2001 Annual Review for Belgium

This record reviews 2001's main developments in industrial relations in Belgium.

Political developments

At federal level, a 'rainbow' coalition has been in power since June 1999, made up of six parties: the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten,VLD); the Liberal Reform Party/Democratic Front of Francophones/Movement of Citizens for the Change (Parti Réformateur Libéral-Front Démocratique des Francophones-Mouvement du Citoyen pour le Changement (PRL-FDF-MCC); the (French-speaking) Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste (PS); the (Flemish-speaking) Progressive Social Alternative (sociaal progressief alternatief, SP.A); Ecolo (French-speaking environmentalists); and Agalev (Flemish environmentalists). The government's term of office runs until mid-2003 and no elections were held in 2001. However, a number of political parties changed their name, as follows:

  • the Flemish-speaking Christian Party (Christelijke Volkspartij, CVP) was renamed the Christian Democratic Party of Flanders (Parti démocrate chrétien de Flandres/Christen-Democratische en Vlaamse politieke partij, CD&V);
  • the Flemish Socialist Party (Socialistiche Partij, SP) became the SP.A (see above); and
  • the Flemish-speaking People's Union (Volksunie, VU) became the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, NVA). A new party was also formed by dissidents from the former VU, called SPIRIT.

Collective bargaining

Belgium has a two-year collective bargaining cycle. A two-year national intersectoral agreement is normally concluded at the end of even years, while odd years (ie the first years of these two-year cycles) are marked by the widespread negotiation of mainly sectoral collective agreements and their subsequent registration. The second year of the cycle (even years), generally sees more company agreements. The most recent intersectoral agreement (BE0101337F) dates from December 2000 and covers 2001-2. It covers two main themes:

  • renewal of the 'pay norm' (ie setting pay guidelines linked to developments in neighbouring countries); and
  • seeking a better balance between work and family life.

The intersectoral agreement also contains provisions on other matters, that were to be implemented through the conclusion of specific national collective agreements within the bipartite National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/Nationaal Arbeidsraad, CCT/NAR).

With regard to sectoral bargaining, the Ministry of Employment and Labour has noted a greater propensity in recent years for the social partners to conclude 'protocol agreements' (protocoles d'accord), rather than agreements in the strict sense of the word, in the sectoral joint committees which conduct bargaining. The Ministry states that such protocol agreements usually take the form of a list of agreed points that the parties undertake to comply with in a number of areas, and whose practical implementation is ultimately covered by the conclusion of specific agreements.

In 2000, the directorate of the clerk's office of the Ministry of Employment and Labour's collective labour relations administration registered a total of 2,692 collective agreements and related legal instruments - see table 1 below. This figure exceeded the average of 2,444 for even years which was recorded between 1984 and 2000.

Table 1. No. of collective agreements registered with Ministry of Employment and Labour, 2000
Level Number
National Labour Council 7
Sectoral joint committees 423
Enterprise level 2,262
Total 2,692

Source: Federal Ministry of Employment and Labour.

Available figures for 2001 cover only the first six months of the year, and are comparable with those for the same period in the preceding odd year (ie 1999) - see table 2 below. As the table indicates, there was a slight fall in the number of sectoral agreements concluded in the first six months of 2001; according to the Ministry of Employment and Labour, this may be explained by the fact that negotiations have been taking place slightly later in the year than hitherto.

Table 2. No. of collective agreements registered with Ministry of Employment and Labour, 1999 and 2001
Level 1999 (first six months) 2001 (first six months)
Sectoral agreements 697 589
Enterprise-level agreements 1,491 1,427
Total 2,188 2,016

Source: Federal Ministry of Employment and Labour.

As noted above, the negotiation of collective agreements is one of the main tasks of sectoral joint committees. As of 30 June 2001, there were 95 joint committees and subcommittees, involving a total of 3,129 social partner representatives (of whom only 401, or 12.8%, were women).

Pay

The 2001-2 intersectoral agreement, concluded in December 2000, continued with the practice of seeking wage restraint through the establishment of a 'pay norm' to guide subsequent sector and company-level bargaining, whereby hourly labour costs should not rise any faster than those in Belgium's three main neighbouring countries (France, Germany and the Netherlands). The pay norm was fixed at an increase in hourly wages of 6.4% over 2001-2, including indexation and other increases. However, in contrast to the practice of previous years, the pay norm agreed for 2001-2 is indicative, rather than binding. Sectors where economic performance during 1999 and 2000 was particularly good can exceed the norm, but the overall increase in hourly wages in these sectors may not exceed 7% over 2001-2.

The average pay increase for blue-collar workers in 2001 stood at 4.4%, compared with 2.8% in 2000. The equivalent figures for white-collar workers were 4.0% in 2001 and 3.3% in 2000. These figures represent the total of collectively agreed pay increases, automatic pay indexation and the effects of the reduction of working time.

Working time

The 2001-2 intersectoral agreement provides that the maximum normal working week will be reduced to 38 hours from the current 39 in January 2003. The agreement also includes a chapter on improving the balance between work and family life through the adoption of various measures whereby individuals may reduce their working hours. The implementation of these measures was negotiated in 2001 by the social partners within the National Labour Council, resulting in national collective agreement No. 77 of 14 February (BE0108360F). A new system thus came into force in January 2002, consisting of:

  • the right to a 'time credit'. For a maximum total of one year over their entire career, employees may interrupt their work or reduce it to a half-time job, without breaking off the contract of employment and without loss of social security rights. This time credit may be extended to a maximum of five years by agreement at sectoral (BE0105350F) or company level;
  • the right to a one-fifth working time reduction. During their career, for a maximum period of five years, each employee also has the right to reduce their working hours by one-fifth - in practice generally meaning a four-day working week instead of five days; and
  • the right of those aged over 50 to a reduction in working time. Older employees are entitled to reduce their working hours over an unlimited period of time, either by one fifth or one half.

The government adopted legislation on issues related to the intersectoral agreements's working time provisions in July 2001 (see below under 'Legislative developments').

Sectoral collective agreements concluded in 2001, such as that in metalworking (BE0105350F), implemented the time credit scheme set out in the national agreement.

Pay inequalities

In the 2001-2 intersectoral agreement, the social partners agreed to maintain the efforts initiated in the previous intersectoral agreement with regard to achieving greater quality between women and men, including the the issue of reviewing job classifications to make them gender-neutral.

Job security

The 2001-2 intersectoral agreement provides for new reductions in employers' social security contributions in 2002, if several conditions are met, including a positive evaluation of employers' efforts with regard to employment and training. As with the 1999-2000 agreement, the 2001-2 intersectoral agreement also provides for 0.10% of total paybill to be allocated to the employment and training of people from 'risk groups'.

Training and skills development

Employers and trade unions confirmed their commitment to continuing vocational training in the 2001-2 intersectoral agreement. In practice, this means that companies will have to increase their spending on such training to 1.6% of pay costs by the end of 2002. The aim is to bring Belgium's spending on training up to the average level of its three main neighbouring countries by 2004 (1.9% of pay costs). The intersectoral negotiators also expressly requested individual sectors to give priority in their agreements to training for certain target groups such as older workers, women, unskilled workers and occupations experiencing labour shortages. As noted above, a contribution of 0.10% of total paybill was again allocated for the training and employment of people in vulnerable groups. A new feature of the 2001-2 agreement is that part-time workers are also now entitled to paid education leave for vocational training. Finally, there are additional training opportunities for workers over the age of 45.

Legislative developments

A number of legislative developments took place during 2001, including the following:

  • in parallel with the new intersectoral agreement (see above under 'Collective bargaining'), a law proposed by the Ministry of Employment and Labour was adopted in July 2001, containing several measures aimed at reducing working time collectively and individually with a view to giving workers more time to meet their family and social obligations;
  • in November 2001, the National Labour Council concluded a national collective agreement (with legal effect) introducing a right to breastfeeding breaks at work for nursing mothers from July 2002 (BE0112361F);
  • legislation creating a new Institute for Equality between Men and Women (Institut de l'égalité des femmes et des hommes/Instituut van de Gelijkheid van Vrouwen en Mannen) was adopted in October 2001. The new Institute's role is to conduct studies and propose instruments for the production of gender-related statistics, issue recommendations to the public authorities on all matters relating to equality between women and men, organise support for organisations that promote equality between women and men, provide the public with information and implement equality legislation; and
  • in October 2001, new legislation was adopted on the employment status of childminders (BE0107356F).

The organisation and role of the social partners

The main development in 2001 in terms of trade union organisation was the merger of two unions affiliated to the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV). CSC/ACV Transport and Communications (CSC/ACV-Transcom) was established on 1 April 2001 following a merger between the Christian Communications and Culture Union (Syndicat Chrétien des Communications et de la Culture/Christelijke Vakbond van Communicatiemiddelen en Cultuur, SCCC/CVCC) and the Christian Transport and Diamond Workers' Union (Centrale Chrétienne des Ouvriers du Transport et des Ouvriers Diamantaires/Christelijke Vervoerarbeiders en Diamantbewerkers, CVD).

On the employers' side, the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO) acquired a new member in 2001, the Belgian Producers of Construction Materials (Producteurs Belges de Matériaux de Construction). With this new addition, FEB/VBO now represents over 30,000 enterprises, 85% of which are small and medium-sized companies, employing about 2 million workers.

Industrial action

As mentioned above (under 'Collective bargaining'), 2001 saw a high level of sectoral collective bargaining in the private sector. Negotiations were sometimes difficult and marked by strike action, as in the construction sector (BE0106354F). In other sectors, the social partners managed to negotiate innovative agreements, for example in metalworking (BE0105350F) and in the auxiliary joint committee for white-collar workers in a wide range of sectors (BE0106352N), without recourse to industrial action. At enterprise level, strike action was taken in response to a number of restructuring exercises (see below under 'Company restructuring').

The public sector was marked in 2001 by negotiations, strikes and demonstrations, mainly relating to changes to conditions of employment and salaries:

  • at federal level, civil servants took part in a major demonstration in February 2001 to protest at government reform plans (BE0103342N);
  • post office staff went on strike several times to express their unhappiness with new working methods introduced with a view to modernising the organisation and increasing profitability;
  • workers at Belgian National Railways (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges/Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen, SNCB/NMBS) took industrial action to register their opposition to priorities set out in the company's new investment plan for 2001-2012;
  • in education, teachers in Flanders went on strike for three days in October. The unions involved were protesting against the Flemish education minister's plan to raise the early retirement age for teachers from 55 to 58, with the stated aim of addressing teacher shortages (BE0110304F); and
  • the level of public funding in healthcare became a major point of controversy in the run-up to the announcement of the government's state budget for 2002, in October 2001 (BE0110302N). The relevant parties in the healthcare system, which include the social partners, started seeking an agreement on the healthcare budget for 2002 in early September (without a result by the end of the year). If no agreement was reached, the government was due to step in. Doctors took strike action to support their demands for higher funding (BE0109302F).

On 20 May, about 20,000 people demonstrated in Brussels to demand from the federal government a 'decent standard of living' for recipients of social security benefits. The action was called by 30 organisations, including trade unions (BE0106351N).

Since the 1980s, and with increasing frequency, Belgian employers have been having recourse to the courts to influence the outcome of industrial disputes. Unilateral applications by employers for penalties to be imposed on strikers have often resulted in substantial fines being imposed by the courts. The trade union movement believes that the situation has become intolerable, and that it has called the right to strike fundamentally into question (BE0110306F). In October 2001, the government announced a bill designed to restrict the unilateral intervention of civil courts in industrial disputes (BE0110310N).

National Action Plan (NAP) for employment

In general, both employers and trade unions felt relatively satisfied that they had been consulted early enough in the drawing up of the 2001 Belgian National Action Plan (NAP) for employment. However, both employers and unions were relatively dissatisfied with the extent to which their views had been taken on board in the actual drafting of the plan. They were also not happy about their involvement in the implementation of the NAP and dissatisfied with the NAP's performance in the general management of labour market issues.

Company restructuring

A significant amount of corporate restructuring took place in Belgium in 2001. This included restructuring exercises at: the motor manufacturer Opel (BE0109301F), a subsidiary of the US-based General Motors; the retail firm Carrefour (BE0104347N); the Electrabel electricity group (BE0103343F); and Arcelor, the iron and steel group created by the merger of Arbed (Luxembourg), Usinor (France) and Aceralia (Spain) (BE0104344F). Furthermore, in April 2001, the French-based Danone food group announced that it was closing its Belgian factory (with the loss of 412 jobs), while the UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer announced that it was closing its four Belgian shops (with the loss of 315 jobs). The bankruptcy that received most media coverage in 2001 was that of the national air carrier SABENA (BE0102340F, BE0108359F and BE0109362N); this had been preceded by the failure of another Belgian airline, Citybird.

A feature of restructuring exercises in Belgium is the frequency with which early retirement is used for older workers as a 'non-traumatic' means of dismissal. In this connection, the 'BEST' restructuring plan negotiated by management and unions at the Belgacom telecommunications operator in December 2001 was seen as innovative, in that the company offered financial incentives to ensure that staff of early retirement age leaving the firm did not leave the labour market entirely (BE0201322N).

Employee participation

For many years, trade unions have been seeking the establishment of social dialogue structures in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are not covered by union representation or statutory employee participation structures. The intersectoral agreement for 2001-2 called on sectoral negotiators to set up external structures to enable social dialogue in SMEs (ie 'pooled' dialogue structures for a number of SMEs in a particular area). Several such regional consultation bodies have been established, in the retail sector for example (BE0102339N).

New forms of work

Temporary agency work in Belgium underwent change in 2001: following an agreement reached by the social partners in the construction sector in June, it is now possible to use temporary agency workers in this industry (BE0107355N), a practice which had hitherto been banned.

Under the agreement, agency work are to be introduced through structures peculiar to the construction sector - sectoral temporary work agencies, which must be accredited and monitored by the industry's social partners. These agencies are based on an existing network of provincial bodies that manage workers' training. To ensure that safety and the length of assignments are kept under control, temporary agency workers must be registered with these agencies and must also undergo 16 hours' safety training before taking up their first job. Temporary agency work is permitted only for a maximum period of two years per worker. The contract thereafter becomes open-ended. Agency workers have the same social benefits and rights as workers in the construction sector. Lastly, the trade unions have effective control over the use of this form of flexibility, as the company trade union delegation's agreement is required, particularly for the hiring of temporary labour when the user enterprise experiences exceptional peaks of workload.

Outlook

In January 2002, the government presented a document on economic and social priorities for 2002 and 2003 (BE0203301N). Among other matters, it referred to structural problems of a socio-economic nature that the government wishes to address before the end of the current legislature in mid-2003. These include:

  • reducing wage costs, which are seen as too high in Belgium compared with neighbouring countries;
  • reducing excessively high fiscal charges;
  • raising the employment rate, particularly in the 50-64 age group; and
  • increasing market flexibility.

The government asked the social partners to discuss four matters with a view to incorporating them into the intersectoral agreement for 2003-4, which must be negotiated by the end of 2002. These issues are the current unfavourable development in wage costs, the effects of reducing social security contributions, making the labour market more flexible and expanding training in enterprises. These issues are thus likely to be prominent in Belgian industrial relations in 2002.

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