Equal opportunities and collective bargaining in the EU

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Date of Publication: 27 april 1997


The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions is currently conducting a major research project on Equal opportunities and collective bargaining in Europe, co-funded by DG V of the European Commission. The aim is to assist in the complicated task of promoting equal opportunities for women and men by means of collective bargaining. The continuing project has at present reached the stage where the issues have been defined, and national reports drawn up by a network of correspondents, exploring the context of the issue in each of the 15 EU member states. A consolidated report on stage one of the project has been prepared by Yota Kravaritou of the European University Institute.

Here we take a brief look at some of the key points which have arisen so far from the research, drawing on the stage one consolidated report and the national reports. We can give only a very partial and selective view of the overall picture, and interested readers are referred to the original texts, which are available from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (see back cover of EIRObserver for contact details). While we thanks members of the project team for their assistance, the text and selection of issues in this summary is the responsibility of EIRObserver.

The context of persistent inequality

In all 15 EU member states, women have been increasingly involved in the labour market over the past few decades. Participation rates have soared in some countries (such as Greece, the Netherlands and Spain), and stand at levels exceeding 70% in most northern European countries. Women's participation is generally no longer regarded as "temporary", and women continue working when they marry and return after having had children. However, at the same time as entering and remaining in the labour market in ever-greater numbers, they still have what Yota Kravaritou calls "all the encumbrances of their traditional domestic and reproductive roles".

Despite their increasing presence in labour markets, women cannot generally be said to work in the same labour market as men. They are still by and large relegated to a secondary labour market, rarely holding the top jobs and being largely concentrated in the service sectors. Women also tend to be found in "precarious" jobs, where they are expected to be highly flexible and are covered by few legal guarantees and entitlement. There is a link between such "atypical" work and family responsibilities in all countries. Part-time work is an example of such precarious employment (though it is viewed more positively in the Netherlands and Sweden), as are self-employment and subcontracting. In countries such as Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, there are high levels of "new" and clandestine forms of employment, often performed by women, outside the coverage of collective bargaining and the law. Overall, the majority of women in precarious employment are not covered by collective agreements.

There remains a considerable gap between the pay levels of women and men (though this is narrowing in countries such as Luxembourg andthe Netherlands). In general, differentials are narrower in countries with a centralised system of collective bargaining (such as Italy), and wider in those with a decentralised system (such as theUK). In all member states, the proportion of women earning the minimum wage is high by comparison with men, and women generally live closer to the poverty line. Pay differentials between women and men tend to increase with age, in some cases because they are penalised when they interrupt their career for family reasons. Disparities may arise because of a lack of education and training among women, but overall this does not seem to be a major factor on its own (women's qualifications may be perceived to have a lower value than men's, for example).

Although Community law guarantees equal pay for men and women, inequality has been perpetuated by both structural and cultural factors. According to Yota Kravaritou: "the bargaining process itself, which is generally devoid of the perspective of equal opportunities, institutionalises discriminatory pay practices. The clauses of collective agreements not only codify differentials in pay and conditions on a sectoral or occupational basis between various categories of employee but also between men and women, who do not carry the same weight in negotiations." Decentralised bargaining cannot deliver progress on equal opportunities, and it is only if equal opportunities are integrated into collective bargaining at the highest level that pay differentials can be reduced, and the "discriminatory function" of bargaining can be curbed. Evidence that this idea has been taken up comes from the 1995 Swedish bargaining round, where higher pay rises were awarded to sectors where women were in the majority.

Women in trade unions

The level of unionisation among women seems to be broadly in line with that of men, though it varies considerably from country to country (there are no statistics available for some countries - perhaps due to a lack of "gender consciousness" among the organisations involved.) Globally, women's representation is more or less proportional to the active female population - though it is notably high in some countries (such as Finland and Denmark) and low in others (France, Greece and the Netherlands).

However, despite accounting for a sizeable proportion of union membership, women are severely under-represented in union governing bodies in all member states, although in some countries unions have attempted to guarantee a minimum level of female representation. Furthermore, women also lack representation proportional to their numbers in the negotiating bodies of unions, even in those occupations and sectors where they are in the majority. Although, there is less evidence about employers' organisations, it would appear that women are equally absent from important structures in such bodies.

Social partner attitudes

In almost all member states both employers' organisations and trade unions are in favour of equal opportunities, but the interpretation of the term differs from country to country and between the two sides. Employers, according to the consolidated report, tend to be in favour of equal opportunities only if it can further their economic interests. Unions, for their part, may encourage equal opportunities initiatives, but these translate into a "modest amount of action". Overall, the report describes action for equal opportunities as "limited and inconsistent".

Of crucial importance in discussing the extent and nature of equality bargaining is the fact that the social partners in the various countries have different views of equal opportunities, arising from the varying relationship between collective bargaining and legislation in this area. In southern European countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, the social partners discuss equal opportunities only as a marginal item, as the law plays the key role in seeking to achieve equality. The rare agreements on topics such as childcare and maternity essentially borrow provisions from the legislation in question. Similarly, in France, the Netherlands andItaly the existence of legislation is seen as preventing the social partners from regarding equal opportunities in much more than a token or symbolic light. In Austria, Luxembourg and Ireland, trade unions apparently have trouble regarding equal opportunities as other than what the report calls "a declaratory device". The situation is very different in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, where equality of opportunity is perceived as being largely integrated into the bargaining process, and the social partners regard it as their responsibility.

The bargaining context

Further key factors in the impact of collective bargaining on equal opportunities are national bargaining systems and the legal rules governing them. Also of importance is the prevailing climate surrounding bargaining, which across the EU is largely dominated by recession and restructuring in both the private and public sectors.

The relationship between law and collective bargaining varies widely between the member states, In countries such as France, Germany and Greece, the law plays a very important role in regulating conditions of employment, while in other member states - notably the Nordic countries,Italy or the UK- collective bargaining plays an equally important role in this area. Thus negotiating activity is not the same in all member states, which has implications for equality bargaining.

Bargaining coverage varies from country to country, with three main groups being distinguished:

  • countries where regulation through bargaining is sound and comprehensive - Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden and, to a lesser extent, Belgium, France and the Netherlands;
  • countries where the effectiveness of application of agreements is limited - Greece, Portugal and Spain- or patchy - Luxembourg; and
  • countries where collective bargaining is less important, and the employment conditions of much of the labour force (40% and more) are governed by the terms of their individual contract - Ireland and the UK.

In many countries, agreements may be extended to have legally binding effect on employers and employees outside the signatory negotiating parties. A further significant aspect of bargaining systems is the level of bargaining, with countries such as Denmark and Finland being relatively highly centralised, while others, such as the UK, are decentralised, with bargaining taking place largely at company level. Centralisation can have advantages for equality bargaining, with the parties being able to negotiate with a full view of the whole picture.

The relationship between bargaining and equal opportunities

Having briefly examined the background and context, the focus of our interest here is the relationship between equal opportunities and collective bargaining, and the extent to which the latter serves to promote the former. A very brief summary of the picture in each country, based mainly on the national reports, is provided in the table. Yota Kravaritou suggests a spectrum, giving a general picture of the relationship between bargaining and equal opportunities in the 15 countries. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden, the two are intertwined, as they are to a lesser extent in the Netherlands, while in Belgium, France and Italy, the two concepts are very close to one another. In Austria, Germany and Spain, bargaining and equal opportunities are farther apart, and the distance is even greater in Greece. In Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal, the two concepts seem to be strangers. Finally, there is the UK, which is something of a special case, though less isolated than it might appear.

The various models of equality bargaining are partly shaped by the existence of different legal frameworks for equality, with varying implementation of EC legislation. The consolidation report points out perceived inadequacies in the legal framework in a number of countries - including Austria, France, Greece,Portugal and Spain- with negative implications for the integration of equal opportunities and bargaining.

Although equal opportunities are perceived differently from country to country, as does the extent to which they are governed by bargaining, the nucleus of issues in equality bargaining in each country are affirmative action, sexual harassment and parental leave (plus working hours, though this is not always visible):

  • affirmative action is on the agenda in almost all member states, and has been introduced to some extent everywhere except Greece, Luxembourg and Portugal. It consists of programmed measures adopted by the social partners in countries such as Ireland, Spain and the Netherlands, while measures have been collectively agreed in response to legislation in countries such as Austria. In Belgium and Italy, social partners' initiatives in this area have flowed into legislative provisions (although in both cases affirmative action is seen as being marginalised within collective bargaining);
  • the idea of parental leave has been developed in the course of collective bargaining in all member states, with the emergence of new concepts of paternity and care leave. However, funding has been very patchy, especially in the souther member states; and
  • combating sexual harassment is a new issue, and its development in bargaining in some countries - such as Greece, Italy and the Netherland s - is largely a consequence of EC initiatives. In the Nordic countries, there is little specific reference at national level to sexual harassment, as it is seen as an integral part of equal opportunities.


Collective bargaining on equal opportunities exists in varying degrees in all member states, concludes the consolidation report, though it may lie under the surface of the bargaining system as it has not yet fully emerged or developed. However, even in the countries where it is most developed - such as the Nordic countries, Belgium and Italy- it remains "very limited or indeed marginal". It is in the countries where bargaining plays an important role in regulating employment conditions that the integration of bargaining and equal opportunities is most developed, with, for example, the inclusion of new issues (such as affirmative action or sexual harassment) in traditional bargaining processes. In countries where legislation plays a more important role in regulating employment conditions, collective agreements aimed at helping women combine work and family, or at encouraging the alignment of women's careers with men's, are regarded as promoting equal opportunities. While this makes some reference to equal opportuntities by considering the particular situation of women, the measures concerned merely "perpetuate the logic of the masculine norm".

Collective bargaining and the content of agreements remain male-oriented, and women are largely absent from, and silent in, the collective bargaining process. Although the situation varies from country to country, women are generally under-represented in the governing and negotiating bodies of social partner organisations. Agreements by and large give equal opportunities an exceptional or marginal status, and do not reflect women's needs. Where agreements do make equal opportunities provisions, these tend to perpetuate the existing male-centred ethos by giving women the opportunity to harmonise or combine family and work responsibilities - especially in southern Europe. Bargaining remains overwhelmingly dominated by a traditional outlook which has been rendered obsolete by social and economic developments.

However, there have been breakthroughs in traditonal industrial relations, notably collective agreements which: establish programmes of affirmative action, removing obstacles that prevent women from realising their potential at work on the same basis as men; deal with sexual harassment; or entitle fathers to take leave after the birth of children. The rewording of agreements in a sexually neutral manner is seen as another mark of progress in the erosion of the "male edifice" of bargaining. Equality bargaining, though, remains a minority activity, and in all countries, traditional bargaining persists, in whcih equal opportunities play a very small part.

For Yota Kravaritou, collective bargaining and equal opportunities still co-exist, rather than blending into a harmonious entity. In order to bridge the gap between them, bargaining needs to be modernised, notably through the training and installation of women as negotiators, who can "humanise" bargaining. This modernisation is essential if collective bargaining is to meet properly the needs of the women and men of the EU, and if the concepts of bargaining and of equal opportunities are to revitalise one another: "equality bargaining certainly has a future."

Table: Equal opportunties and collective bargaining in the EU member states

AUSTRIA Equal opportunities are interpreted very narrowly to mean equal treatment of men and women. Equal treatment legislation adopted in 1979 initially outlawed pay discrimination, and has since been widened to include issues such as equal treatment in entitlement to benefits, a prohibition of sexual harassment, a recognition of indirect discrimination, and the concept of equal pay for work of equal value. The effect on collective bargaining has largely been the removal of overtly discriminatory provisions from agreements - often through formal changes such as amending job titles and other gender-specific references. Such overt discrimination has not, however, been eliminated. Otherwise, there have been hardly any examples of collective agreements specifically including issues related to equal treatment.
BELGIUM Equal opportunities are not a normal part of the institutionalised system of collective bargaining and consultation. However, issues such as affirmative action, sexual harassment and night work are covered by legislation and have been initiated by, or raised in, collective bargaining. Notably, affirmative action was the subject of an intersectoral agreement in 1988, and is now integrated into bargaining over working conditions in general. Issues related to equal opportunities - such as measures to redistribute working time (through career breaks, part-time working etc) vocational training, labour market flexibility and childcare - do appear on the current bargaining agenda. However, there is little specific reference to equal opportunities, and the issue is still seen as marginal in overall collective bargaining.
DENMARK Equal opportunities are regarded as being largely integrated into collective bargaining. The key equality issues in bargaining are identified as pay/equal pay, maternity and adoptive leave, leave for care of children and other dependants, and training. Progress has been made in all areas, but is should be noted that there are discrepancies between agreements in the public and private sectors in areas such as maternity leave and care leave, with public sector workers enjoying superior provisions. The main trade union confederation and employers' organisations signed an agreement on equal treatment in 1991, which includes recommendations on issues such as sexual harassment.
FINLAND Equal opportunities are regarded as being integrated into collective bargaining. Central incomes policy agreements have been a key factor in promoting equality over the past two decades, with decisions taken on issues such as childcare leave, maternity leave and parental leave. There have been so-called women's pay awards - aimed (if only symbolically) at helping bring about equal pay - in the late 1980s and again in 1995, while the central social partners have also agreed on joint job evaluation schemes with the aim of equalising pay.
FRANCE Bargaining on equality is a creation of the law - both a variety of laws on collective bargaining with scattered references to equality, and a specific item of legislation dating from 1983 which specifies bargaining as the means of achieving sexual equality. However, despite the legal framework, bargaining on equality is assessed as weak at all levels, and the social partners give the issue little attention, with few explicit references in collective agreements (except essentially formal ones). A 1989 intersectoral agreement to promote equality has inspired very little action. Following a 1988 European Court of Justice ruling, the social partners have been removing discriminatory clauses from collective agreements, but this process has yet to be completed. Obstacles identified to an integrated concept of equality bargaining include: the fact that negotiations over a range of issues, including equality matters, are compulsory only in firms with 50 or more employees - thus excluding smaller firms, where most women are employed; and the low profile adopted by the Government and tripartite National Commission on Collective Bargaining in the control of extended agreements.
GERMANY Equal opportunities feature in collective bargaining, but overall bargaining policy is still seen as being shaped by traditional male-dominated models. Agreements providing directly for the advancement of women are rare, with a few examples at sectoral level (in food processing, for example) and a greater number of company-level initiatives. Company agreements, however, are still few and tend to be symbolic declarations of intent with limited impact. In recent years, bargaining in Germany has focused on working time reorganisation and reduction, pay and job security. Equal opportunities considerations have played a role in bargaining over working time, though no major advances have been made in the area of policy on pay structure. There has been progress in bargaining on issues like part-time work and parental leave, but the orientation is towards benefiting the family, rather than promoting equal opportunities
GREECE There is no contact between equal opportunities and collective bargaining. Collective agreements are largely limited to pay and working hours and, if they refer to equal opportunities, they merely reflect the legislation in the area implemented to conform with EC law. Equality is regarded as a matter of bringing women gradually into line with the status of male employees in the longer term. However, there are many collectively-agreed provisions which facilitate the reconciliation of work and family responsibilities for women, and a number of these have been extended in recent years to allow men too to take parental leave. The national general collective agreement for 1993 constituted a breakthrough in the relationship between collective bargaining and equal opportunities, obliging unions and employers to contribute to the promotion of equal treatment and opportunity, as well as making specific provisions on issues such as maternity leave, parental leave and sexual harassment. The agreement did not set out sanctions or specific programmes, and its provisions have not been taken up in lower-level agreements. However, the accord is regarded as paving the way towards equality bargaining, as in the banking sector, for example.
IRELAND Collective bargaining and equal opportunities are rarely linked. However, successive national central agreements since 1987 have made provisions on equality issues, such as training opportunities, positive action programmes, low pay and childcare and crèche facilities. In lower-level bargaining, progress on equal opportunities issues has been slow or non-existent on equal pay, sexual harassment, training, day childcare facilities, combining work and family responsibilities and maternity protection. A number of companies - some of which do not recognise unions - have taken a "proactive" approach to equality issues on a unilateral basis.
ITALY Equal opportunities issues have been on the bargaining agenda for some time and collective agreements have addressed issues such as sexual harassment, maternity leave, health, working time (eg, time off for family reasons, part-time work) and women's participation in traditionally male occupations. Voluntary initiatives on positive action preceded legislation on the topic in 1991. Bargaining has also seen the creation of consultative equal opportunities committees in most sectors (though these focus mainly on research, training and information). However, activity has largely been restricted to adjusting the traditional male-oriented bargaining model to women's work, rather than seeking to reorder the overall bargaining system to promote real equality. This process has seen the loss of traditional protective mechanisms (such as restrictions on women's night work), without them being replaced by genuine equality or specific policies for women. Overall it can be said that, despite some positive signs, equal opportunities policies tend to be "blocked by a general industrial relations culture that is indifferent to the subjects of difference and gender".
LUXEMBOURG Bargaining and equality seem to be almost entirely separate. Although the appliciiton of EC law guarantees that there is no overt discrimination in collective agreements , the possibilities opened up by 1981 legislation for promoting equal opportunities through bargaining have not been taken up by the social partners. There are a very limited number of isolated provisions in agreements on issues such as "social leave", re-employment after childcare leave, childcare facilities, sexual harassment and flexible working time. However there are still no collective agreements that express any "explicit wish to work on behalf of equal opportunities for women and men" or contain a "coherent plan of positive action to combat vertical and horizontal job segregation". It is, though, reported that the general climate on equal opportunities has begun to change for the better, which may have a favourable impact on collective bargaining.
THE NETHERLANDS Equality bargaining is well developed, with equality of opportunity being universally regarded as a principle to be observed in bargaining. Collective agreements deal quite extensively with issues such as equal treatment, affirmative action, part-time work, pregnancy, childbirth and parental leave, childcare facilities. sexual harassment and remuneration (though with relatively little progress). Equality is on the agenda of both employers' organisations and unions, though for different reasons and with different interpretations. Overall, a degree of equality bargaining seems firmly established within the broad Dutch bargaining agenda.
PORTUGAL Collective bargaining has not been an effective means of promoting equal opportunities and treatment, and legislation has played the main role in achieving advances in this area. Bargaining tends to be dominated by pay issues, and equal opportunities topics are "either seen as secondary, or are merely tackled on a formal level", often being abandoned in the negotiating process. Collective agreements and similar instruments do not contain statement of principle on the principle of equality, and where they cover equality issues they rarely go further than the statutory provisions. Many agreements contain provisions on maternity leave and attendant issues (often in traditional "women's rights" sections), and on time off to care for children and other family members. In the latter case, these entitlements are also granted to men, though in practice it is almost always women who exercise these rights, and who are penalised by losing a number of employment rights.
SPAIN Collective bargaining plays little or no role in achieving equal opportunities. Bargaining is fragmented and decentralised, and very limited in content, focusing mainly on pay, occupational categories and union rights. Little or no attention is paid to "women's issues" in agreements. Where equality issues, such as maternity and childcare, are covered by agreements, they rarely go beyond the legislative provisions. Problems with bargaining coverage and content mean that it is has often been necessary to fall back on the labour ordinances of the Franco era - which do not always comply with equality legislation - to regulate terms and conditions of employment . There are, however, a few positive signs such as agreements on positive action in the public administration and some large companies. The repeal of the labour ordinances may allow for more equality, and improved wage bargaining could remove discriminatory pay provisions, but in both areas there are still problems.
SWEDEN Equal opportunities issues - such as equal pay and positive action - was covered by collective bargaining (and notably a 1977 central agreement) prior to 1979. The Equal Opportunities Act of that year prompted the social partners to conclude agreements, covering all major labour market sectors, on active measures to promote equal opportunities. The Act essentially provided only that such measures should be introduced, and collective agreements could lay down a different form and content for the measures than that contained in the Act, thus avoiding supervision by the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman. It is argued that the agreements concluded in the wake of the Act are in reality "pseudo-agreements", which have "mainly been a method to avoid the structural elements in the Equal Opportunities Act and to retain the possibilities for the social partners to deal with this area". The results have been "extremely cautiously organised actions with few effects in changing gender relations", and there has been little local bargaining to flesh out the higher-level framework agreements. In 1994, the Act was amended, making the specific equal opportunities promotion measures compulsory, regardless of collective agreements. The law and the Ombudsman are the main driving force behind equal opportunities - for example, supervising active measures and ensuring that almost all workplaces have an equal opportunity plan.
UK EC equal opportunities legislation has played an important role in shaping collective bargaining on the issue. The Government has been required to introduce legislation providing for the annulling of collective agreements violating equal treatment principles, and condemning the discriminatory consequences of separate bargaining units comprising mainly men or women. Tribunal claims in equal pay for work of equal value cases have been a potential basis for bargaining over equal pay - with most unions pursuing a twin-track strategy of bringing tribunal cases and pushing employers for agreements. However, the gaps in the legal framework - especially with regard to family and care responsibilities - have been a key factor in prompting action by the social partners, including collective bargaining. Bargaining over equality has also been affected by factors such as economic recession (which has led to cuts in employers' equal opportunities budgets) and the decentralisation and fragmentation of employment structures. It should be noted that collective agreements cover under half of the UK workforce, and that bargaining is highly decentralised (with women often over-represented in areas outside bargaining coverage). Yota Kravaritou states that collective agreements on equal opportunities are" very limited in number and content and remain the exception".
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7 May 1997

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