Companies in the contract catering sector project a brand image focusing on their “social” and local role – providing services for authorities, schools, the elderly, etc. – but this image masks the presence of what are mostly huge multinational corporations: Sodexo, Compass, Aramark and others.
European-level social dialogue in this sector began informally in September 1998, when the social partners adopted a joint opinion arguing in favour of a reduced VAT rate for contract catering. This initial joint document, addressed to the European institutions, strongly emphasises this social image: the sector presents itself as “a labour-intensive activity which offers employment opportunities to a segment of the population with low employability, little if any skills, composed mostly of women”; contract catering “meets a prime social need”.
After the adoption of this first document, the social dialogue moved on to a range of subject areas such as vocational training (1999 declaration), food health and safety (2000 joint opinion), public procurement (2006 tool and, later, 2009 joint opinion; see below), corporate social responsibility (2007 recommendation), and public health and obesity (2007 declaration). But not until October 2007 did the social partners formally establish their Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee (SSDC) and adopt their rules of procedure.
The next point to note is the social partners’ desire to work on a cross-industry basis, especially as regards the award of contracts. To this end, the contract catering sector embarked on talks with the private security and industrial cleaning sectors. This cooperation resulted, in April 2008, in the adoption of a joint declaration by four sectors: private security (CoESS/UNI-Europa), contract catering (FERCO/EFFAT), industrial cleaning (EFCI/UNI-Europa), and textile and clothing (EURATEX/ETUF-TCL). The text aims to promote procedures whereby contracts are awarded not simply on the basis of price but taking into account qualitative elements relating, for example, to the skills and capabilities of the provider, the company and contract management, the environmental footprint, the working conditions of workers along the supply chain and respect of international labour standards, national laws and collective agreements including trade union rights.
This confirms that a European-level brand image is a live issue, as are quality standards. As the four sectors put it in their joint declaration, “Selecting the lowest price [in awarding contracts] is regrettably the most widespread attitude. High competitive pressure leads providers to present very tight bids, often to the detriment of the quality of goods and services, working conditions and staff training. The situation can end up in unprofessional or even illegal practices (…)”. Such a situation “jeopardises the efforts undertaken by each of the sectors for qualitative and sustainable development as well as for a more professional approach. This translates into the persistence of a negative perception the sectors may suffer from (…); not only does it have a detrimental impact on the industry but it leaves employees dissatisfied with their working conditions; and lastly, it seriously harms the ability of the sectors to attract new employees, young people in particular”.
Still in connection with this brand image, the social partners forwarded a joint opinion to the European Commission’s DG Employment in 2009, expressing their point of view about the way in which the Commission was drawing up the wording of its Guide on socially responsible public procurement. The trade unions had for several years been calling for such a practical guide, which, they believed, should define socially responsible public procurement as a contract that takes into account the promotion of decent work, respect for human rights and labour law, support for social inclusion, the social economy and access for SMEs to public contracts, promotion of equal opportunities and fair trade. However, a draft version of the guide issued in 2009 was a major disappointment to the contract catering social partners. EFFAT and FERCO are of the opinion that the Commission’s approach to the guide is overcautious: it should draw the attention of contracting authorities to “the negative consequences associated with the awarding of contracts at the lowest price”. This situation, they assert, “is usual practice in all Member States, often to the detriment of quality, working conditions and labour rights”.