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Participants and challenges

An initial “informal working group” was set up in 1985 by the social partners in the commerce sector, who had first made contact with one another in 1983. At that time the participants were Euro-FIET (now UNI-Europa) for the trade unions, and three employers’ organisations – CECD, Fewita and GEDIS – which founded EuroCommerce in 1993. This embryonic social dialogue was officially recognised by the European Commission in 1990.

The main topic addressed at the outset was vocational training for workers, particularly in the run-up to completion of the single market in 1992. This resulted in the signing of the first joint document: the Memorandum of 19 October 1988 on training in the retail trade. It begins with the words: “If the Community’s commitment to the achievement of the internal market by 1992 is to be realized (…), then particular attention should be drawn to the freedom of movement of workers”, and hence also to their vocational training. Various projects on the same topic ensued: a European forum, national round tables, a sectoral survey, etc.).

A new topic emerged as from 1993, namely violence in shops. It was the subject of a joint declaration adopted at a plenary meeting on 9 March 1995 (and then, in 2009, a “toolkit”; see below). It was decided at that same plenary meeting to add three new topics of discussion to the sector’s agenda: child labour, employment and the future of social dialogue. Even then, the social partners were visibly eager to gain recognition for the specific nature of their sector, and hence of their sectoral social dialogue. In their joint opinion on the future social dialogue (October 1995) they “find it important that the interests of commerce are fully represented in the interprofessional social dialogue”. Generally speaking, the employers and trade unions in commerce and distribution concur that their sector is often under-rated. That is one of the reasons why they have endeavoured to develop a dynamic, high-profile social dialogue, having been one of the first sectors to set up a Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee – SSDC – as early as 30 November 1998. Sometimes the commerce sector has even been one step ahead of the cross-industry social dialogue: their joint document on telework, adopted in 2001, is a case in point, with the cross-industry players having followed suit in 2002.

We cannot describe here all of the numerous joint documents signed over the course of the past ten or fifteen years (26 altogether by the start of 2010). But what we can do is draw attention to two characteristics: a continuous broadening of the topics addressed, and a reasonable balance between texts constituting reciprocal commitments between the social partners and ones geared to lobbying.

Concerning the reciprocal commitments, we would single out those on the prevention of racial discrimination (1 October 1997), the combating of racism and xenophobia (15 May 2000), violence at work (9 March 1995), age diversity (11 March 2003), the integration of disabled people (28 May 2004), corporate social responsibility (5 November 2003) and telework (26 April 2001). A representative of EuroCommerce, interviewed by the European Social Observatory, was of the opinion that all of these documents can be ranked in order of importance, beginning with the one on telework, then the one on corporate social responsibility, followed by the guidelines on age diversity and the declaration on racism and xenophobia. Another important document, classified by the European Social Observatory as a “tool”, was adopted in 2009: a “toolkit” on preventing third party violence in commerce. It is a fact, according to the European Commission, that more than 3 million people working in the commerce sector in Europe have fallen victim to some form of violence.

In addition to these numerous documents reflecting a certain amount of reciprocal commitment, there are several joint opinions, in which the social dialogue is more geared to lobbying the European institutions. We might mention, without being exhaustive, the joint opinions on promoting employment (27 October 1995), on the “services” directive (29 July 2005), on social inclusion (28 February 2008), on migration and mobility (12 December 2008), and on the economic crisis (18 December 2008).

It should also be noted that careful preparations were made for enlargement of the EU to take in the central and eastern European countries, by means of a series of round tables in the candidate countries: Estonia and Hungary (1998), Czech Republic and Poland (1999), Lithuania and Slovakia (2000), Latvia and Slovenia (2002).

Finally, the SSDC’s future priorities relate to active inclusion (integration of migrants and gender equality), intergenerational solidarity, safety in the working (and shopping) environment, the wholesale trade, supply chains and skills requirements, cutting red-tape for SMEs in the sector, help for new and future Member States, and last of all the practical implementation of social dialogue outcomes. It is highly likely, however, that the economic crisis which erupted in 2008-2009 will be added to this already very full agenda, in the guise of lobbying activity on issues such as support for consumption, taxation, access to credit, and so on.

ETUI and Observatoire Social Européen (2010) European Sectoral Social Dialogue Factsheets. Project coordinated by Christophe Degryse, online publication available at www.worker-participation.eu/EU-Social-Dialogue/Sectoral-ESD