Belgium: latest working life developments Q2 2018

Ongoing discussions about pension reform for ‘heavy occupations’, the signing of an agreement in the non-profit sector and strikes in the railway sector are the main topics of this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the first quarter of 2018.

Early retirement on the cards for workers in ‘heavy’ occupations

By 2030, the government plans to increase the legal pension age to 67 years old. However, by way of compensation, those in jobs that are recognised as being ‘heavy occupations’ will be able to retire earlier (with 60 as a minimum age).

Discussions about this proposed change have been ongoing for some time, with separate talks initially held for the public and private sector. However, after private sector discussions between employer organisations and trade unions failed to reach a conclusion, Minister of Pensions Daniel Bacquelaine decided to instigate planning reforms within the public sector.

Minister Bacquelaine and the private sector trade unions each developed criteria to determine which occupations would be considered ‘heavy’. However, within the government, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) complained that the implementation of the list undermined the reforms that were initially planned. Prime Minister Charles Michel had to intervene in order to prevent the N-VA from prematurely ending negotiations.

The decisions made by Minister Bacquelaine caused unrest with the private sector trade unions, which ultimately led to a strike on 16 May in Brussels. An estimated 80,000 trade union members came together to protest the proposed pension reforms, which the unions described as a form of budget cuts leading to the deterioration of working conditions for employees.

A key part of the overall debate involves the extent to which stress should be taken into account when determining the list of heavy occupations. Minister Bacquelaine is opposed to this notion, as it would make the list far too extensive. Decisions on a few specific occupations including teachers, military personnel and railway personnel have also caused bottlenecks in the discussion process.

The three factors that ultimately determine if a job is a heavy occupation are physical effort, irregular working hours and unsafe working conditions. If one of these factors is present, a person’s working year counts for 1.05 years, two factors counts for 1.10 years and three factors counts for 1.15 years. The system will come into effect in 2020 and only working years after this date will be taken into account (with a few exceptions).

The plans for the public sector are well advanced and have been agreed upon by both Minister Bacquelaine and public sector unions. However, the government is delaying its final agreement until the situation in the private sector becomes clear. Negotiations are currently being held within the Management Committee for Pensions for the private sector, while social partners are planning to expand the criteria defining a heavy occupation rather than draft a new list.

New agreement ensures more pay and jobs in social sector

Social partners within the private, non-profit sector signed a sectoral agreement for 2018–2020. The agreement was also signed by the government at the beginning of June, resulting in an increase in purchasing power of €537 million for approximately 220,000 employees within the Flemish non-profit sector.

Additionally, employees within the care and socio-cultural sector will receive a thirteenth month’s salary, as well as a rise in the fees for flexible and irregular work. Extra budget will be made available to increase the number of jobs within the sector by 8,000. Negotiations within the Flemish non-profit sector are still ongoing.

Railway workers strike over unequal access to benefits

Several strikes occurred at the National Railway Company of Belgium (NMBS/SNCB) throughout the second quarter of 2018, largely triggered by the negotiations on heavy occupations. The railway unions were critical of Minister Bacquelaine’s decisions, as not all railway personnel are eligible to benefit from the heavy occupations regulation.

These strikes also proved a first test for the new minimal service system that was introduced by Flemish Minister of Mobility and Public Works Ben Weyts. The system had already led to the rejection of strike plans by the smaller railway unions – the Independent Rail Staff Union (OVS) and Metisp-Protect – as they did not adhere to the procedure that has to be followed when strikes are announced at NMBS/SNCB (i.e. an eight-day warning period). These strikes concerned the fact that wages for train drivers in the public sector would increase to match those within the private sector, but only if the drivers agree to work more hours.

Meanwhile, the N-VA, with the support of the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD), launched a proposal to abolish the veto right of the unions when deciding on crucial agreements. The proposal attempts to make social elections at NMBS/SNCB similar to those within the private sector. The Christian Democratic Party (CD&V) and Prime Minister Michel disagree with the proposal, as they are keen to prevent further escalation between the government and the unions.

Commentary

Discussions about heavy occupations are expected to continue for some time, especially within the private sector. The trade unions envisage a more flexible implementation of the criteria than do the employers. However, Minister Bacquelaine remains optimistic and aims to complete all negotiations before the summer recess.

With regard to the changes at NMBS/SNCB, the government’s decision to open up social elections to the smaller unions seems to have had an adverse effect. The government planned to introduce a law that would mean only trade unions with enough elected representatives were able to strike. As the smaller unions, such as OVS and the Autonomous Train Drivers’ Union (ASTB), are strongly outnumbered by the three traditional unions, this would make it unlikely that they would receive enough votes. However, the constitutional court refuted the proposed law, ultimately leading to further liberalisation of the right to form unions and strike.

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