Commerce social dialogue agrees on fundamental workers' rights

The social dialogue in the European commerce sector, between EuroCommerce (for employers) and Euro-FIET Commerce (for employees) has developed further over 1999. Notably, in August it produced an agreement on fundamental rights and principles at work, covering the elimination of forced labour, a ban on child labour, the elimination of discrimination, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Topics for future social dialogue discussion in this sector include racism, teleworking and the situation of older workers.

The European-level social dialogue within the commerce sector has recently made significant progress, including the conclusion of a "landmark" agreement on workers' rights. The agreement on fundamental rights and principles at work was signed on 6 August 1999 between EuroCommerce, representing employers in the European retail, wholesale and foreign trades, and the commerce section of the European Regional Organisation of the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees (Euro-FIET), which brings together trade unions representing private sector services and white-collar workers across Europe. From the beginning of 2000, FIET is merging with three other International Trade Secretariats to form Union Network International (UNI), and as a result Euro-FIET will be renamed UNI Europa Commerce (EU9909192N)

The European commerce sector employs some 22.5 million workers, representing 16% of total employment in the EU, and EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET Commerce state that they are keen to promote the European social dialogue in the industry, which has been developing fast over the past few years.

Social dialogue in commerce

Sectoral social dialogue in the commerce sector was first established in the mid-1980s and has since produced a variety of agreements, joint opinions and declarations on a range of subjects, including child labour, employment, training and violence at work (EU9807115F).

Social dialogue in this sector entered a new phase following the European Commission's Communication of 20 May 1998 on Adapting and promoting the social dialogue at Community level (COM(98)322) (EU9806110F) and its subsequent Decision 98/500/EC on the establishment of sectoral dialogue committees to replace existing dialogue arrangements at sector level (EU9902150F). Thus, on 30 November 1998, EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET Commerce concluded an agreement to establish a formal sectoral dialogue committee to replace their informal working party. This committee is consulted on developments at Community level which have social policy implications and is responsible for developing and promoting the social dialogue in this sector. In the agreement setting up the sectoral dialogue committee, the social partners state that their priority for topics for discussion within the framework of the dialogue are:

  • employment promotion;
  • electronic commerce;
  • enlargement of the EU;
  • child labour; and
  • racism and xenophobia.

The structure of the social dialogue set out in the agreement includes an annual plenary session, which is the main steering body of the dialogue. This is complemented by bipartite working groups focusing on specific issues. In 1999, focus groups were established in areas such as: employment; education and vocational training; electronic commerce; racism and xenophobia; child labour; and wholesale trade and commercial sales agents.

Agreement on workers' rights

The recent agreement on fundamental workers' rights is seen as reflecting the efficacy of the social dialogue in commerce and meeting the concerns of the social partners. It builds on the social partners' joint statement of 8 March 1996 on combating child labour and also a follow-up to the EuroCommerce recommendation of June 1998 on social buying conditions, covering child, forced and prison labour.

The agreement enshrines the four sets of rights defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in itsDeclaration on fundamental principles and rights at work. The ILO Declaration, which was signed at its conference held on 2-20 June 1998, reaffirms the rights contained in the following ILO Conventions:

EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET Commerce state that the aim of the agreement on workers' rights, which was formally signed on 6 August 1999, is to "lend support to innovative measures aimed at promoting fundamental rights at work worldwide".

Under the terms of the agreement, the social partners state that their members should encourage companies and workers in the commerce sector to abide by and promote the following rights:

  • the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
  • the effective abolition of child labour;
  • the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; and
  • freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.

While the social partners recommend that their members develop their own codes of conduct for business relations with third countries based on the above, they acknowledge that it will be easier for large companies to implement direct measures to avoid dealing with products that are manufactured in violation of ethical labour standards. Nevertheless, the social partners state that small and medium-sized companies are also covered by the general objectives of the agreement.

The agreement is now subject to the approval of the member organisations of EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET Commerce and both have recommended that their members endorse the accord. The social partners have agreed to review and evaluate the implementation of the accord on a regular basis and, within the framework of their European social dialogue, undertake any consequent necessary action.

Developing the social dialogue

Following the successful conclusion of this agreement on fundamental rights, EuroCommerce and Euro-FIET Commerce are keen to develop their social dialogue further. At a plenary session of their social dialogue forum on 29 September 1999 in Brussels, the social partners agreed to pursue a series of further objectives. They agreed to negotiate European framework accords on "distance work with computers" - telework - and on protecting older workers in the context of structural and technological changes, and discussions have since occurred on these issues. Meanwhile, it was reported at a social dialogue meeting on 24 November that a draft agreement on combating racism and xenophobia had been sent out to members for ratification.

At the session on 24 November, Euro-FIET Commerce and EuroCommerce also discussed their current electronic commerce project (EU9905172F). Along with three research institutions, the social partners - with European Social Fund support - will try to define how four occupational profiles in commerce are being changed by technology developments, and then look at how vocational education and training should reflect these changes. Euro-FIET also reports a "lively discussion" about the aims of the social dialogue on employment, with union representatives raising issues such as the need to protect urban commerce areas and ensure the access of commercial workers to high-quality employment, and the nature of European agreements (asking how they can be better implemented at national level). The meeting also stressed the importance of the enlargement of the EU to include central and eastern European countries, and round-table meetings with commerce social partners in these countries will continue in 2000 (EU9808123F).

A major conference will be held in Lisbon on 14 April 2000 to examine structural and technological change in commerce. Representatives of employers and unions will discuss how jobs can be protected and new ones created, and attempt to provide an input to the EU's efforts to promote employment.

Commentary

This latest agreement ion fundamental workers' rights represents a significant step in the development of the social dialogue in commerce. The accord will serve to raise the profile of fundamental workers' rights throughout Europe at a time when the Council of Ministers is considering including a charter of fundamental rights within the European treaties (EU9910202F). This accord is also a sign that the social dialogue continues to thrive in the pioneering commerce sector.

The social dialogue process in commerce will no doubt retain this momentum over the coming months, due to the commitment of the social partners to address other important issues, such as racism, teleworking and older workers. (Neil Bentley, IRS).

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