European social dialogue fell into desuetude under the neoliberal Barroso commission. Hairdressers might just put some colour back in it.
The pandemic has put workplace health and safety in the headlines, the coronavirus highlighting the need for swift action in the face of exposure to it at work. The countries where workers and employers had a well-established, productive relationship were quickest to implement effective measures when it struck.
European social dialogue was set up to replicate such relationships at European Union level. It allows social partners (workers’ unions and employers’ organisations) to negotiate agreements concerning their sector and have these implemented through EU legislation. During the presidency of José Manuel Barroso (2004-14), however, the European Commission initiated attacks on European social-dialogue agreements, sending these important vehicles for the take-off of consensus into a tailspin.
The current commission leadership has adopted a more positive tone. ‘I am a firm believer in the value of social dialogue between employers and unions,’ the president, Ursula von der Leyen, asserted in her Agenda for Europe. But what is happening on the ground?
Twenty per cent of hairdressers develop work-related asthma. They are ten times as likely as the average person to acquire skin conditions, five times as likely when it comes to musculoskeletal ailments. They are frequently exposed to chemicals research suggests are carcinogenic.
Within our sectoral European social dialogue, UNI Europa worked closely with the employers at Coiffure EU to identify concrete ways to address this alarming situation. These included personal protective equipment and limitations on irritants, as well as minimum requirements for ventilation and ergonomic equipment. In 2012 we signed a European framework agreement and jointly requested that the commission propose to the Council of the EU that the agreement be made legally binding, in line with article 155 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.
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What should have been a procedural formality, leading to the implementation of mandatory safety improvements, was however stalled by the commission. Four years later, with the commission’s support, we jointly resubmitted a revised agreement which addressed its legal compatibility—but to no avail.
Faced with this impasse, the social partners adopted another approach. Working initially with the commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, we agreed an action plan to implement the safety measures step by step. It is still being implemented with the support of relevant bodies, notably the DG for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and the European Committee for Standardization. By reviewing guidelines arising from existing regulation, improving enforcement and providing practical tools for workplace measures, this approach is having a rolling impact.
The process hints at an alternative way of implementing European social-dialogue agreements. Officially, there are two routes: via legislation or autonomously. In hairdressing, the legislative route was blocked and autonomous implementation by national social partners was not possible due to the sector’s inherent fragmentation. The solution we found draws on the social partners’ self-regulatory competences as well as non-legislative EU action.
For European social dialogue to be fit for purpose in addressing work-related issues it requires a space conducive to constructive negotiation and a clear pathway for effective implementation. In our case the first condition was met. The second was however only met following high-level political commitment to pursue implementation through an agreed action plan. It took nearly a decade after effective protections were first agreed by those who would implement them for the commission to agree actions that would benefit more than one million hairdressers.
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Only two social-partner organisations were involved in the hairdressers’ European social dialogue. They had the commitment and stability to steadfastly pursue their joint position. Some other sectors have multiple social-partner organisations, each with their own political priorities which can themselves evolve over time. Building political consensus is a balancing act which can be destabilised by unnecessary procedural obstacles or long-drawn-out implementation.
Through perseverance, continued co-operation and the goodwill of the political leadership and executive arms of relevant bodies, we are finally getting somewhere. But these are not the ingredients of a structural solution to the vacuum created by the commission’s blocking of the legislative path to implementation. The process has been ad hoc, resource-consuming and too slow, with the results only partially binding. Nonetheless, this case could indicate an avenue to get European social dialogue back on track.
Formalising the collaboration between workers’ unions, employers’ organisations and EU bodies in implementing European social-dialogue agreements would be a necessary first step. This means designating clear responsibilities within the relevant bodies and ensuring that officers assigned have the mandate to implement agreed measures. Beyond the legislative route and autonomous implementation by social partners, this would constitute a third way to implement social-dialogue agreements.
For social partners to take up this new role the necessary resources of time and co-ordination capacity would have to be provided. In the hairdressers’ case, the two social-partner organisations received social-dialogue project support. This allowed for valuable research on hazardous chemical substances in cosmetics but it did not answer the fundamental question of how European social-partner agreements are to be implemented. Had this agreement been duly implemented in its first iteration, working people would have benefited from safety measures earlier, while the time of all involved could have been allocated to improving other aspects of hairdressers’ working conditions.
Finally, and most importantly, implementation must be accelerated. Working people cannot afford to wait for a decade to have safe and healthy workplaces. If the commission is serious about addressing growing Euroscepticism among working people, it must put their interests back at the heart of its mission—and quickly.