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General overview of sector

The footwear sector, a highly labour-intensive sector consisting of numerous SMEs, is faced with a series of challenges connected with the liberalisation of world trade. For several years now, these challenges have taken the form of restructuring operations, falling employment and transfers of production, but also the need to improve Europe’s competitive edge.

A typical feature of the footwear sector is its large number of small firms and micro-enterprises. It is one of three sectors comprising what is globally referred to as the “fashion industry”: footwear, textile and clothing, tanning and leather. For a general overview of the fashion industry, see the “textile and clothing” factsheet.

The footwear sector is notable for its company size – mostly small firms or SMEs –, high labour intensity and the extent of relatively poorly skilled female labour. In 2006, according to the European Commission, the sector employed approximately 388,000 people in 26,000 enterprises (mostly located in Italy, Spain and Portugal, but also in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).

Like the textile and clothing sector, this sector is faced with a series of challenges connected with the liberalisation of world trade. The last remaining restrictions on footwear imports from China were lifted on 1 January 2005, since when China and Vietnam have become the principal external suppliers of footwear to the EU. These two countries alone account for more than 60% of imports into the EU (by value).

For Europe, therefore, the challenges arising from liberalisation take the form of heightened competition from countries with low labour costs, company restructuring operations and a decline in the number of firms trading, falling employment and the vital need to improve Europe’s competitive edge (technical product quality, fashion and design, brand image, etc.).

It would nevertheless be mistaken to believe that the sector’s structural difficulties date back only to 2005; they existed long before then. The sector has been losing jobs at a rate faster than average for European manufacturing industry ever since the early 1990s. These job losses are partly attributable to investment in modernisation, but above all to the transfer of production sites to non-EU countries.

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