Building the European social dialogue in construction

The sectoral social dialogue process in the European construction industry began formally in 1992. The improvement of employment opportunities through vocational training has been a priority in the dialogue in this key sector for employment creation. There has also been a long-standing concern in the dialogue with training in relation to health and safety issues. Other areas of concern up until 1998 have been skills shortages and the coverage of self-employed and transfrontier workers by social protection systems.

The European construction sector generates some 26 million jobs directly and indirectly, representing 20% of the total workforce in the European Union. This employment is broken down as follows: 9.6 million direct jobs; 2.5 million direct jobs in the building materials and product sector; and 14.3 million indirect jobs in other supplier sectors. Direct jobs created have a multiplier effect in generating indirect jobs, making construction a key sector in terms of measures to encourage employment creation. Construction is mainly a local activity, with only a few large firms - 97% of businesses employ fewer than 20 people. However, by virtue of subcontracting arrangements, small firms are often dependent on large firms. Many workers are employed on temporary contracts or as self-employed workers, and will thus be affected by European legislation on "atypical" employment relationships (such as current negotiations on fixed-term contracts - EU9804198N).

There is great uncertainty as to how the construction market will develop in the future, as it is highly dependent upon economic growth rates and the level of public expenditure.

The social partners

The social dialogue in the construction sector currently takes the form of an informal working party (soon to be replaced - see below), which was originally set up in 1992. The social partners are represented by the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC) on the employer side and the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW) on the trade union side.

FIEC, created in 1905, is active in 23 countries (14 in the European Union, 3 in EFTA plus Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) and brings together 30 national federations representing firms of all sizes, from all building and civil engineering trades, and using different working methods (general contractors as well as subcontractors).

EFBWW was set up in 1958 and had grown from nine member organisations to more than 50 by 1992. Its original aim was to collect and disseminate information. Over the years, its range of tasks has become diversified, now including its role in the social dialogue and in developing a European trade union policy for the woodworking and construction sectors. It is a European industry federation affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Structure and priorities of the social dialogue

FIEC and EFBWW initiated the social dialogue independently of the European Commission, holding meetings within working parties on employment and training, health and safety and social systems, plus a technical group on social systems under national collective agreements.

A meeting held on 22 May 1992 to analyse a study conducted by the Commission on employment and skills shortages in the construction trades marked the "official" start of the social dialogue in construction. The early days of social dialogue in the sector mainly centred around issues of health and safety and vocational training, which have remained a persistent theme on the social partners' agenda.

Since 1997, the social partners have also been holding plenary social dialogue meetings. Furthermore, the informal working party, along with its counterparts in other sectors, is soon to be transformed into a "sectoral dialogue committee", according to the Decision attached to the Commission's May 1998 Communication on Adapting and promoting the social dialogue at Community level (EU9806110F). The new committees, it is planned, will provide a single, streamlined model for dialogue in all sectors.

In 1997, EFBWW and FIEC issued a joint position in relation to September 1996's first Commission Communication on the future of the social dialogue (EU9702102F), in which they underlined their desire to continue to determine the themes of their social dialogue themselves. At the same time, they asked to be more directly associated with the specific themes for the sector in the framework of the European social dialogue. To that end, they argued that a better coordination between the work of the various Commission Directorates-General with an impact on the sector was required. They welcomed in particular an initiative by DGIII to contribute to a better coordination through a "construction contact point".

Health and safety

Health and safety has featured as a prominent concern of the construction dialogue right from the beginning, as witnessed by its working group on the subject. This concern derives from the fact that construction is a high-risk sector - arguably this is often due largely to insufficient skills on the part of workers, exacerbated by the situation that work on site brings together several trades, which are often insufficiently coordinated, leading to inadequate compliance with rules and regulations.

On 22-23 November 1994, a seminar on health and safety at work was organised by the social partners at Pont Royal (France). The aim of the seminar was to enable the social partners and accident-prevention specialists to exchange experience, discuss the impact of Community Directives on the sector and pinpoint the consequences in terms of health and safety training. At the end of 1994, the Commission provided financial support for the participation of representatives of the social partners, as observers, at a seminar in Bolzano (Italy) on a "pilot worksite", with a view to defining priorities for integrating risk-prevention into all stages of a construction project.

More recently, the social partners have been concerned with how to implement the 1992 Directive on the implementation of minimum safety and health requirements at temporary or mobile construction sites (92/57/EEC). A seminar was held in 1996 on the transposition of a range of Directives specific to this sector, including the temporary or mobile worksites Directive. The two sides have proposed successfully that self-employed workers should be covered by the Directive.

At the seminar on health and safety in construction, which took place on 10-11 October 1996 in Lisbon, the social partners issued a communication on health and safety in the construction industry. In the communication, the partners emphasised the importance of the interchange of skills among those involved in the industry, in order to bring about change and help foster the development of new policies to protect against and prevent occupational hazards. The communication also stated that the social dialogue process would in future focus. among other items, on the impact of the temporary and mobile worksites Directive on health and safety in the construction industry and the progress and difficulties in relation to the implementation of this Directive. Other priorities should be awareness-raising and health and safety training.

In this respect, the social partners have been working on a Europe-wide study evaluating the priority needs in terms of skills and training in the construction industry.

Another concern in the area of health and safety has been to have wood dust included in the list of agents which may be carcinogenic, in relation to the 1990 Directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens at work (90/394/EEC).

Vocational training and employment creation

Following on from the first "official" social dialogue meeting in 22 May 1992, a conference was organised in Brussels, concerning vocational training in the construction industry on 4-5 March 1993. The conference informed participants on developments in Community training policy and discussed the possibility of setting up a European network project involving vocational training providers in the construction sector.

More recently, at the initiative of DGV of the Commission, a seminar was held on 24 -25 March 1997 in Brussels on "vocational training and access to employment in the construction sector". Approximately 100 participants, both from the EU Member States and Central and Eastern Europe, attended the seminar, which was organised in the framework of the sector's European social dialogue.

At the seminar, construction was recognised as a sector with characteristics that do not encourage investment in vocational training - such as the fact that the majority of undertakings are SMEs and the existence of subcontracting relationships, coupled with the temporary and mobile nature of worksites and the high level of mobility within the sector. At the same time, the sector is undergoing changes which demand greater investment in training - for example, the ageing of the working population in the sector and the lack of young people entering, which has exacerbated the problem of skills shortages.

Contributions to the seminar argued that vocational training could make a positive contribution to solving the problem of access to training and employment in the sector. The seminar was also seen as vital in providing the social partners in the construction industry with an opportunity to obtain and share information about the latest experiments in employment and training, and to present their proposals and suggestions, with a view to enhancing the measures envisaged in these fields. Jan Cremers, the secretary general of the EFBWW, highlighted the growing mobility within the construction industry and called for the "Europeanisation" of vocational training systems.

The seminar concluded with the proposal of three measures to be supported by the European Commission:

  • a comparative study on national vocational training instruments in the construction sector, based upon work already undertaken by CEDEFOP;
  • promoting the exchange of experience via the social dialogue, based on a collection of innovative measures in respect of vocational training undertaken by the sector's social partners; and
  • in view of the sector's high mobility, the development of close cooperation between social partners at European level in order to promote new methods of validating skills acquired and increase the transparency of vocational qualifications between the Member States.

Plans are currently under discussion with DGXXII of the Commission for a joint project on vocational training.

Coverage of transfrontier workers

The construction industry has been witnessing growing levels of geographical mobility, leading to the posting of workers across national frontiers, and this has raised the issue of the application of national provisions and collectively agreed social systems. In 1997, the social partners adopted a joint position on the application of the Directive on the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services (96/71/EC). The Directive requires the application to posted workers of the collective agreements and regulations on minimum wages in force in the the host country. The joint position recommends, in addition, the establishment of some coordinating principles at the European level in order to guarantee social protection for posted workers, while avoiding the imposition of double taxation for companies which send their workers to another Member State. Such coordination is proposed through bilateral agreements prepared by the construction social partners in the various Member States.

The issue of "social dumping" arising from the use of cheap unprotected labour from third countries is currently a topic under discussion and the social partners are hoping to draw up a joint opinion on illegal work by December 1998.

Commentary

The content of the sectoral social dialogue in the construction sector is strongly influenced by the industry's high levels of mobility, which make the need for provisions on the recognition of vocational qualifications and on the posting of workers particularly important. The payment of low wages and the withholding of access to social security benefits in a well-known problem in the sector. The influx of non-EU nationals working in the "shadows" of the market is also increasingly posing a problem, and not only because of the high health and safety risks associated with working on construction sites. Competition in the sector is increasing and dependence on economic growth and public finance is unabated, making the European social dialogue particularly important. (Peter Foster, ECOTEC Research & Consulting Ltd)

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