Framework agreement in agriculture: a milestone in the European sectoral social dialogue

On 24 July 1997, the European social partner organisations in the agriculture sector officially signed Europe's first sectoral "recommendation framework agreement" on the improvement of paid employment in agriculture in the Member States of the Union. The agreement has attracted a lot of interest and could be seen as a model for other similar agreements. Here we chart the history of the agreement within the agriculture social dialogue, its content and the initial reactions from national and transnational social partner organisations and European institutions.

The conclusion in July 1997 (EU9707141N) of the recommendation framework agreement on the improvement of paid employment in agriculture stands at the end of a long process of negotiation between the European social partners in the sector. The partners are GEOPA- the Employers' Group of theCommittee of Agricultural Organisations in the European Union (COPA) - which represents those agricultural undertakings in Europe which employ paid staff, and the European Federation of Agricultural Workers' Unions (EFA), - one of the European industry committees of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Eurostat figures show that there are approximately 7.5 million individuals working in the agricultural sector in the European Union. Many of these undertakings are family-run and there are only approximately 2.5 million salaried employees in the sector. EFA estimates that the salary of an agricultural employee in Europe is 30% lower than that of an average employee. EFA reports also indicate a greater exposure to health and safety hazards among agricultural employees than the European average (eg through machinery and agricultural chemicals), greater risk of occupational injury and, significantly, a lower life expectancy than any other category of workers in the European Union. Training opportunities in the sector are also limited, thus rendering career progression difficult.

The history of the sectoral social dialogue in agriculture

When the original six Member States signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was the only genuinely common policy of the new European Economic Community. As a result, the sectoral social dialogue in agriculture - involving unions, employers and European Commission representatives - is the oldest and in many ways most institutionalised tripartite consultation process of its kind in Europe. It is organised in the form of a Joint Committee on Social Problems of Agricultural Workers which operates through a number of permanent working groups (employment, training, harmonisation, statistics, safety and health and forestry).

In the initial years of the EEC's operation, one of the main priorities of the social partners in the sector was securing higher prices for agricultural products through the CAP, which, it was presumed, would serve to safeguard employment in the sector. A priority of the trade union side, in attempting to protect employment in a sector which was rapidly declining in size in most Member States, was the reduction of working time. In 1978, a first "agreement" on working time was reached by the social partners. However, this merely had the status of a common declaration, without any real status in law or collective bargaining. The declaration was renewed in 1980 and 1981, when the debate on working time reduction began in earnest in many Member States.

In many ways, the European social dialogue in the sector and as a whole remained toothless until it was given new impetus in the mid-1980s by the new President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, himself previously an active trade unionist. Encouraged by the support from the Commission, EFA renewed its demands for real negotiations at the European level and on 15 February 1989, introduced its first specific demands regarding issues such as working time and annual holidays. Nevertheless, the employers were unwilling to accept the insistence of the trade union side on linking the working time question with other issues, such as safety and training, and argued that working time and working conditions were best negotiated at national, regional and individual level.

This lack of progress prompted EFA to issue a quasi-ultimatum to GEOPA in June 1994, within the framework of the harmonisation working group, in which the unions urged the employers' organisation to start negotiating in earnest. When this failed to bear fruit, EFA refused to endorse a new chair of the Joint Committee (chairs were nominated alternately every two years by EFA and GEOPA) at the Committee's plenary meeting in January 1995. According to the Committee's statutes, this meant that the existing (EFA-nominated) chair had to remain in place. In order to be able to continue to negotiate on issues such as training while proceedings remained blocked, the employers suggested that a technical working group on the working time issue be set up, separate from the joint committee - an idea which received the agreement of all the partners.

In June 1995, the Commission took the initiative to resolve the situation and urged the social partners to start negotiations - even if the outcome was to lead to the formulation of divergent opinions. This action was symptomatic of the social dialogue as a whole after the Maastricht Treaty on European Union and the European Council meeting in Essen in December 1994, which laid down recommendations on tackling unemployment, when the Commission became increasingly keen to see positive joint outcomes. Although in March 1995, the social partners presented a joint declaration on employment in agriculture, there was a desire to achieve more concrete outcomes.

A small working group was set up by EFA and COPA to establish a proposal for a common agreement, which effectively formed the stepping stone for the recent framework agreement. Over two years, this document underwent almost 20 draft stages, until agreement was finally reached in principle in February 1997. A period of consultation with national member organisations followed and the "recommendation framework agreement on the improvement of paid employment in agriculture" was officially signed by GEOPA, COPA, EFA and ETUC in the presence of Commissioner Padraig Flynn on 24 July 1997.

The content of the agreement

The agreement falls into two main parts, the first part outlines the challenges facing employment in the sector and provides contextual information on the European employment strategy. The second part contains the social partners' recommendations to be instituted through collective bargaining following the traditions of each Member State. It argues that any such measures should be concerned with:

  • improving the image of employment in agriculture;
  • promoting vocational training and skills;
  • preventing occupational risks specific to the sector;
  • identifying and implementing new types of employment contracts which both enhance competitiveness and boost employment in the agricultural sector, such as fixed-term contracts, part-time work, seasonal work and temporary work;
  • reorganising and improving the labour market; and
  • the demands of society concerning the environment and town and country planning.

The agreement recommends a wide exchange of information at national, regional and local level aimed at supporting employment creation in the sector, as well as the joint promotion and development of programmes, projects and initiatives under all the Community funds. In doing this, it is considered crucial that "synergy" with other sectors, such as rural tourism, the environment and regional development, are explored. The agreement calls on the Commission to consider the need to increase the competitiveness of farms in order to improve employment opportunities in the sector when framing the CAP. Equally, the social partners call for the extension to agricultural workers of the early retirement scheme laid down in Regulation 2079/92. The Commission and the Member States are called upon to find ways to lessen or eliminate the devastating effects of illegal and undeclared work in the sector.

The framework agreement recommends that its provisions be considered in any negotiations between social partners organisations at the national, regional or local level in the Member States when negotiating their collective agreements. In particular, it is recommended that these take note of the recommendations on working time contained in the agreement. These encourage the reduction of weekly working time to 39 hours, increasing the number of days of paid leave and increasing the number of statutory and traditionally paid holidays. Significantly, the agreement also calls for greater flexibility of working time provisions and the annualisation of working time. Annual working time is to be 1,827 hours, which can be achieved by either reducing weekly working time to 39 hours or arranging working time more flexibly to suit the needs of agricultural production.

Furthermore, the agreement contains recommendations on a guaranteed income, overtime, rest periods, night work, periods to be considered as working time, paid leave and paid public holidays. Finally, the agreement stipulates that it must not be used to justify a reduction in the overall level of protection provided and that its provisions are to apply equally to all individuals regardless of age, sex, nationality or duration of employment contract.

Initial responses

The agreement was disseminated to all member organisations and spokespersons for EFA and GEOPA stated that its provisions have been very well received at national level. At a press conference held following the signature of the agreement on 24 July, Commissioner Flynn welcomed the agreement as "an important and concrete improvement in employment conditions for agricultural workers".

Due to the interest in the agreement on the part of the Commission and other social partner organisations, a special meeting is to be hosted later this year by Commission President Jacques Santer. Further feedback from the member organisations of EFA (SE9708134N) and first impressions of the impact of the agreement on the sector at national level will be presented at the EFA congress in November 1997 in Vienna.

Commentary

The agreement reached by EFA and GEOPA may go down as a seminal achievement in the history of the social dialogue. Its background highlights the difficulties in achieving concrete recommendations in the sectoral (as well as the intersectoral) social dialogue and the important role played by the Commission in encouraging this process. As was the case in relation to the framework agreements on parental leave and part-time work (EU9706131F) concluded between ETUC, the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP), this new agreement shows the importance of compromise in achieving tangible outcomes at this level.

GEOPA/COPA has long been keen to cooperate on European funded projects, which EFA has been unwilling to do in the absence of a commitment from the employers to more concrete negotiations at European level. The endorsement of flexible forms of working in the agreement was also a primary concern of the employers' federation and is a demand which has in recent years increasingly been conceded by trade unions at the national and European level, following the formulation of the Essen recommendations. On the trade union side, the issue of working time reduction and the improvement of working conditions and training provision has long been a priority. Common concerns surround the eradication of illegal labour and improvements in innovation, competitiveness and quality.

It remains to be seen how this agreement will be implemented at the national level, but it appears likely that the sectoral social dialogue will increasingly yield such employment-promoting recommendation framework agreements, particularly in the run-up to and aftermath of the "European Employment Summit" in November 1997, and in response to the continuing unemployment crisis. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd)

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