Unprecedented challenge to social dialogue in hairdressing sector

In December 2012, the social partners in the hairdressing sector – Coiffure EU and UNI Europa Hair and Beauty – issued a joint statement about their April 2012 European framework agreement. The agreement aims to establish health and safety rules for hairdressers and was expected to form the basis of an EU directive, but it has been challenged by some Member States who oppose any form of regulation in the sector. This is seen as an unprecedented development in the EU social dialogue.

Background

The EU-level sectoral social partners in the hairdressing sector – Coiffure EU for employers and UNI Europa Hair and Beauty for trade unions – signed an agreement on health and safety in their sector in April 2012 (EU1205031I). The agreement covers issues such as the use of chemicals and irritating substances, ergonomics and working time, and will be implemented by a European directive to become binding in Member States. It reinforces protection for pregnant women and calls on suppliers to research ways of producing less harmful products.

The European Commission is currently examining the agreement with a view to making it into a binding directive through the procedures provided for by Article 155(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

Agreement comes under fire

However, in October 2012, UNI Europa Hair and Beauty issued a press release stating that the agreement had come under attack from some EU Member States.

The Dutch government had proposed the submission of a joint letter by EU Member States opposing any form of regulation in this area. They wanted the Commission to reject the social partners’ request to make the agreement binding. It was thought that the UK, German, Estonian, Finnish, Swedish, Romanian, Croatian, Slovenian and Polish governments had indicated their willingness to sign such a letter.

At the time, Oliver Roethig, UNI Europa Regional Secretary, said:

We need to be very clear: we will defend our commitment for a stronger and healthier hairdressing sector against this unprecedented attack. [This] initiative is driven by the political will to undermine the EU’s social dimension. It is using the current crisis as a pretext to dismantle achievements that have been at the very core of the EU’s success and are so much needed in turning towards a new policy for growth, jobs and social inclusion. This attack by the Dutch government shows total disrespect for the work done by social partners.

In late November 2012, Coiffure EU and UNI Europa Hair and Beauty issued a joint statement (96Kb PDF) in defence of their agreement.

Addressed to the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, László Andor, the social partners said they found it:

...regrettable that some European governments try to prevent, even before the European Commission has completed their dossier, that this framework agreement becomes a directive in accordance with the possibilities vested in the social dialogue system.

They stressed their view that the agreement would make the hair and beauty sector a better place in which to work, to the benefit of all hairdressers in salons and approximately 350 million potential clients in EU Member States. The social partners also stressed the importance of this sector, which has an estimated 400,000 salons and a workforce of over a million in the European Union.

Reducing risks

The social partners in this sector said they believed their agreement gave clear guidance to hairdressers on how to work in a way and in an environment that is healthy and safe. They stressed that the agreement was the result of an autonomous initiative on the part of the workers and employers, and built on existing national best practices in the Member States that had effectively reduced occupational health risks. In particular, the agreement addressed specific risks such as the use of chemicals, and dealt with products and tools to protect the skin and respiratory tract. It also addressed the need for sufficient space and ventilation in salons where chemical substances were transferred and mixed.

The social partners said their initiative should be applauded by all responsible politicians.

Commentary

This is new territory for the European sectoral social dialogue. An agreement concluded between social partners has never before been challenged by EU national governments.

A legal expert at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), Stefan Clauwaert, commented that this development was ‘absolutely unprecedented’, adding that it constituted a dangerous precedent because it could lead to an ‘unravelling of the whole social dialogue at European level’.

It would seem that the outcome of this challenge is likely to become a test case that may determine the future development of the European social dialogue.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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