ETUC adopts equality action plan

In September 1999, the European Trade Union Confederation executive committee adopted an equality action plan. The plan, which was originally discussed at the ETUC equality conference linked to its Congress in June 1999, aims to boost the position of women in trade unions and, more widely, in the workplace.

The executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted an equality action plan on 16-17 September 1999. The plan, which is intended to promote the participation and presence of women in trade unions around Europe, focuses on three main objectives:

  • ensuring that women are properly represented in bodies for collective bargaining and decision-making;
  • incorporating equality between women and men in all areas of trade union policy ("gender mainstreaming"); and
  • achieving equal pay.


ETUC notes that its action in this area was initiated with the adoption of an action plan for European female trade unionists in 1995. This original plan aimed to encourage ETUC and its member organisations to put into practice their commitment to the principle of equality between women and men, and set out a number of guidelines aimed at improving female participation in the decision-making process.

Four years after the plan's adoption in 1995, ETUC initiated an assessment study in order to review its implementation. The study found that some progress had been made, although much remained to be done in the areas of: female participation in decision-making; the proportion of women in negotiating teams; gender mainstreaming in trade union actions and policies; and equal pay for men and women.

The new plan

In the light of the study's findings, ETUC decided that a new equality plan would help to move the process forward and discussed and approved a draft at the equality conference linked to its Congress held in Helsinki in June 1999 (EU9907182F). The plan sets out ways in which the three abovementioned objectives can be met, together with a timetable for action, follow-up procedures and an evaluation process.

Proper representation in bargaining and decision-making bodies

ETUC's research, based on 50 affiliated trade unions and sectoral federations in 26 countries, has shown that although female membership of ETUC member organisations is increasing, women are still underrepresented in decision-making bodies, particularly in the case of collective bargaining. Although average female membership is 40%, less than a quarter of all senior leadership positions in trade unions are held by women and only two organisations surveyed have female general secretaries. The plan proposes to:

  • increase the number of women in decision-making bodies, with the aim of achieving a percentage which is proportional to the average number of female trade union members; and
  • increase the number of female trade unionists in all aspects of the collective bargaining process, from the preparation through to the negotiation and implementation stage.

ETUC notes, however, that the detail of how this is to be achieved - eg fixed quotas or reserved seats - will be left to individual affiliated members, in recognition of the fact that individual organisations are characterised by a variety of different experiences and conditions.

Gender mainstreaming

"Gender mainstreaming" is a concept which has been under discussion in an international context since the 1985 United Nations third world conference on women. At European level, it is a central plank of the European Commission's current fourth equality action programme (1996-2000) and the subject of the 1996 Commission Communication on Incorporating equal opportunities for women and men into all Community policies and activities (COM(96)67 final).

The ETUC women's committee has been active in trying to implement a system of gender mainstreaming in recent years, organising a variety of conferences and meetings to deal with this topic. However, ETUC notes that many trade unions still do not incorporate the gender dimension into their policies and actions and recommends that new mechanisms and procedures should be established in order to allow this to be achieved. It cites the necessary prerequisites in order to enable this to take place as:

  • creation of political will - making gender mainstreaming a political issue;
  • the collection of adequate statistics and information on the situation of women and men and on gender relations;
  • ensuring the necessary funds and human resources; and
  • ensuring that a greater number of women are present in the decision-making and collective bargaining process in order to be able to represent more fully the needs of women in a variety of policy areas.

Achieving equal pay

ETUC notes that widespread and in some cases widening pay differentials between women and men remain a serious problem and should be tackled by trade unions"as a matter of urgency". It argues that, according to data from the European Commission's 1998 Structure of earnings survey, these differentials are present in all Member States and that on average, the hourly pay of women working on a full-time basis is 27% lower than that of men. The gap is widest in the UK (34%), Greece (32%) and the Netherlands (31%). ETUC adds that there are no grounds for assuming that this pay gap will close progressively over time, as the pace of change is slow and uneven and pay equality is being halted or even reversed in some cases.

For ETUC, a key means of dealing with the pay gap is through the collective bargaining process - by ensuring that women's participation in the decision-making process is adequate and that gender mainstreaming is in place, the bargaining process will be more easily able to promote agreements which further pay equality between men and women. It cites the specific tools available to trade unions in the fight for equal pay as: statistics such as the Commission's abovementioned 1998 Structure of earnings survey; the EU Employment Guidelines to Member States, the fourth "pillar" of which calls on Member States to tackle gender gaps; and the Treaty of Amsterdam, which contains a specific legal provision (Article 141) to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.

The plan concludes that the causes of the pay gap between men and women are many and complex, and that trade unions should increase their efforts to find a solution. ETUC believes that the main way in which this should be tackled is through the medium of collective bargaining.

Follow-up and evaluation

Now that the plan has been formally adopted by the executive committee, ETUC and its member organisation will draw up more detailed proposals in order to implement the plan's aims. Interim reports, which will form the basis of a mid-term evaluation report, will be submitted to the ETUC women's committee by the middle of 2001. Follow-up reports will be submitted by the end of 2002 and the final evaluation of this plan will be published in 2003.


Great strides have been made over the past 25 years in the area of equality between men and women at the workplace as a result of the combined approach of legislation, collective agreements and a variety of social partner initiatives. Recognising that, despite a significant amount of progress, much remains to be done, ETUC has been actively involved in a range of campaigns to promote equality and this plan represents its latest thinking in this area.

The plan offers a sound and practical framework within which ETUC member organisations will be able to devise their own ways of implementing its aims. The three basic objectives of the plan - ensuring proper representation of women in decision-making, gender mainstreaming, and achieving equal pay - are all linked inasmuch as the basis for achieving greater equality is the greater involvement of women in decision-making. Once the culture of organisations and processes is altered to reflect more accurately the membership and general population, the attainment of goals such as equal pay becomes much easier. It is for this reason that the aim of involving women in decision-making is the constant thread running through this plan.

If the plan's aims are followed through at more local level by ETUC member organisations, it will certainly make a significant contribution over the coming four years to the lengthy process of achieving greater equality between men and women in all areas of working life. (Andrea Broughton, IRS).

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