Since the end of the quota period in 2017, the EU beet sugar sector has undergone an important period of transition, with low sugar prices leading to factory closures.
Rethinking the future of the industry was the objective of an EFFAT (European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions Federation) – CEFS (European Association of Sugar Manufacturers) conference held on 14 December 2021, in the framework of a joint project: “A transforming European sugar industry – New and better jobs in a competitive, innovative and sustainable industry.”
Sustainability is at the core of the beet sugar production in both factories and field. Beet sugar factories offer skilled, remunerative industrial employment and are often at the heart of the rural communities in which they operate. With this in mind, both social partners in the sugar sector pointed out the importance of placing people at its core. Opening the conference, Marie-Christine Ribéra, Director General at CEFS, stressed that “we need a legal framework with incentives to support new diversification and decarbonisation strategies.”
A final report, compiled by Areté consultancy, pointed different actions needed to safeguard/boost employment and promote regional development in sugar beet growing areas, further increase the sector’s sustainability, secure the skills required of the workers in a sector in transition, support the diversification of the activities of the factories and increase the sector’s attractiveness to young workers.
The industry perspective considered the Fit for 55 package as largely impacting the beet sugar industries. The package must be fit for purpose and should facilitate the energetic self-use of biomass residues from beet sugar production, to allow the sector’s decarbonisation.
Equally, employers stressed the importance of diversification of activities towards new products such as bioplastics and betaine. Tracking skills requirements will be essential to adapt trainings and focus on the “basic skills of the future”, such as digitalisation, automation of production and handling.
Collaboration with educational institutions along with intensification of social dialogue are key to attract the future workers into the sector. The regulatory barriers burdening intra-EU skills mobility must be removed.
Workers’ representatives claimed that the sustainability of the sector should be environmental and economic but also, and foremost, social. To guarantee its readiness for the future, the sugar sector needs to look out for its ageing workforce and tackle the limited availability of skilled workers while enhancing the sectors’ attractiveness to younger generations through improved working conditions.
Wiebke Warneck, EFFAT Political Secretary in charge of the food sector said: “No transition is just without workers’ involvement. The issue is not whether the sugar sector needs to prepare its workforce for the way to the future. The issue is how it is going to do that to be truly sustainable. “
Marie-Christine Ribéra, Director General at CEFS, explained “People are at the heart of our sector. Trainings will need to be adapted to focus on the “basic skills of the future” such as digitalisation and automation of production and handling. Collaboration with educational institutions needs to be intensified.