Restructuring and job losses planned in aeronautical industry

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Two major companies in the Belgian aeronautical industry, Sabca and Sonaca, have been forced by the sector's difficulties to restructure their activities. Plans announced by the two Wallonia-based companies in spring 2003 will involve making several hundred workers redundant. The trade unions are demanding alternative solutions, and stepped up protest work stoppages during June.

Belgian aeronautical constructors have been passing through a period of strong turbulence for some time. In spring 2003, two of the leading companies in the sector, Société Anonyme Belge de Construction Aéronautique (Sabca) and Sonaca- both based at Gosselies in the Charleroi area of Wallonia - announced the implementation of restructuring plans.

Sonaca, 98% of whose capital is held by the Walloon regional authorities, and which specialises in the production of leading edges for aircraft wings, intends to reduce its 1,700-strong workforce by 270. The plan provides for about 170 redundancies and about 100 departures through early redundancy and the non-renewal of fixed-term contracts, while some 100 employees will also have their contracts suspended for economic reasons for several months. The plan additionally provides for a reduction in labour costs through an extension of the working week from 35 to 38 hours and a pay freeze lasting at least three years. According to a member of the Sonaca board, Christian Jacqmin (quoted in the La Libre Belgique newspaper): 'The current crisis is the greatest that the aerospace sector has known. If we do not react, the enterprise will be in danger of no longer being competitive, and its profitability will be compromised.'

At the same time, Sabca announced a restructuring plan that would lead to 321 job losses and a 15% cut in pay costs. Sabca, which employs 1,100 people (365 at Gosselies and 735 in Brussels), is active in aerospace, civil and military aeronautics. Following initial discussions between management and trade unions, the number of job losses was reduced to 296. According to Sabca's managing director, Raymond Pellichero, 'This plan is extremely hard, but it reflects the gravity of the issues we have to face up to. This plan must be accepted. If not, I think that the future of Sabca will become extremely problematic.'

Sabca staff have organised several stoppages since the end of March 2003 in protest against the management's plan, and on 4 June, blue-collar workers at the company's site at Gosselies unanimously rejected the restructuring plan, including the proposed wage restraint. 'We will only negotiate about alternatives to compulsory redundancies,' stated Remy Jouniaux, a representative of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV). At the end of June, strike action took place at both of the Sabca sites at Gosselies and at Haren (Brussels). In the absence of an agreement with the trade unions, the company’s management has asked for a conciliation meeting in the sectoral joint committee.

On 10 June, the Belgian Aerospace Industries Association (Association fédérale belge de l'industrie aéronautique belge, Gebecoma), of which both Sonaca and Sabca are members, called for the adoption of measures to help it to overcome the crisis the sector has been experiencing since the end of 2001. The crisis includes the effects of the attacks on the USA of 11 September 2001 and the increasing value of the euro against the US dollar. Urgent measures need to be adopted 'if our country does not want to lose this high technology sector', claims the employers' association, which is calling for measures that will facilitate more flexible staff management, the opportunity to suspend the contracts of employees in the sector for economic reasons, and more flexible legislation relating to temporary work. For its part, the Metalworking Federation of CSC/ACV (CSC Métal/ACV Metaal) has printed 10,000 copies of a platform of demands for the aerospace industry.

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