Historically, the European agricultural sector is the one that has been keenest on harmonising working conditions with a view to improving them. Social dialogue in the sector brings together the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) for the workers, and the Employers' Group of Agricultural Organisations in the EC (COPA-COGECA) for the employers. Agreements on working time were concluded back in the 1960s. The next topics to be addressed were training, working conditions, social protection, the combating of undeclared labour, early retirement, etc.
We shall divide the history of sectoral social dialogue (SSD) in agriculture into four phases for the sake of convenience.
A “joint advisory committee on social problems of agricultural employees” was established as early as 1963. This committee was crucial to the implementation of social dialogue in the sector. It oversaw the conclusion of two major agreements: one in 1968 setting weekly working time in arable farming at 45 hours; the other in 1971 extending the first agreement to the animal husbandry sector. The joint advisory committee was institutionalised in 1974 in the form of a Joint Committee on Social Problems of Agricultural Workers (this joint committee, set up by virtue of Commission Decision 74/442/EEC, was replaced in 1998 by the current SSDC). In 1978 it updated the two agreements on working time, in the form of an agreement serving as a recommendation. This was the “Agreement on the harmonization of working hours of permanent agricultural workers in the EC arable farming sector”. Although according to the European Social Observatory’s classification this is a “recommendation”, it is very close to what would nowadays be described as an agreement based on Article 139 of the Treaty (no such legal basis existed at that time). The text is in fact both very specific – “The normal number of working hours, excluding overtime, shall not exceed 2,088 hours per year (40 hours x 52 + 8 hours)” – and binding: “the social objectives set out in this Agreement shall be wholly achieved within four years and shall be implemented by means of such national or regional measures as are appropriate” (our emphasis). This document, which was subsequently amended on several occasions, demonstrates just how keen the social partners were to harmonise, and thereby improve, working conditions in their sector. Moreover, in their joint opinions of 1979 and 1981 they emphasised the social aspects of the European Commission’s structural policies (with reference to the Rome Conference of 1961) and called on the Commission to prioritise the human rather than the economic aspects of the CAP.
An initial turning-point came in the 1980s, on the one hand owing to the enlargement of the EEC to take in Greece (1981), then Spain and Portugal (1986), but also on the other because of the crisis caused by agricultural surpluses. As concerns enlargement, the social partners adopted two joint opinions concerning surveys and studies on agricultural workers’ earnings and employment. Given the large numbers of seasonal workers employed in the newly acceding Mediterranean countries, the social partners called for this new situation to be taken into account so as to obtain more reliable data on employment in the sector (until then such surveys had covered only full-time permanent employees). We should not forget that seasonal work can often mask a growth in undeclared labour. As regards the crisis over agricultural surpluses, ancillary social measures were the main focus of attention from the social partners. Thus the 1986 Opinion concerning ancillary socio-structural measures under the common agricultural policy tackled head-on such issues as the setting up of an early retirement scheme, the development of measures in favour of young farmers, vocational training, etc. The 1980s likewise saw the introduction of a strong “health and safety” dimension into the SSD, through the adoption of joint texts on accident prevention (1981), safety requirements for the construction of agricultural buildings and installations (1982) and safety criteria for agricultural trailers (1984). A joint opinion on the social protection of agricultural relief service workers was also adopted in 1982.
Another turning-point in the SSD came during the 1990s, a decade marked by both a jobs crisis, the first major reform of the CAP and the effects of the GATT trade agreements. A succession of joint opinions ensued, relating to the social repercussions of the CAP reform, early retirement for agricultural workers, and the adaptation of workers’ skills to developments in agriculture. Throughout this period, and after the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty (1992) which put European social dialogue on a formal footing, the social partners sought to use the provisions of this new treaty for “the consolidation in Europe of a system of industrial relations that lends itself to a strong and effective social dialogue can constitute a fundamental contribution to a policy of renewal for agriculture” (Joint Declaration of 30 March 1995). The declaration put forward their priorities: training, a review of working time, working conditions and social protection, the combating of undeclared labour, early retirement, unemployment benefit for workers temporarily laid off, women’s work, etc. Following on from this declaration, they signed an important “Recommendation framework agreement on the improvement of paid employment in agriculture in the member states of the European Union” on 24 July 1997. This agreement contains provisions on paid employment in agriculture, the adaptation of working time, and working conditions (income, overtime, rest periods, night work and paid leave). With regard to working time, however, it is worth noting that the recommendation is less binding than the 1978 text, which laid down a deadline for implementation (see above). That is why the European Social Observatory classifies this text as a recommendation and not as an agreement, even though it is similar to one.
The fourth phase of this social dialogue began in 1998-1999, with the formal establishment of the SSDC and the adoption of its rules of procedure. Then came the adoption of a joint tool on vocational training and a statement on the employment of agricultural workers (2000) in the difficult circumstances of the “application of the Agenda 2000 measures, WTO trade negotiations, enlargement of the EU, technological upheavals, consumers’ new demands, etc.”. Another important document was adopted on 5 December 2002: the European agreement on vocational training. This agreement is classified by the European Social Observatory as a recommendation, even though it refers to the provisions of Article 139(2) of the Treaty, which makes it very much akin to an agreement. Like the 1997 recommendation, however, it does not set a deadline for implementation. Subsequent to this agreement, a joint tool on vocational training was adopted in 2007 (the Agripass CV).
Alongside vocational training, the topic of health and safety returned to prominence with the adoption of a Safety Manual for forestry work, as well as Instructions for spray operators (2001), a Declaration on best practices in health and safety (2004), a joint opinion on protecting workers’ health and safety from musculo-skeletal disorders (2005), and a European Agreement (classified as a recommendation) on the reduction of workers' exposure to the risk of work-related musculo-skeletal disorders in agriculture (2005).