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General overview of sector

Agriculture is one of the sectors most heavily affected by EU policy developments: establishment of the common agricultural policy (CAP) in the 1960s; surplus production crises in the 1970s and 1980s; protracted reforms of the CAP in the 1990s and 2000s, etc. This is the backdrop to social dialogue in the sector.

Around 9 million European people currently work in agriculture (EU-25). The majority of them are self-employed or work on family farms. But the sector also includes a large number of seasonal workers, many of them low-skilled migrants. Undeclared labour is also very widespread, especially among seasonal workers.

The political events determining the history of the European Community have affected the agricultural sector more than others. The establishment of a common agricultural policy (CAP) as early as 1962 is obviously a case in point. This led to a determination to boost output in the sector throughout the 1960s, as well as the introduction of tariff protection from world markets (where prices were lower) and export incentives.

Production surpluses began to appear from the 1970s onwards and, in particular, the 1980s. The CAP, a victim of its own success, started to come in for criticism: it was too expensive, led to overproduction and distorted international trade. The various phases of EU enlargement (especially during the 1980s – Greece, Spain and Portugal – but also in the 2000s – central and eastern Europe) likewise had a major impact on this sector.

During the 1990s the CAP embarked on a lengthy period of structural reform (in 1992 and then 2003), and was the subject of intense negotiations and conflict at the World Trade Organisation.

Social dialogue in the sector has followed these developments and takes place against this political and economic backdrop. What is more, owing to the considerable degree of European integration in respect of agricultural policy, this SSD probably constitutes a paradigm for the setting up of a European system of industrial relations. Indeed, the European Social Observatory classifies agriculture as one of those sectors with a tendency towards European-scale industrial relations (Pochet et al., “European sectoral social dialogue 1997-2004”, European Social Observatory). It is worth noting, for example, that protest action is almost always organised at European level.

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