Use of ‘ecocheques’ a feature of current sectoral bargaining

Collective bargaining for Belgium’s new sectoral agreements for 2009–2010 has been underway in the spring and summer of 2009. This follows the conclusion of the intersectoral national agreement for the private sector. Although coverage remains high and the usual bargaining topics have been addressed, the sectoral agreements can be defined as atypical: for instance, almost all of the agreements follow the intersectoral guideline to limit nominal wage increases to two premiums, with the newly created possibility of ‘eco-cheques’ being used extensively.

Intersectoral agreement sets the pace

On 22 December 2008, the peak national social partner organisations in the private sector concluded the intersectoral collective agreement for the period 2009–2010 (BE0901019I). Every two years, this agreement acts as a general framework for the subsequent sectoral bargaining rounds in Belgium. The social partners insisted on the ‘exceptional’ character of the 2009–2010 intersectoral agreement on account of it being adapted due to the current economic situation. The agreement aims to restore workers’ and employers’ confidence in the economy by finding a balance between competitiveness, purchasing power and employment levels.

Key position of private sector confirmed

At this stage, most of the sectoral bargaining has been completed and new sectoral agreements have been reached for the majority of Belgian workers in the private sector. As such, the key position of this sector has once again been confirmed. To date, about 50 joint committees have reached settlements, including the major ones such as those concerning the metalworking industry (PC111, PC209), chemicals (PC116, PC207), construction (PC124), the food industry (PC118) and retail trade (PC202, PC311, PC312), along with the auxiliary committee for white-collar workers (PC218). As sectoral bargaining for the not-for-profit social services sector follows a slightly different agenda, the current list of biannual sectoral agreements does not cover many of these services.

Purchasing power and ecocheques

In relation to workers’ wages or purchasing power, the intersectoral agreement suggested limiting wage increases – above the level of automatic indexation –to €125 in 2009 and €250 in 2010 without increasing costs for employers. Therefore, the wage premium would be granted in the form of vouchers or cheques, or a higher reimbursement on the employer’s part for workers’ public transport costs. Regarding the voucher proposal, the social partners concluded in February 2009 a collective agreement on introducing ‘ecocheques’ at the National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/Nationale Arbeidsraad, CNT/NAR) (BE0904029I). The ecocheque is a wage premium, granted under certain conditions with social tax exemptions, which focuses on environmentally friendly and sustainable – or so-called ‘green’ – consumer goods.

The ecocheque has been introduced on a large scale in the new sectoral agreements. The measure is being used either on its own as an instrument to grant the proposed wage premium or in combination with another, already existing voucher or premium system. These existing premiums can be meal vouchers or gift cheques. The following table summarises the application of the ecocheque scheme in the various sectoral agreements.

Overview of sectoral agreements including an ecocheque clause as wage premium, 2009–2010
No. Joint Committee 2009 2010 Recurrent (from 2011 onwards) No. of workers covered
102 Quarrying €125 (October) €125 (April) €125 (October) €250 – from 2011 onwards 5,218
106.02 Concrete industry €125 9,385
111.01 11.02 Metalworking industry €125 (October) €250 (October) €250 – from 2011 onwards 149,695
111.03 Metal construction € 125 (October) €250 (October) €250 – after an evaluation -
112 Garage €125 (December) €125 (June) €125 (December) €250 – after an evaluation 27,726
114 Brickworks €50 (December) €50 (December) 123
115.01 Glass (mirrors) €35 (December) (gift voucher) €50 (ecocheque) 6,977
115.02 Glass (windows) €35 (ecocheque or gift voucher)
116 Chemicals industry – blue-collar workers €250 (January) 46,527
207 Chemicals industry – white-collar workers €250 (January) 71,794
142.01 Metal recuperation €125 (December) €125 (June) €125 (December) €250 – after an evaluation 1,744
125.03 Wood trade €125 (June) €250 (June) 4,162
333 Tourist attractions €100 (choice between type of voucher) €100 (choice between type of voucher) 728
322 Temporary agency workers Users’ pay regulated according to the rules applied in the sector of the company-client 142,288
149.01 Electricians €125 (December) €125 (June) €125 (December) €250 – after an evaluation
149.02 Car workshops €125 (December) €125 (June) €125 (December) €250 – after an evaluation 48,088
149.03 Metal shops €125 (December) €125 (June) €125 (December) €250 – after an evaluation
105 Non-ferrous industry – blue-collar workers €125 (October) €125 (April) €125 (October) €250 – from 2011 onwards 245,165
224 Non-ferrous industry – white-collar workers €125 (October) €125 (April) €125 (October) €250 – from 2011 onwards 76,548
129 Paper production €125 €250 1,339
315 Aviation industry €250 8,179
321 Wholesale pharmaceutics €125 (November) €250 €250 – from 2011 onwards 2,816
202 Food stores €125 (November) €250 (June) Prolongation depending on evaluation 50,661
311 Retail €125 (November) €250 (June) 39,625
312 Supermarkets €125 (November) €250 (June) 14,399
226 International trade and transport €125 (November) €250 €250 – from 2011 onwards 41,979
218 Auxiliary committee – white collar workers €125 (November) €250 (June) Prolongation depending on evaluation 394,530
310 Banking sector €125 (November) €250 (June) 41,783
140 Road transport –blue-collar workers Depending on sub-committee – gift or ecocheque 51,030
  Total       1,482,509

Source: Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (Federale Overheidsdienst Werkgelegenheid, Arbeid en Sociaal Overleg/Service public fédéral Emploi, Travail et Concertation sociale, FOD WASO), Sectoral agreements

Public transport costs and trade union premium

In a number of sectors, the voucher schemes are also being complemented by increases in employers’ reimbursement of workers’ public transport costs. In a range of joint committees, this reimbursement amounts to more than 80% of a bus or train seasonal ticket. In the important not-for-profit healthcare sector, the new agreement on commuting costs introduces compensation for bike transport, with workers who travel to work by bike receiving a premium for this effort.

In a range of sectors, a trade union premium (vakbondspremie/prime syndical) exists. Through an intermediating sectoral fund, the employer pays back part of the trade union membership fee to the worker. This system was set up and bargained for in the 1960s. In exchange for a ‘social peace’ clause – that is, no wage-related industrial action – as part of a sectoral agreement, the employers were prepared to pay this additional benefit for trade union members. Throughout the years, this trade union premium became an established part of the wage formation structure in these, mainly blue-collar, sectors. It is estimated that about 40% of the trade union members in the private sector receive this type of premium. In a range of sectors, increases in this premium are scheduled for 2009 and 2010. For example, in Joint Committee PC315 (aviation industry), this premium will increase from €100 to €120.

Automatic indexation and deflation

Belgium still uses a system of automatic indexation, which adjusts wages automatically to correspond to increases in living costs. This system of automatic indexation is practised in different ways within the various economic sectors.

Due to the current low inflation rate and even deflation in Belgium, some of these indexation mechanisms could lead to actual wage cuts. This is especially the case in economic sectors where the indexation is operationalised through monthly wage adjustments. As a result, a range of sectors took ad-hoc measures to prevent these ‘automatic’ wage cuts arising from deflation. In general, the trend has been to organise the wage indexations on fixed dates – either on one date (1 January) or two dates (1 January and 1 July) each year.

Vocational training

For several years, lifelong learning and vocational training have been high on the bargaining agenda of the Belgian social partners (BE0610039I). However, progress has been difficult in this field of industrial relations. Nevertheless, in the 2009–2010 bargaining round, a range of sectors have devised new plans or renewed their aspirations in this area. Among the measures planned are the following:

  • an increase in financial support, that is, the percentage of a wage bill assigned to a sectoral training fund;
  • efforts to increase the training participation rate;
  • assignment of an individual right to a series of training days;
  • bargaining of company training plans;
  • the development of a ‘compentence passport’.

Revision of age-dependent wage classification

In the previous period of social programming (2007–2008), the social partners had already promised to abolish age-dependent wage classification systems. Otherwise, the Federal Minister of Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue would act with stronger legislation in this regard. Traditionally, and especially for younger workers, lower wages existed based on the age criterion. However, under new European and national anti-discrimination laws, this type of wage differentiation is illegal. As a result, most of the sectors have already revised their arrangements in this regard. In the current sectoral agreements, the issue has been settled, for example, in Joint Committee 112, where the existing lower wage for people younger than 18 years of age is abolished. In a couple of joint committees, this necessary revision has been used to initiate a wider revision of the job classification schemes used to determine the wage level of a job or function. Valuation of experience – even from another company – is key in these revisions.

Other issues addressed

Other interesting or new issues that have been raised in the agreements include the following:

  • references to the government’s anti-crisis measures with respect to collective working time reduction and time credits;
  • clauses on decent work – as seen in the non-ferrous industry, where the company Umicore has emerged as the first Belgian multinational with an international framework agreement;
  • clauses on sustainable development – as seen in the wood and furniture industry (PC 126) as well as the steel industry (PC104).

Commentary

On the one hand, the sectoral bargaining round for 2009–2010 can be defined as ‘normal’ in the context of Belgium’s industrial relations system: for instance, most of the sectors reached an agreement; bargaining coverage remained high; strike action related to bargaining was rare; and the usual topics were dealt with, such as those relating to wages, restructuring-related flexibility, training and additional social benefits. On the other hand – due to the global economic crisis and similar to the intersectoral framework agreement – the sectoral agreements can be defined as ‘atypical’. Most important in this regard is the fact that all of the agreements followed the intersectoral guideline to limit nominal wage increases to two premiums, with the newly created possibility of ‘ecocheques’ being used extensively.

Acknowledgement

Special thanks to Peter van der Hallen of the General Christian Trade Union (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond/Confédération des syndicats chrétiens, ACV/CSC) study department for the overviews provided.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute of Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven (KUL)

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