CONVENTION COLLECTIVE DE TRAVAIL
Collective agreements are regulated by the Collective Agreements and Joint Committees Act of December 5, 1968. This Act conferred, at long last, full status on the collective agreement in Belgium. The fact that this had not happened earlier, despite numerous attempts to achieve it, was due mainly to the problem of the legal personality of the trade unions, which constituted a real stumbling-block to the establishment of a status for collective agreements. What is more, all that the unions were prepared to accept was the fixing, by law, of the existing situation: the capacity to conclude collective agreements and the right to be a party to legal proceedings associated with them, although without assuming any legal liability.
Apart from resolving the difficult problem of legal personality in exactly the way that the unions wished, the Act also incorporates other important policy options on matters such as 1) the concept of representative employers' associations and trade unions, and 2) the role assigned to the social partners on the one hand and the government on the other in fixing pay and employment conditions.
The Act expressly enshrines the already widespread concept of the representative organization: within the meaning of the Act, minor or emerging organizations do not have the right to be parties to a collective agreement. In addition, it was postulated that it falls to the employers' associations and the unions to regulate pay and employment conditions: the government is accorded, fully in line with tradition in Belgian industrial relations, only a secondary role in the matter. From this follows the recognition and logical application of the contractual conception of collective bargaining , although without detracting from the essentially regulatory nature of a collective agreement.
The Act gives the binding force of a collective agreement a definitive legal foundation, while at the same time regulating numerous technical points such as its form, duration, notice of termination, etc. An important aspect is, of course, the obligation to register a collective agreement with the authorities, which makes it possible to assess the true state of affairs in industrial relations without laborious investigations.
The Act applies to employers and employees and their representative organizations in the private sector; it does not apply to employees of central government, the provincial and municipal authorities, the public agencies controlled by them and the public services. However, the government, acting through Ministerial Decree, can extend its application in whole or in part to these employees or certain categories of them.
Article 5 of the Act describes a collective agreement as "an agreement concluded between one or more employees' organizations and one or more employers' organizations or one or more employers, governing individual and collective relations between employers and employees within the enterprise or in an industry and regulating the rights and obligations of the contracting parties." The Act manifestly regards the collective agreement as a true agreement, emanating from the social partners, who remain private parties and are not operating as an extension of government authority.
All this clearly highlights the primary and important role played by the employers' and employees' organizations in collective bargaining in Belgium. Intervention by the legislators does not, in principle at least, result in the government taking the place of the organizations themselves. The organizations decide freely on entering into a collective agreement. Even the extension of a collective agreement (i.e. when it is decreed generally applicable) is possible only if one of the social partners so requests. Underlining in this way the autonomous, primary role played by the employers' and employees' organizations in fixing pay and employment conditions places considerable emphasis on the conception of the collective agreement in Belgium as contractual. The conception of it as regulatory, thereby attaching a significant preponderance to government intervention, is almost entirely removed.
In so far as the government pursues a pay restraint policy of its own, this obviously detracts from the autonomy of the social partners.
Please note: the European industrial relations glossaries were compiled between 1991 and 2003 and are not updated. For current material see the European industrial relations dictionary.