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General overview of sector

The furniture industry, a highly labour-intensive sector in which certain processes are at risk of being relocated elsewhere, is a major player in export markets. It consists of a large number of SMEs, which are faced with the challenge of producing high-quality articles (in terms of technology, aesthetics, planning and design) for sale worldwide.

Work in the furniture sector mainly entails the assembly of various materials (wood, chipboard, plastics, metals, leather, etc.) to produce furniture (cabinets, tables, chairs, kitchen units, etc.).

This sector consists, in Europe, of many small and medium-sized businesses requiring a large workforce. Some of its processes can ‘easily’ be relocated elsewhere (manufacturing), whereas others cannot (design, distribution and marketing). The sector has more of a presence in certain countries such as Germany, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and – among the central and eastern European countries – Poland.

This sector lost more than 35,000 jobs between 2001 and 2003, primarily owing to strong competition from Asian countries where labour is cheaper. The EU-25 had around 1.3 million workers in the furniture sector in 2004. The majority of the 140,000 or so enterprises are small and medium-sized firms employing fewer than 20 workers. Almost all workers (95%) are employed on a full-time basis, and most of them are men with low or medium-level skills.

EU enlargement served as an opportunity to transfer the most labour-intensive work to the central and eastern European countries, where costs are lower.

This sector is a major player in export markets, yet at the same time globalisation and an increase in cheaper imports have forced the industry in Europe to seek competitive advantages and undertake restructuring. (See the FIRST [Furniture Industry in Restructuring: Systems & Tools] report: "A market-driven approach in the furniture industry").

Worldwide, furniture production in industrialised countries grew by 14.4% between 2004 and 2006, but in the emerging countries it grew by 57.4% in the same period. While the EU has managed to preserve its position as the world's number-one producer, with a 37% share of total output, Asia (27%) and NAFTA (29%) have become very serious competitors (2006 figures). Under these circumstances, the European industry is faced with the challenge of finding new competitive advantages (product differentiation, an analysis of demand-side purchasing factors, distribution and sales management, etc.).

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