Social dialogue in occupational safety and health

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Aditya Jain, Nottingham University Business School, and Stavroula Leka, Centre for Organizational Health and Development, University of Nottingham

Introduction

Social dialogue is a mode of governance in the area of social policies, including policies on occupational safety and health. It comprises discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions undertaken by social partner organisations and allows federations of employers and workers to participate in social-policy decision-making at EU level and sectoral level. This article reviews the European social dialogue activities related to OSH since their beginning in 1985 until now, where the process has transformed from a rather passive approach, based mainly on responding to initiatives of the European Commission to a more pro-active and increasingly autonomous approach.

What is social dialogue

Social Dialogue is defined as, ‘all types of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy’ [1]. It takes various forms and takes place at the company level, sectoral level, national level and European level. Social dialogue takes place on issues such as occupational health and safety, vocational training, skills, equal opportunities, mobility, corporate social responsibility, working conditions, sustainable development, etc. At the European level, social dialogue has led to the development of both legally-binding as well as voluntary agreements between the social partners. This article focuses predominantly at social dialogue activities at the European level on policies relating to occupational safety and health.

European social dialogue

The EU recognises social dialogue as one of the pillars of the European social model. The article 152 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) highlights the Union’s commitment to promoting the role of the European social partners, and supporting social dialogue. It also acknowledges the autonomy of the European social partners. In accordance with the TFEU, the Commission is committed to promoting and facilitating European social dialogue at both cross-industry and sectoral levels [2].

European social dialogue takes two main forms - a tripartite dialogue involving the public authorities, and a bipartite dialogue between the European employers and trade union organisations. The bipartite dialogue takes place at cross-industry level and within sectoral social dialogue committees. ‘As a result of their representativeness, European social partners have the right to be consulted by the European Commission, and may decide to negotiate binding agreements’ [3]. The Commission guidelines for Impact Assessment includes a specific reference to consulting European social dialogue committees, offering them a new opportunity to contribute towards shaping European policies. The Advisory Committee on safety and health at work (ACSH), a tripartite body, was specifically created to assist the European Commission in the preparation, the implementation and the evaluation of activities in the fields of safety and health at work. The ACSH comprises full members made up of one government representative, one representative of trade unions and one representative of employers' organisations from each EU Member State. It has three main responsibilities:

  • To give opinions on Community initiatives in the area of occupational safety and health (such as new legislation, Community programmes)
  • To contribute pro-actively to identifying Community priorities and to establish relevant policy strategies
  • To encourage the exchange of views and experience (be an interface between the national and European level) [4].

European social partners

European social partners are representative EU-level organisations which are engaged in the European social dialogue, as provided for under Articles 152, 154 and 155 TFEU [5]. Dialogue between the European social partners takes place at both cross-sectoral and sectoral level. The social partners represent trade unions, private sector employers, small businesses, and public sector employers. Participants in cross-sectoral dialogue include the following six key organisations recognised by the European Union:

  • European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) [6]
  • Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff (EUROCADRES) [7]
  • European Confederation of Executives and Managerial Staff (CEC) [8]
  • Confederation of European Business (BUSINESSEUROPE, formerly UNICE) [9]
  • European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public services (CEEP) [10]
  • Union Européenne de l’Artisanat et des Petites et Moyennes Entreprises (UEAPME) [European Association of Craft, Small and Medium Sized Enterprises [11]

EUROCADRES and CEC operate under the auspices of the ETUC and are represented in the ETUC employees' delegation. In addition to these six organisations, nearly 80 sectoral European social partner organisations have been consulted by the European Commission under Article 154 TFEU to discuss relevant sector specific actions and issues [12] (62 sectoral organisations representing employers and 17 sectoral European trade union organisations).

European cross-industry social dialogue

Cross-industry social dialogue covers the whole economy and labour market. Its purpose is to promote dialogue between trade unions and employers' organisations in key areas common to all fields of employment and social affairs. The results and standards adopted by the cross-industry social partners apply to businesses and workers across Europe. The generalist, inter-professional approach gives cross-industry dialogue the highest political profile, attracting attention from both European institutions and the media. All tripartite social dialogue, with a few exceptions, takes place at cross-industry level [3].

European cross-industry social dialogue has passed through different stages of development, from a rather passive approach, based mainly on responding to initiatives of the European Commission, to a more proactive and increasingly autonomous approach [12]. The first stage, from the beginning of social dialogue in 1985 up to the early 1990s, involved the adoption of (non-binding) joint opinions through the social partners. The second stage started in 1993, when the social partners obtained the right to be consulted by the Commission on all initiatives and to negotiate and conclude framework agreements which might be adopted as European law. In the third stage, the social partners broadened their autonomy and obtained the right to conclude autonomous and/or voluntary framework agreements and frameworks of action.

European cross industry social dialogue has resulted in over 300 joint texts by the European social partners which include a number of different cross-industry framework agreements under Articles 154 and 155 of the TFEU. This strengthening of European social dialogue should be seen in the light of regulatory difficulties and connected attempts to improve European governance, which led to a policy shift from detailed legislation to a more self-regulatory process by the involvement of stakeholders in the policy-making process [13]

European sectoral social dialogue

European sectoral social dialogue is an instrument of EU social policy and industrial relations at sectoral level [13]. European level sectoral policies are largely the outcome of sectoral social dialogue [5] which began since the early decades of European integration when six joint committees, composed of an equal number of employee and employer representatives, were established in sectors directly affected by the first pan-European regulations [14]. In 2010, 40 European social dialogue committees, which cover 145 million workers in Europe, in sectors of crucial importance, are reported to be formally involved in sectoral social dialogue [15].

European sectoral social dialogue committees are fora for consultations on European policies. They allow European social partners to develop joint texts for action and conduct negotiations on issues of common interest in their sector, thereby contributing directly to shaping EU labour legislation and policies [15]. Joint texts issued by the sectoral social partners include agreements which can be transformed into directives or implemented in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States; process oriented texts (frameworks of action, guidelines, codes of conduct, policy orientations) whereby the social partners undertake to abide by principles and to verify that they are properly implemented; joint opinions and tools (such as studies, handbooks, instructions for use, etc.) through which the social partners forward their view on a European matter to the European institutions and attempt to influence policy-making [16].

Key social dialogue initiatives in the EU in the OSH arena

Before the European Commission proposes a new European OSH legislative instrument, the issue must be discussed through the social dialogue process implemented by Article 154 of the Lisbon Treaty [17]. In the OSH arena, participants in cross-sectoral dialogue have concluded a number of agreements that have been ratified by the Council of Ministers and are now part of European legislation implemented by means of council directives; most notable are the ones on parental leave (1996, revised 2008), part-time work (1997) and fixed-term contracts (1999). In the context of the European employment strategy, a part of the Lisbon Agenda, the European Council also invited the social partners to negotiate ‘voluntary’ or autonomous agreements to modernise the organisation of work, including flexible working arrangements, with the aim of making undertakings productive and competitive and achieving the necessary balance between flexibility and security [18]. Autonomous agreements implemented by social partners include framework agreements on telework (2002), work-related stress (2004), harassment and violence at work (2007) and inclusive labour markets (2010). An autonomous agreement signed by the European social partners creates a contractual obligation for the affiliated organisations of the signatory parties to implement the agreement at each appropriate level of the national system of industrial relations instead of being incorporated into a Directive [19].

In addition to framework agreements, the social partners have also signed a framework of actions for the lifelong development of competencies and qualifications in 2002 and a framework of actions on gender equality in 2005. The European social partners adopted the framework of actions to contribute to the implementation of the Lisbon strategy for economic growth, more and better jobs and social cohesion as well as of the EU legislative framework on equal treatment between women and men. While the framework of actions for the lifelong development of competencies and qualifications highlights the commitment of the social partners to help employees to improve their employability and career prospects [20], the framework of actions on gender equality is particularly relevant to OSH as each of the four priorities set out in the framework have important direct and indirect implications on how programmes and interventions to manage workers’ safety and health are designed and implemented [21].

Agreements implemented by Council Directive

Framework agreement on parental leave: This first framework agreement between the social partners set out minimum requirements on parental leave and time off from work on grounds of force majeure, as an important means of reconciling work and family life and promoting equal opportunities and treatment between men and women. It applies to all workers, men and women, who have an employment contract or employment relationship as defined by the law, collective agreements or practices in force in each Member State. The agreement was implemented by Council Directive 96/34/EC of 3 June 1996 [22] and revised in 2008 and was incorporated into Council Directive 2010/18/EU of 8 March 2010 implementing the revised Framework Agreement on parental leave concluded by BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME, CEEP and ETUC and repealing Directive 96/34/EC [23].

Framework agreement on part-time work: The agreement sets out the general principles and minimum requirements relating to part-time work. It illustrates the willingness of the social partners to establish a general framework for the elimination of discrimination against part-time workers, to improve the quality of part-time work and to assist the development of part-time work on a voluntary basis and to contribute to the flexible organization of working time in a manner which takes into account the needs of employers and workers. The agreement was implemented by Council Directive 97/81/EC of 15 December 1997 concerning the Framework Agreement on part-time work concluded by UNICE, CEEP and the ETUC [24].

Framework agreement on fixed-term contracts: This framework agreement sets out the general principles and minimum requirements relating to fixed-term work, recognising that their detailed application needs to take account of the realities of specific national, sectoral and seasonal situations The agreement was implemented by Council Directive 1999/70/EC of 28 June 1999 concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded by ETUC, UNICE and CEEP [25].

Autonomous agreements implemented by Social partners

Framework agreement on telework: In 2002, the European social partners signed the first autonomous agreement. The framework agreement on telework highlights that teleworkers must enjoy the same level of general protection and rights afforded to other employees. The agreement establishes a general framework for the use of telework in such a way as to meet the needs of employers and workers. The agreement identifies the key areas requiring adaptation or particular attention when people work away from the employer’s premises, for instance data protection, privacy, health and safety, organisation of work and training [26].

Framework agreement on work-related stress: The framework agreement on work-related stress, signed by the social partners in 2004, aims at increasing the awareness and understanding of employers, workers and their representatives of work-related stress. As such it highlights that the responsibility for implementing measures to identify and prevent problems of work-related stress and help to manage them when they do arise rests with the employer. It also places emphasis on participation and collaboration of workers [27].

Framework agreement on harassment and violence at work: Signed in 2007, the framework agreement on harassment and violence at work aims to increase awareness and understanding of employees, workers and their representatives of workplace harassment and violence, and to provide employers, workers and their representatives at all levels with an action-oriented framework to identify, manage and prevent problems of harassment and violence at work. According to the agreement, enterprises need to have a clear statement outlining that harassment and violence will not be tolerated. The procedures to be followed where cases arise should be included [28].

Framework agreement on inclusive labour markets: Achieving an inclusive labour market is a multi-faceted challenge and recognised as a key concern by the European social partners. In 2010, the social partners signed the agreement on inclusive labour markets, to maximise the full potential of Europe’s labour force and to increase employment rates and to improve job quality, including through training and skills development. The agreement aims to consider the issues of access, return, retention and development with a view to achieving the full integration of individuals in the labour market, increase the awareness, understanding and knowledge of employers, workers and their representatives of the benefits of inclusive labour markets and to provide workers, employers and their representatives at all levels with an action-oriented framework to identify obstacles to inclusive labour markets and solutions to overcome them [29].

Sectoral Initiatives

Sectoral social dialogue committees have adopted more than 500 joint texts of various kinds, binding to lesser or greater degrees, including agreements to be implemented in the Member States, either by European directives or by customary national procedures. The European social partners in the hospitals, maritime transport, civil aviation and railways sectors have altogether adopted six agreements on working conditions, working time and occupational safety and health which were implemented through Council Directives [5]. Between 1999 and 2007, sectoral committees had adopted 29 documents on health and safety issues in addition to other documents relating to health and safety issues (26 on general working conditions, 15 on employment, 12 on non-discrimination and five on working time) [30].

Evaluation of social dialogue initiatives

Since 1995, a number of social dialogue initiatives to improve working conditions and occupational safety and health have been implemented in Europe. The social partners and the European Commission have taken steps to monitor implementation and in some cases evaluate impact of these initiatives. Commissioned and non-commissioned external evaluations of various initiatives have also been carried out by various stakeholders [31] [32].

A comprehensive review of research and case studies to examine the impact of social dialogue on working conditions in 28 European countries indicated that number of quantitative studies as well as quantitative studies indicate that social dialogue is extremely active at national, sectoral and company level, and in all areas of working conditions – particularly in the field of occupational safety and health. Even though it is often difficult to determine the exact contribution that social dialogue has made to improvements in working conditions the findings highlight the relevance and value of social dialogue. Such improvements include reduced working time, increased working time flexibility to suit employees’ needs, access to and participation in training, the existence of equal opportunities policies, and job security measures [33].

Benefits and challenges of social dialogue initiatives

It is beyond doubt that the social partners, employers as well as employees, perceive an added value in the framework of European social dialogue, particularly because European social dialogue enables the social partners to voice their opinion on all legislative proposals at the EU level which in turn also strengthens the legitimacy of the policy outputs [34]. The importance European of social dialogue in the policy process, especially relating to occupational safety and health has been highlighted by all stakeholders. The framework agreements have often been reported to be the most significant contribution of social dialogue at the European level [35].

Nevertheless, while there have been a number of reported and measureable benefits, it is not always possible to determine the exact contribution that social dialogue has made to improvements in working conditions. For example, in some studies, improvements have been made following social dialogue intervention, but it is difficult to establish causal links between these improvements and the intervention measures [33]. Also, the viability of the use of European social dialogue as means of regulating social Europe, particularly when collective agreements are implemented via ‘soft’ means rather than legally binding directives has also been challenged in some studies. For example, an evaluation of the autonomous framework agreements on telework and work-related stress indicated that their implementation and substantive effects were in practice piecemeal [36].

The challenge of implementing social dialogue initiatives are accentuated by the diversity of national industrial relations systems and weak social dialogue structures and capacities, particularly in the new member states [12] [37]]. A related and even more important challenge for effective social dialogue particularly in the case of new and emerging risks, such as psychosocial risks, arises from differences (in terms of perspectives, priorities and interests) between social actors, particularly between employers’ organizations and trade unions [38] [39].

Usually, employers tend to favour less binding, ‘business-friendly’ approaches and are therefore interested in social dialogue as a voluntary tool. Unions on the other hand, in general prefer enforceable regulations, in particular under circumstances where social dialogue structures are weak and power relations between employers and unions are imbalanced, as is the case in a number of new member states [40]. Active communication between all parties concerned is therefore needed, including a proactive approach of government: for example, strengthening the labour inspectorate where imbalances between social partners exist [41]. To implement non-legally binding autonomous agreements, social partners must commit to discuss and implement them at national level through their member organisations, and to monitor the process [42].

Conclusion

The importance of social dialogue in the OSH arena and its positive impact on working conditions in Europe is recognised by all stakeholders. After the initial review of the Lisbon strategy in 2005, which indicated that the results achieved had been unconvincing [43], further emphasis has been laid, including in the EU 2020 vision, on fostering new partnerships and encouraging social dialogue to promote best practice. The role of businesses in facilitating such partnerships and strengthening social dialogue was highlighted as was engagement in responsible business practices.

The research on social dialogue and working conditions highlight that the mechanisms within social dialogue that lead to improvements in working conditions and occupational safety and health are: well-established structures for identifying problems, forums for social dialogue at company, national and European levels, understanding of occupational safety and health risks and issues, and a commitment and resources to act and implement initiatives [44]. Continued efforts are needed to strengthen these mechanisms, particularly since key future challenges, in terms of social dialogue subject matter, are likely to include further developments in occupational safety and health, issues pertaining to the use of new technology and the problem of the ageing population [33].

References

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Links for further reading

EC – European Commission. Social Dialogue. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=329&langId=en

EC – European Commission. Corporate Social Responsibility. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=331&langId=en

ETUC – European Trade Union Confederation. The European social dialogue. Available at: http://www.etuc.org/a/1751

BUSINESSEUROPE – Confederation of European Business. Social dialogue and industrial relations. Available at: http://www.businesseurope.eu/Content/Default.asp?PageID=651

Contributors

Aditya Jain