New national agreement signed in commerce sector

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In July 2004, after eight months of negotiations, a new national collective agreement was signed for the Italian commerce sector . The main points of the deal include an average monthly wage increase of EUR 125, a one-off payment of EUR 400, the establishment of four joint bodies and new rules on various flexible forms of employment.

A new national sectoral collective agreement for commerce was signed in July 2004. It applies to a varied sector that includes both small businesses, with just one employee, and large companies. In total, the commerce sector has some 1,975,000 employees, while there are about 882,000 retail sales points and about 17,123 wholesale operations (data from the Confcommercio employers' organisation). 'Atypical' employment forms are very common among the workforce and are linked, in particular, to the seasonal character of some businesses and to opening and closing hours, which have expanded in recent years, especially in urban centres. According to a study conducted by the Italian Union of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Artisans and Agriculture (Unioncamere) in 2003, about 42.2% of companies have hired personnel on temporary employment contracts - fixed-term contracts, temporary agency work contracts, training and apprenticeship contracts and 'freelance work coordinated by the employer' (IT0308304F).

Employment levels in the sector are rising, but there are notable differences between the various subsectors. Unioncamere envisages a positive trend in employment for 2004, with much use of flexible employment: recruitment on open-ended contracts will remain below 60% of the total. The majority of temporary recruitment will be on fixed-term contracts (about 26% of recruitment, rising to 33.9% in the retail subsector) and apprenticeship contracts (about 10%, and 18.9% in the car- and motorcycle-repair subsector). According to Unioncamere about 10.5% of new recruitment will be on part-time contracts, rising to 21.2% in the retail subsector.

Negotiations

The new agreement for commerce was signed after eight months of talks and a number of strikes called by the trade unions, though the resumption of negotiations prevented a more severe conflict. The most contentious issues during the talks were the wage increase and the use of new forms of employment in application of the 2003 'Biagi' labour market reform legislation (IT0307204F). On the latter point, employers sought liberalisation of the commerce labour market while the unions wanted stricter rules for the new forms of flexible employment introduced by the law.

Tensions arose, more than once, among Filcams, Fisascat and Uiltucs, the three sectoral trade unions affiliated respectively to the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacato Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil). Divergences arose in particular about wage increases and bargaining schedules.

Divisions also emerged within the Confcommercio employers' organisation. Representatives of large-scale distribution companies saw the outcomes of the negotiations as too onerous and decided to oppose signature of the agreement.

Differences arose over statements by the Minister of Labour, Roberto Maroni, on the adoption of flexible employment forms, which the trade unions considered as an inappropriate interference in bargaining among the social partners.

The agreement

On 2 July 2004, the new national collective agreement for commerce was signed, more than a year and a half after the previous accord expired, by Confcommercio, Filcams, Fisascat and Uiltucs. Two related national agreements were signed after the commerce sector deal, covering distribution cooperatives and Confesercenti, the employers’ organisation that represents small and medium-sized businesses.

The main points of the new agreement are set out below.

Industrial relations

The agreement strengthens and extends the commerce sector's already well-developed joint practices. The accord creates four new joint bodies, composed of six members each, three appointed by Confcommercio and three by the trade unions:

  • an equal opportunities committee;
  • a national observatory to draw up and implement initiatives on employment, the labour market, training and vocational qualification;
  • a national joint committee in charge of examining and resolving any controversies among the partners at national and local level; and
  • a national committee for the development of social issues at European level, which will look at the transposition in Italy of agreements signed within the European sectoral social dialogue in commerce (EU0312208F).

Decentralised bargaining

The agreement defines the issues for territorial (ie covering a particular locality) and company collective bargaining:

  • at territorial level, it will be possible to negotiate agreements on active labour market policies, the application of legislative or administrative labour market measures and business opening hours; and
  • at company level, employers will have to provide information on contract work, outsourcing, reorganisations and the use of atypical workers.

Pay

Pay was the most debated issue during the negotiations. The agreement provides for an average wage increase of EUR 125 per month. Owing to the delayed renewal of the agreement, workers had already received a rise of EUR 14.46 in January 2003. The wage increase in the new agreement is calculated on the basis of: the actual inflation rate recorded in 2003; the rate of inflation predicted by the Istat statistical office for 2004; and a 2% rate envisaged by the social partners for 2005 and 2006. The partners will meet before 31 March 2005 to assess inflation performance. If the difference between the actual and predicted inflation exceeds 0.25 percentage points, the partners will meet to identify possible corrective measures. The agreed wage increase will be paid in instalments as follows: EUR 35 in July 2004; EUR 37 in December 2004; EUR 23 in July 2005; and EUR 30 in September 2005. Furthermore, a one-off payment of EUR 400 will be paid in two instalments - EUR 250 in July 2004 and EUR 150 in January 2005.

Labour market

In the new agreement, the commerce social partners have negotiated the criteria for implementing law 30/2003, the so-called Biagi law on reform of the labour market (IT0307204F) and have left to the local-level partners the possibility of further negotiations on these matters.

In the area of apprenticeship, the main novelties concern the extension of the maximum contract duration to 48 months instead of 24, and an increase in the number of instances of paid (at 60% of normal pay) sick leave allowed in a year, from three to six.

Workers on fixed-term employment contracts may not exceed 20% of the employer's workforce, compared with 10% under the old agreement, while temporary agency workers may not exceed 15% of the workforce. If both kind of contracts are used, the total number of workers involved may not exceed 28% of the employer's workforce. These limits will not be applied to new companies in their first year of activity. In their second year, any deviations from the limits will have to be negotiated with the local or company trade union representatives. There will be no maximum limits on the use of these flexible forms of employment where they are used to replace absent workers.

With regard to part-time work, as requested by the trade unions the agreement guarantees that where full-time vacancies arise, existing part-timers will have priority in filling them. Any shift to part-time work will remain voluntary

Sexual harassment and bullying

The new agreement includes a code on sexual harassment, transposing the principles of the November 1991 European Commission Recommendation (92/131/EEC) on the issue. The commerce joint equal opportunities committee (see above) will be responsible for the code as well as for all issues related to bullying.

Job classification

The commerce social partners will meet before the end of 2004 to decide on a new job classification system.

Reactions

Confcommercio and the trade unions are very satisfied with the new sectoral collective agreement and have expressed satisfaction at having resolved a very difficult conflict. Ivano Corradini, the general secretary of Filcams-Cisl, said that the deal 'is a very good agreement which guarantees workers’ rights'. According to Giorgio Santini, the confederal general secretary of Cisl, the agreement 'confirms the partners’ bargaining autonomy and lays a central and generating role'. According to Confcommercio, the agreement transposes the best points of the Biagi reform.

Commentary

During negotiations over the renewal of the commerce sector agreement, the social partners had to face a number of fundamental and divisive issues. These issues, which create divisions between and within social partner organisations, are pay policy and the regulation of flexible employment.

The debate among the social partners on pay policy concerns problems with the bargaining mechanism provided by the national tripartite agreement of 23 July 1993 (IT9709212F) on incomes policy, and possible modifications to it. The 1993 agreement provided that sectoral bargaining should be conducted in line with current incomes policy and a predicted inflation rate agreed upon by the social partners and the government. The centre-right government has not continued this practice and has set unilaterally the predicted inflation rate, which, according to many observers, is not very realistic. Moreover the government has not adopted the necessary measures to apply the predicted inflation rate to public services charges or to central and local authorities' tax policies. The difference between predicted and actual inflation has increased, and the trade unions have thus not accepted limiting their wage demands to the forecast inflation rate.

The commerce trade unions sought to negotiate wage increases linked to both predicted inflation and the current differential between actual and forecast inflation. Cgil was not initially in favour of this approach, but the situation was solved by introducing a 'guarantee clause' in the agreement. This provides for an assessment of any difference between actual and forecast inflation in March 2005. If the 'inflation differential' exceeds 0.25 percentage points, there will be an automatic adjustment, but if it is lower than 0.25 points the adjustment will be carried out at the end of the agreement's term. The partners have also decided to use a predicted inflation rate of 2% for 2005 and 2006, which exceeds that calculated by the government (1.2% and 1.5% respectively). Actual inflation for 2004 is 2.3% so far

Labour flexibility and the application of the 2003 law on the reform of the labour market was the other issue that created serious tensions among the social partners. The trade union organisations, with Cgil on one side and Cisl and Uil on the other, have different positions about this labour market reform. According to Cgil confederation, the 'Biagi' law encourages precariousness in the labour market. By contrast, according to Cisl and Uil the law launches a process of re-regulation of the labour market, which entrusts collective bargaining with the determination of companies' access to the new atypical forms of employment provided for by the legislation.

Negotiations over the application of the Biagi law's new labour flexibility provisions to the commerce sector were lengthy. The outcome is very positive because it adapts the Biagi law to the real conditions of this industry - eg it gives part-time workers priority for full-time recruitments, and improves sick leave rules for apprentices - and because it provides for the possibility of negotiating at local level the use of flexible forms of employment. The new agreement falls within a more general tendency which is gaining ground in Italy, that of increasing workers’ flexibility and security at the same time.

The talks in the commerce sector were long and difficult but produced a very positive and united outcome that highlights two points in particular: first, there are still some main strategic differences in the approaches of the trade unions, which coexist with their unity of action; and second, the government's economic policy indications are increasingly ineffective in guiding the decisions of the social partners. (Domenico Paparella and Vilma Rinolfi, Cesos)

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