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General overview of sector

Construction was originally regarded as a “local” trade, in which there was a predominance of small, or very small, firms (masons, carpenters, etc.). Cross-border activity has however been developing in the sector over the years, with major civil engineering projects now being carried out in Europe or elsewhere in the world by huge construction, planning, management and engineering companies.

Globalisation has therefore had a considerable impact on the building trade, even though local work still remains the sector's "core business". The work is highly labour-intensive (and the workforce increasingly mobile: migrant labour has grown significantly in the past few years). The construction sector has 26 million workers and, taking into consideration indirect employment, it accounts for some 30% of industrial jobs in Europe nowadays. Some observers believe that the sector might in future see the emergence of a small number of large companies specialising in project management, which will outsource the building work to small and medium-sized subcontracting firms.

Another significant characteristic of the building sector is that it is highly dependent on economic growth rates and on the level of public expenditure or national support measures (loans, allowances and tax incentives for property-owners, access to mortgages, etc.). The sector is generally regarded as a bellwether of the economy. In addition, it is without doubt a front-line sector when it comes to confronting the new challenges of climate change: constructing "passive" houses, insulating buildings, energy performance, new materials, etc.

The building sector comprised 2.9 million firms in the European Union in 2007, 95% of which employed fewer than 20 workers. As far as employment is concerned, this sector is very labour-intensive and has a powerful multiplier effect: it is estimated that every job created in the construction industry generates two new jobs in the economy as a whole. As the saying goes, “a booming building sector means a booming economy”.

But the industry is faced with several challenges: workforce training, accidents at work and employment fraud (pseudo-self-employment, undeclared labour, etc.).

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