EFFAT for a sustainable competitiveness
17th March 2009, European Commission was holding a High-Level Group meeting on the future of the agro-food industry competitiveness. EFFAT Secretary-General, Harald Wiedenhofer was present there and stood for a sustainable competitiveness.
The HLG was chaired by Vice-president Gunter Verheugen, accompanied by his colleagues Commissioners: Mrs. Fischer Boel, Mrs. Kuyneva and Mrs. Vassiliou. It was set up by Commission Decision of 28 April 2008 (2008/359/EC) and launched officially on the 12 June 2008 by Vice-President Verheugen. The scope of the High Level Group, and consequently of the current Report (adopted) is the whole agro-food industry. The formal objective of the exercise was to identify the factors, future challenges and trends that can influence the competitive position of the European Agro-Food Industry as well as to formulate recommendations for actions over the short, medium and long term in public policy and the regulatory framework which would enhance the sustainable development and competitive position of the sector.
EFFAT was the only trade union present at the High-Level Group meetings among the commissioners, 25 companies and national ministers’ representatives from EU. Harald Wiedenhofer pointed out the main concerns for the workers in the agro-food industry:
“When we talk about competitiveness, productivity, innovation and quality, then we talk about the employees. The equal level playing field for the companies in Europe is the same, what makes the difference is the people, their motivation and qualification.
The companies of this sector will depend also on the question of really high-qualified staff. This is a problem because of the demographic developments and competition with other, more attractive sectors leading to a lack of sufficiently available, skilled and motivated workforce. This issue is the task of the social dialogue. In the agriculture we have a well functioning social dialogue, but not yet in the food sector. Taking care of these challenges is the attribute of the social partners that is why the High Level Group also recommends the setting up of a social dialogue in the agro-food industry.
Moreover, we are talking about sustainability in the sector, which means we have three components: economic, environmental and social. Too often we are missing the social aspect (e.g.: farmers obtaining subsidies need to ensure the environmental standards respected but not the social; e.g.: European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) takes care of the health of the consumers and environmental aspects, but does not consider the risks for workers handling the food stuffs. They are exposed to dangers when handling some ingredients which are risky for workers but not for consumers, like for example dyacetil; e.g.: bioethanol producers are legally bind to respect environmental criteria but not the social one).
We are supporting the set-up of the High Level Group because the best that can happen to the employees is that they are working in a global competitive environment especially now, in these particular times of economic crisis.
It is very important that this is a common initiative, now we have something to build upon jointly! It was also important that different DGs were involved: DG Enterprise, DG Agriculture, DG Environment, DG Health and Consumer Protection. From time to time we are facing problems when the Commission is not coherent in decision and actions, when as for example supporting SMEs through different projects (e.g. reduced VAT for labour intensive sectors, including restaurants), whereas on the other side it launches initiatives which are additional burden for SMEs (e.g. nutritional labeling for restaurants). We need credibility and accountability in the Commission policies.
It is very clear that we also need reliable and serious information for consumers. But I hope that everybody is aware that if the traffic light system (as far as nutritional labeling is concerned) gets through, then this will be a massive damage for the European agro-food industry and will counteract the endeavors of the HLG to improve the competitiveness of the sector.”