European level it works well at national level and vice versa”, says Emma Arguytan, the general director of ECEG.

Other SSDCs, such as the one recently created for the paper sector, still need to prove their worth. “We need to give social partners enough time to get to know each other. Social dialogue is not innate, it has to be built and earned”, states Sylvain Lefebvre.

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