Gender equality slowly gaining ground in collective agreements

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A report by Spain's Economic and Social Council, published in October 2003, finds that provisions on equality between men and women are beginning to gain ground in collective agreements at sector and company level. In the opinion of the CES, the situation is 'modest but hopeful'.

In late October 2003, the Economic and Social Council (Consejo Económico y Social, CES) approved a report on collective bargaining as a mechanism for promoting equality between men and women. This is the first report on this subject drawn up by the CES, a consultative body of the Ministry of Labour on which the social partners are represented.

The report was drawn up at the express request of the Ministry of Labour, due to the incipient but increasing role that is being played by gender equality in intersectoral collective bargaining (ES0311205F). The central agreement signed by the social partners to provide a framework for lower-level bargaining in 2002 (ES0201207F) was the first intersectoral agreement to establish gender equality as an aim, thus establishing the importance of collective bargaining at all levels in promoting equality between men and women. This approach was reinforced in the 2003 central agreement (ES0302204F), which established more precise guidelines and examples of 'good practices' as a reference for negotiating collective agreements.

The report drawn up by the CES assesses the impact that these two intersectoral agreements are having in collective agreements at sector and company level and offers the joint view of the social partners on the potential of collective bargaining as an instrument for promoting gender equality at work.

Assessment of the situation

The CES's general assessment of the situation is 'modest but hopeful'. This conclusion was reached as a result of studying a large number of recent reports on equality issues in bargaining drawn up by various actors and institutions - the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO), the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT), the Spanish Confederation of Employers' Organisations (Confederación Española de Organizaciones Empresariales, CEOE), the Fundación 1º de Mayo and the National Advisory Board on Collective Agreements (Comisión Consultiva Nacional de Convenios Colectivos).

The general conclusions are that:

  • there is still a residual presence of direct discriminatory clauses (such as the presence of 'female categories of work') in some agreements, above all in sectoral agreements at provincial level and company agreements;
  • most agreements make no reference to equality between men and women;
  • some agreements make general declarations in favour of gender equality or refer to the current legislation; and
  • a minority of agreements include clauses that improve on the current legislation, sometimes introducing innovative measures. Though these agreements are few in number, some of them have traditionally played a pioneering role in collective bargaining as a reference for other agreements. This is the case, for example, for the national sectoral agreement for the chemicals industry (ES0107153F).

Main improvements and innovations

The most frequent improvements on the current legislation in collective agreements are those relating to reconciliation of work and family life (ES0209103F). Improvements have been introduced particularly with regard to extending paid family-related leave or applying it in cases not provided for in the legislation. On this point, the CES report coincides with other studies in pointing out that the 1999 law on reconciliation of work and family life of 1999 (ES9911165F) has had a positive effect on collective bargaining, stimulating the inclusion of this topic and other aspects related to gender equality in a large number of collective agreements (though only a minority introduce improvements on the legal provisions).

The more innovative measures include the following:

  • positive action in access to work, by establishing that if two persons are equally suitable priority will be given to the least represented sex in the enterprise;
  • systems of job-evaluation that give a certain recognition to skills that are considered traditionally 'female' and are undervalued (though strictly neutral systems in relation to gender have not yet been introduced in collective agreements);
  • positive action to encourage men to exercise their employment rights in relation to reconciling work and family life. Such initiatives are becoming more frequent in the bargaining commissions for civil servants and public employees. They are generally accompanied by other improvements in relation to paid parental leave;
  • clauses that define sexual harassment, and, in some cases, establish procedures for counselling victims; and
  • establishment of joint bodies as mechanisms to deal with gender discrimination. In some cases, the agreement explicitly assigns this function to the relevant joint commission - the body representing the signatory parties to a collective agreement which is responsible for monitoring, interpreting and applying it. In other cases, it has been agreed to create a joint commission specialising in gender equality. In some agreements, this commission is empowered to issue reports on cases of discrimination and to make proposals for eliminating them.


The CES report makes a thorough analysis of the treatment of gender equality in collective agreements, giving specific examples of 'good practices' in each area. It also makes recommendations on questions which might be considered that are not currently dealt with in bargaining.

In relation to the dynamics of collective bargaining, the report states that there is a need to reach a greater balance between the number of men and women on bargaining commissions and to promote measures to deal with cases of gender discrimination, either through the existing joint commissions or through new, specialised joint commissions.

The recommendations of the CES are also very relevant with regard to the action of the public authorities, in particular the labour authorities and the Labour Inspectorate (Inspección de Trabajo). The report makes a precise diagnosis of the role played by these institutions and makes a large number of recommendations, including:

  • to improve training in gender equality in these institutions;
  • to foster a more active role for the labour authorities in carrying out legal control of agreements with regard to detecting and remedying cases of indirect gender discrimination;
  • to improve the statistics on collective agreements in two particular areas - information on the content of the clauses related to gender equality, and information on the presence of women on bargaining commissions;
  • to establish gender equality among the specific objectives and campaigns of the Labour Inspectorate and in particular to foster awareness-raising, information and dissemination of the current regulations by this body, as opposed to its current role of merely imposing penalties; and
  • to reinforce the interaction between public equal opportunities bodies and the social partners, allowing the social partners to play an active role in the design and introduction of programmes aimed at fostering gender equality at company level.


The CES report shows that the recent intersectoral agreements are having a positive impact on collective bargaining at sector and company level. This is not only because they establish general guidelines on gender equality, but also because they show a greater sensitivity towards this question by the employers' organisations and trade unions, which is also apparent at other levels. Other initiatives of a legislative nature are also having a positive impact, such as the 1999 law on reconciliation of work and family life.

However, the CES report also states that the changes are slow and that the burden of sexism is still important. Women are still a minority on bargaining commissions, most agreements do not deal with gender equality and very few include measures that improve on the current legislation.

In this context, the CES report is particularly important because it shows that there is also room for improvement in the action of the public authorities. If there is really a political will to promote collective bargaining as a mechanism for achieving equality between men and women, they must establish clear objectives, provide more training and give more means to the labour authorities and the Labour Inspectorate so that they can act more effectively in this area. The social partners should also be given the chance to participate fully in the design of public policies on gender equality at work (Maria Caprile, CIREM Foundation)

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