New sectoral collective agreements cover 1.4 million workers

Sectoral negotiations, which opened after the failure to reach a national intersectoral agreement, have been going much more smoothly than expected in Belgium. Employers' federations and trade unions at sectoral level have concluded collective agreements for the 1997/8 period covering about 1.4 million employees across the private sector. We provide a general overview of the main characteristics of the different agreements, and focus on a number of agreements that deserve special attention.

After the failure in late 1996 (BE9702101F) to come to a national intersectoral agreement for 1997-8, the Belgian Government gave the lower-level negotiators on both sides a clear message: the maximum pay increase should be 6.1% spread over two years (1997 and 1998). The negotiators have apparently respected the Government's position: the average increase in labour costs arising from sectoral collective agreements is between 5.6% and 5.7%. The Government also guaranteed an annual subsidy of BEF 150,000 to help offset the cost of each newly created job, if two of the following employment schemes were part of the negotiated agreement - part-time work, part-time early retirement, flexible work schedules, collective reduction of working hours, additional training and temporary leave or career breaks (loopbaanonderbreking).

Provisions on employment, training and flexibility

Of the 70 sectoral agreements now concluded, 50 grant the right to career breaks provided that certain conditions are met. These specific conditions - such as eligibility requirements, the ratio of those on leave to the total number of workers employed, the reasons allowable and so on - are in most cases to be negotiated through further agreements at the level of the company or firm. About half a million employees will be able to take advantage of this right.

A number of collective agreements (42 of the 70) provide for a formula of part-time early retirement at the age of 55. This type of work/retirement scheme applies to possibly 580,000 employees.

New measures to encourage vocational training is a further important item in the sectoral agreements. About one in three of the agreements includes such initiatives, some of which are very creative. The construction industry will introduce a "mentoring" programme which includes assigning new employees to an older, more experienced construction worker who will guide the younger worker and help with on-the-job training. The insurance sector will hire 350 younger employees in a sort of work-training programme which includes 50% training. The sector thus builds up a reserve of 350 young and functionally trained potential employees.

Some 28 agreements include provisions for the promotion of part-time work. For example, the metalworking industry, a sector with traditionally very little part-time work, has promised to create about 3,000 extra part-time jobs through a system of premiums for employers and employees.

An additional item in nine out of the 70 agreements was introduction of greater flexibility. The following examples illustrate this point. Employees in "call-centres" in the insurance sector - that is, centres where services are offered over the telephone - will now work on rosters from 8.00 to 20.00 during weekdays and 8.00 to 13.00 over the weekend. In the construction industry, we see the introduction of variable and flexible work schedules which open the possibility of 45-hour working weeks. In the food industry, this can reach 50 hours a week. Even in the diamond industry changes were introduced: the labour law of 1938 which fixed daily working time in the sector from 8.00 to 16.30 was abolished, allowing employers to introduce more varied work rosters. As a consequence of this provision, the sector witnessed a rare dispute and a limited strike.

The theme of reductions in working time was less popular in this round of negotiations. The insurance sector is gradually moving in the direction of a 35.5-hour working week. Employees in the distribution sector may choose a 32-hour working week on a voluntary basis over four or five days with a proportional reduction in pay.

Commentary

In conclusion, although the prospects for fruitful negotiations seemed bleak after the failure to come to a national intersectoral collective agreement, sectoral negotiators have managed to reach agreements in most of the key sectors in Belgium at the same time as honouring the Government's plea to stay within the 6.1% pay guideline. This shows that the sectoral level might, at the moment, be the most appropriate level to negotiate collective agreements. (Peter van der Hallen, Stenpunt WAV)

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