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Participants and challenges

Since the footwear sector is heavily exposed to international competition, one recurring topic of its sectoral social dialogue – which brings together the European Trade Union Federation: Textiles, Clothing and Leather (ETUF:TCL) for the workers, and the European Confederation of the Footwear Industry (CEC) for the employers – is combating “unfair” competition from third countries, particularly those where practices such as forced labour by prisoners and the employment of children still exist, and where trade union rights are not recognised.

The establishment of European social dialogue in this sector can formally be divided into three phases:

a) the setting up of a joint committee, in existence from 1977 to 1984, tasked with helping the European Commission to study the sector’s socio-economic problems;

b) after a seven-year break, the establishment of an informal working group in December 1991, which is when joint texts began to be issued (the first one was adopted in 1993);

c) the transformation of this working group into a Comité du dialogue social sectorielSectoral Social Dialogue Committee (SSDC) in 1999.

From 1993 onwards, the social partners’ prime concern was global trade and in particular the generalised system of preferences (GSP) established by the EEC in favour of developing countries. (The general objectives of the GSP, achieved by granting tariff reductions or exemptions for products imported from developing countries, are to boost those countries’ export revenues, promote their industrialisation and accelerate their economic growth.)

The social partners sought to insert a social clause in the GSP so as to preclude unfair competition from third countries (forced labour by prisoners, child labour, lack of trade union rights, etc.). This concern to ensure fair competition has existed ever since the inception of social dialogue in the sector: it is for example reflected in the 2006 Joint Opinion calling for EU origin marking of footwear imported from third countries.

In their first Joint Opinion on employment (3 November 1993), the social partners drew attention to the structural difficulties confronting their sector and called on the EU to take these into account in its trade, industrial, regional and social policies. In 1995 they adopted a Charter on the employment of children, which was supplemented in 1996, then updated in 1997 and expanded in 2000. This text constitutes the social partners’ main reciprocal commitment, in which they indicate their desire to work in favour of a European leather and footwear industry that is internationally competitive and based on respect for the interests of both employers and workers. The Charter (a “recommendation” according to the European Social Observatory criteria) forms part of a strategy aimed at endowing the European footwear industry with a “socially responsible” brand image.

This strategy ties in with an ongoing demand for the EU to take account of the specific nature of employment in the sector, as reflected in several joint opinions: the 1995 Joint Statement on employment, the 1999 Joint Opinion on reducing social and fiscal pressure on low-skilled, low-paid work, the 1999 Joint Opinion on the social impact of the Asian and Russian financial crises on the fashion industry (in association with the tanning and leather sector; see that factsheet), the social partners’ contribution to the Lisbon Summit of 2000 and, lastly, their contribution to the social action programme of 2000.

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