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Brussels, 23 July 2010

Social affairs: Commission report on the sectoral social dialogue at European level

The European Commission has published today a staff working document on the sectoral social dialogue at European level. It aims to take stock of the main achievements of the European-level sectoral social dialogue and to review the functioning of its committees. The document highlights the dynamics, concrete impact and possible improvements of the sectoral social dialogue committees’ work and identifies possible improvements with a view to extending the scope and quality of the consultation and negotiation processes. Since 1998, the Commission has created 40 sectoral social dialogue committees. They cover 145 million workers in the EU and include key sectors like transport, energy, agriculture, construction, trade, fisheries, public services, metal, shipyards and education.

What is the sectoral social dialogue at European level?

European social dialogue refers to discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions involving organisations representing the two sides of industry (employers' and workers' representatives), the so–called "EU social partners". The sectoral social dialogue brings together the trade unions and employers' organisations in a specific sector (such as construction, textiles or hospitals) and is conducted through sectoral social dialogue committees.

The EU recognises social dialogue as one of the pillars of the European social model, and as a tool for social cohesion and resilience. The new Article 152 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (which entered into force with the Lisbon Treaty) highlights the EU's commitment to supporting European social dialogue and underlined the autonomy of the European social partners. In addition to cross-industry social dialogue, sectoral social dialogue is an increasing part of this European governance.

How does it work in practice?

European sectoral social dialogue committees are fora for consultations on European policies. They allow European social partners to develop joint actions and conduct negotiations on issues of common interest in their sector, thereby contributing directly to shaping EU labour legislation and policies. EU social partners are more and more involved in the EU decision-making process. They are consulted by the Commission on the principle and the content of any social initiative prior to other stakeholders and are closely involved in the impact assessment on social matters.

Sectoral committees can be created in a given sector at the joint request of the European social partners if they meet the following conditions:

  • they have national affiliate members in several countries who are themselves recognised as national social partners (representativeness at national level);

  • they are able to negotiate and to adopt agreements at European level (capacity to negotiate);

  • they have adequate structures and ensure effective participation (administrative capacity).

The Commission supports the creation and functioning of the European sectoral social dialogue in terms of legal and logistic assistance (meetings organisation, reimbursement of experts and interpretation).

What have they achieved so far?

This dialogue has produced more than 500 texts of varying legal status, ranging from joint opinions and responses to consultations to agreements that have been implemented as EU legislation. In this way, the European sectoral social partners have contributed to improving European employment and social policies, as well as working conditions in Europe. They have contributed to modernising industrial relations and to adopting new social standards. They will also contribute to the ‘Europe 2020’ strategy framework, thereby strengthening ownership and implementation of the strategy.

What are the concrete results?

The European sectoral social dialogue committees work on issues such as health and safety at work, vocational training, skills, equal opportunities, mobility, corporate social responsibility, working conditions and sustainable development.

EU countries have to implement five Directives as a direct result of legally-binding texts agreed by social partners in sectoral social dialogue committees:

  • to prevent injuries and infections to healthcare workers, estimated to be 5 million, from sharp objects such as needles– one of the most serious health and safety threats in European workplaces and estimated to cause 1 million injuries each year

  • to improve working conditions for the estimated 300,000 maritime workers across the EU, incorporating internationally-agreed standards into EU law

  • to set minimum standards for working hours and rest periods for maritime workers

  • to set minimum standards for working hours and rest periods for aircraft crews

  • to ensure satisfactory conditions (such as driving times, breaks and daily and weekly rest periods) for people working in cross-border rail services – estimated at around 10,000 workers in 2005 and projected to rise to 20,000 by 2020.

In addition to these and other formal agreements, social partners take other concrete measures at national or company level to raise awareness, support social dialogue at national/regional or company level or influence policy-making. Joint opinions, presentations of good practices or involvement in common projects (seminars, conferences, studies, workshops) offer opportunities for social partners to learn from one another and build trust. Examples include:

  • a framework agreement to reduce musculoskeletal disorders, such as back problems, for agricultural workers

  • recommendations on avoiding bogus self-employment in the construction sector

  • guidelines for promoting gender equality in local and regional government

  • a handbook for fishermen to help prevent accidents at sea

  • recommendations on better anticipating and managing restructuring in the textile industry.

Can the process still be improved?

Despite the overall success of these committees, there is still room for improvement. The Commission intends to encourage the European and national sectoral social partners to make full use of their capacity to negotiate, reinforce their administrative capacity and representativeness and create synergies between sectors. It will continue to foster integration of new players as well as better participation of new Member States' representatives.

This assessment of European sectoral social dialogue over the last 12 years shows the value of its contribution to the European social model. It shows that there is a direct correlation between the effectiveness of national social dialogue and effectiveness at European level, and that each energises the other. It highlights the need for sectoral social dialogue committees to face up to the need to adapt to new challenges and changes in policy. The current economic crisis has confirmed the importance of European social dialogue at both cross-industry and sectoral level, as well as the relevance of social partner initiatives tailored to the realities of companies and sectors.

Further information

European Commission staff working document: SEC(2010)964

European social dialogue:

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