The European social dialogue in commerce: an expanding agenda

Approximately 16% of workers in the EU are employed in wholesaling and retailing, making commerce a key sector in terms of measures to encourage employment creation. There has been a long-standing concern in the European social dialogue in the sector over the improvement of standards in vocational training, particularly to enable workers to remain competitive and deal with new challenges, such as electronic commerce. For the last few years, the key priority of the dialogue has been employment, while other areas of activity include child labour, racism and xenophobia and preparations for the accession of new EU Member States. We review the position of the commerce dialogue in summer 1998.

The commerce sector currently employs approximately 22.5 million workers and thus accounts for over 16% of employment in the European Union. Just over 65% of this employment is in retailing and approximately 35% in wholesaling. In retailing in particular, there is a predominance of young and female employees, many of whom work part-time or on fixed-term contracts. The commerce sector is therefore particularly affected by EU legislation on "atypical" employment relationships - such as the part-time work Directive (EU9712175N) and the current negotiations between the social partners on fixed-term contracts (EU9804198N). The internal market has also had an important impact on the sector, and in future, the accession of countries in Central and Eastern Europe will also have an effect.

Like most other European industries and services, the commerce sector has been undergoing significant restructuring and the general trend has been towards diversification and globalisation. The increasing use of technology has significantly shaped employment in the sector.

The social partners

The social dialogue in the commerce sector currently takes the form of an informal working party, which was originally set up (in retail) in 1985. Following the European Commission's second Communication on the social dialogue, issued in May 1998 (EU9806110F), this informal working party will - on the request of the social partners - be transformed into a sectoral committee. The social partners are represented by EuroCommerce on the employer side and Euro-FIET on the trade union side.

Euro-FIET (the European Regional Organisation of the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees) was set up in 1972 and represents approximately 6.5 million workers affiliated to 145 trade unions organising workers in the private sector in 35 European countries. Because the organisation covers a wide variety of sectors, the work of Euro-FIET is done primarily in trade sections representing the interests of employees in banking, insurance, industry, commerce, cleaning, private security, healthcare, tourism, hairdressing and beauty treatment. A number of working groups have also been set up to serve the interests of young people, women and professional and managerial staff.

EuroCommerce was set up in January 1993 by the European Retail Confederation (CECD), the Federation of European Wholesale and International Trade Associations (Fewita) and the European Group of Integrated Distribution (GEDIS). The organisation represents small, medium-sized and large companies in the retail, wholesale and international trades in all EU Member States and EFTA countries as well as in some Central and Eastern European countries. EuroCommerce has a number of policy committees dealing with a wide range of issues, including:

  • social affairs;
  • legal/consumer affairs;
  • food law;
  • international trade,
  • environment;
  • logistics and physical distribution;
  • electronic commerce;
  • the euro single currency;
  • fiscal affairs;
  • new methods of payment; and
  • wholesale and small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) matters.

Historical development

As was the case in many sectors in the early days of the European sectoral social dialogue, until early 1995, discussions between the social partners in the commerce sector centred essentially on the issue of vocational training. In October 1988, the retail informal working party issued a joint memorandum on vocational training which sparked a host of subsequent activities. In June 1990, a forum was held in Brussels to decide on the follow-up to the memorandum, and national round tables were subsequently held to discuss its implementation. The working party also completed a number of transnational projects: a project co-financed under the Euroform Community initiative focused on training for managers and employees from SMEs; while a project on distance learning in commerce was funded under the EU's FORCE programme, with the results subsequently diffused through a LEONARDO project.

In 1990, a study was carried out which focused on the challenge for the retail trade posed by the single market.

Another priority has been this issue of violence against shop workers and in the retail environment in general. The social partners issued a joint statement on combating violence in commerce in March 1995. The statement calls on all parties concerned to ensure a safe shopping and working environment and aims to raise awareness of the problem of increasing aggression and violence facing workers in the retail environment, as well as thefts and burglaries from shops, vending machines and delivery vehicles. It calls for measures at the national and company level to identify the risks, to reduce them and to deal with any after-effects.

The social partners, have always emphasised the important role played by the European commerce sector in terms of employment. They have therefore for may years been keen to stress the importance of the involvement of their organisations in discussions on matters with an impact on employment and working conditions in the sector, and have given this issue of employment prevalence in their sectoral social dialogue. In October 1995, EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET signed a joint opinion on the future social dialogue in commerce, addressed to the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) preparing the revision of the EU Treaties. This opinion called on the IGC to retain the rights granted by the Maastricht Treaty to the social partners - ie the right to be consulted on all social policy matters and the opportunity to replace proposed Community legislation with agreements. It also states that it is important that both social partners in commerce play a role and are fully involved when European initiatives are being discussed which have an impact on commerce.

Commerce and the wider dialogue

EuroCommerce has repeatedly voiced its dissatisfaction at its exclusion from negotiations under the Maastricht Agreement on social policy, arguing that itself, and not the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), represents the interests of companies in the commerce sector. The organisation has long pressed for the creation of a "hard core" of the most important employers' organisations, which will represent employers in the central European-level social dialogue as well as in all consultative fora at European level. Thus in 1995, EuroCommerce and its member federations protested against the framework agreement on parental leave (TN9801201S) concluded by UNICE, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP), arguing that this agreement had been reached without proper representation from employers in the commerce sector.

It was for the same reason that the organisation rejected the same parties' agreement on part-time work (EU9706131F). When the Commission's consultation process on part-time, fixed-term and temporary employment began, EuroCommerce underlined that commerce is particularly affected by a possible EU instrument as it employs a large number of part-time employees. It was for this reason that EuroCommerce asked UNICE to be involved in the ensuing negotiations which led to the conclusion of the European framework agreement on part-time work in June 1997. However, EuroCommerce participated only as an "expert". Even though EuroCommerce considered that this was a step in the right direction, it was seen to be insufficient in the longer term if the European social dialogue was to thrive.

In a strategy paper adopted at its Cardiff congress in March 1998, Euro-FIET stressed that: "It is important that the ETUC and the UNICE and CEEP are given every opportunity to develop the social dialogue provisions of the Maastricht Treaty. It is equally important that when negotiations have been concluded, a sectoral dialogue takes place to negotiate implementation of the agreement in the sectors and to provide an opportunity to improve its content." Euro-FIET should be represented in the negotiating process when issues of particular relevance to its members are being considered.

The Commission's second Communication on the social dialogue emphasises the autonomy of the social partners in deciding who should sit at the negotiating table. A June 1998 ruling by the European Court of Justice in relation to a case (T-135/96) brought by the European Association of Craft and Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (UEAPME) challenging the parental leave agreement (EU9807121N) is regarded by the Commission as strengthening this position. However, while the judgment places the current negotiation process under the Maastricht Treaty on a firmer footing, it leaves the door open to other organisations able to prove that their members are not represented by UNICE or another of the negotiating parties. In relation to sectoral negotiations, this has been an option since the Agreement on social policy annexed to the Maastricht Treaty came into force. However, in general the Commission considers that it should always be taken into account whether or not such agreements are best reached at intersectoral level before developing a piecemeal approach at sectoral level.

Current priorities

Employment

On 5 November 1996, the social partners adopted a joint opinion on promoting employment in European commerce (signed on 7 February 1997). The joint opinion emphasises the significant employment growth which could be achieved in Europe, particularly in SMEs in the service sector. It criticises measures taken in many Member States, which reduce consumer spending, thus having a negative impact on consumption. Further to the European Council's Essen recommendations on employment policy and the Commission's Confidence pact for employment initiative, the social partners highlight the need to take into account the characteristics of the wholesale and retail trade in developing multiannual employment programmes and, to this end, to consult the social partners on all European initiatives. They recommend that greater attention be paid to vocational training programmes and initial training, especially geared to jobs in the distributive trades. In the joint opinion, the social partners commit themselves to a wide-ranging debate with the European Commission on the impact of the development of the European commercial sector on employment, to enable the social partners within the EU and individual Member States to determine measures to be taken to promote and protect employment in the European wholesale and retail industries. A major European conference will be organised in 1998 with a view to identifying the measures needed to promote employment in European commerce.

In 1997 and 1998, the work of the social dialogue continued to focus on employment, with an "action research" project which looked at the employment consequences for the sector of a number of important changes currently under way:

  • electronic commerce (Internet shopping, electronic self-scanning devices etc);
  • the introduction of the euro;
  • part-time work; and
  • new forms of work organisation.

The results were presented in a joint contribution to the European Council's Luxembourg Employment Summit in November 1997 (EU9711168F). In a joint letter, Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce underlined the need to take the wholesale and retail trades seriously in any employment policies and measures and to include both social partners in any consultations concerning employment protection and creation. In a meeting on 10 November 1997, the social partners underlined this demand and criticised the Commission (DGXXIII) White Paper on European commerce for failing to take into account employment aspects of commerce development. They stressed the need to pay much more attention to education and vocational training.

The social partners, with the assistance of the Commission, organised a conference on the challenge of electronic commerce. The event was hosted by Euro-FIET's and EuroCommerce's national affiliates in Athens, Greece on 6-7 April 1998. EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET had commissioned a background report for the conference. The report, which was drafted by researchers at Athens University, attempted to analyse the effect of the increase in electronic commerce on different "stakeholder" groups. Concern was particularly expressed about the impact of Internet shopping and introduction of devices such as self-scanners on employment. The conference emphasised the importance of taking into account the social aspects of the expansion of this new form of trading, particularly the employment impact on small retailers. So far, discussions on electronic commerce were perceived to have focused too much on the security aspects of such forms of trading and had ignored the social implications. Euro-FIET stressed the need for controlling the introduction of new forms of electronic commerce through agreements between the social partners, in order to avoid such adverse effects on employment and working conditions. The social partners stressed the need for increasing investment in education in training in order to ensure that the sector can meet the challenges posed by such new technologies, and the need to diversity. On behalf of Euro-FIET, Jan Furstenborg of the commerce trade section presented the following recommendations to the conference:

  • the background report should be translated into other EU languages and published by the social partners and the Commission;
  • electronic commerce should be discussed at the meeting on the future of European commerce which is to be held in the autumn of 1998;
  • Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce should jointly ask the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for the inclusion of the social dimension in the agenda of the intergovernmental meeting on electronic commerce which takes place in Ottawa in October 1998;
  • Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce should look at the possibilities of concluding a European agreement on telework based on the collective agreements between the Italian social partners in commerce (IT9707118N); and
  • Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce should commission a survey on the effects of electronic commerce on the employment and working conditions of women employees.

The social partners have submitted a large bid to the Commission for a training project on electronic commerce to follow up the Athens conference and the report by Athens University.

Racism and xenophobia

At their sectoral social dialogue meeting on 10 November 1997, and in recognition of the important role played by the industry in combating racial discrimination, EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET decided to establish a working party to look at the issues of racism and xenophobia and the actions which could be taken in the sector to come to grips with this serious problem.

Central and Eastern Europe

EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET are also preparing an initial series of round-table conferences with their counterparts in Central and Eastern European countries (Estonia, Czech Republic, and Hungary). The first such event took place in Estonia in May 1998 and meetings in Prague and Budapest are currently in preparation.

Child labour

The social partners in the commerce sector have been concerned about the problem of child labour, particularly in the developing countries, for many years, while FIET has been running a long-standing campaign against the use of child labour. On 8 March 1996, EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET signed a joint statement on combating child labour. In the statement, the partners emphasise that the exploitation of children, which prevents them from enjoying a normal adolescence and education opportunities, is a violation of the fundamental principles of human rights. The statement underlines that where child labour exists, the countries concerned have a duty to combat the exploitation of children which is in violation of their human rights. It also supports the growing consumer demand for goods obtained from sources which do not exploit child labour and supports the objective that, whenever, possible, it should be avoided to deal with goods produced in contravention of children's rights.

In November 1997, a joint project on child labour was launched. With support from the European Commission, the social partners will produce a combined study and discussion document on how European retailers and wholesalers can give best possible support for the global campaign to end the abuse of children as labourers. The main aim of the study is to identify actions which have been taken by employers and trade unions in the commerce sector which have not only succeeded in raising awareness among consumers, but which have actively contributed to improving the situation of child labourers, for example by providing them instead with access to education and training.

In June 1998, EuroCommerce launched a recommendation on "Social buying conditions", encouraging its members to ensure contractually that goods purchased from non-EU countries are not manufactured by prison, forced or child labour. The recommendation is the first of its type to be adopted at the European level covering the entire sector of European commerce. It is intended to help individual companies and associations to draw up, on a voluntary basis, their own codes of conduct or social buying conditions, setting an EU-wide standard, without preventing individual firms from going further. Many European importing firms are already applying policies which aim to ensure that certain labour standards are respected by their suppliers.

For EuroCommerce, the main features of the recommendation are that it:

  • covers both child labour and forced/prison labour. It thereby goes "an important step further" than the 1996 EuroCommerce declaration on child labour;
  • is precise as to the social standards concerned, mentioning explicitly the International Labour Organisation Conventions Nos. 138 (child labour) and 29 and 105 (forced labour);
  • covers not only the supplier in the third country, but also the supplier's subcontractors involved in production;
  • provides for a control mechanism in the form of random inspections at any place of production;
  • by aiming to combat child and forced/prison labour practices, targets the "most appalling violations" of human dignity; and
  • by concentrating on these labour practices, avoids the risk of being "overambitious and therefore not enforceable".

At the same time, EuroCommerce is "realistic about what such conditions can achieve":

  • such measures may reach workers employed in the export business. However, contrary to common belief, only 5% of child labour takes place in sectors producing for export; and
  • social standards and their non-respect are directly linked to poverty and lack of educational facilities. Their improvement is therefore a long-term process.

EuroCommerce argues that the most effective way to improve social standards is targeted development aid to fight poverty and to strengthen educational systems. Moreover, open markets in the EU and in other industrialised countries are essential for export earnings and for investment in better working conditions.

Commentary

Despite its importance in terms of employment, it is felt by the commerce social partners that the sector, and the views of the organisations representing its workers and employers, are insufficiently acknowledged at European level. The social dialogue between Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce has made significant progress over the last few years and is being expanded to cover an increasingly wide agenda. More and more, their work is looking beyond the current boundaries of the European Union, with efforts to develop links with representative organisations in the accession states, and the coverage of global concerns such as child labour. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting)

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