Jobs should be top priority, say Flemish employers

At the October 1997 conference of VEV, the Flemish employers' federation, the organisation's president stressed that employment shouldbe the number one priority and signalled VEV's willingness to negotiate a "social agreement" for Flanders.

On 15 October 1997, the Flemish Economic Union (Vlaams Economisch Verbond, VEV) - the federation of Flemish employers - held its annual conference where the current president, Karel Vinck, a chief executive officer of Union Minière, made some remarkable statements. He declared that the VEV is ready to make a commitment to create a specific number of new jobs sector by sector. Employment creation, according to Mr Vinck, has to be a vigorous goal for the organisation. He also attributed the failures of the social dialogue over the last few years to the lack of clear employment-oriented goals in a broader long-term plan. The goals of past "social bargaining" were not employment but the defence of wage levels, fringe benefits, other working conditions and also the competitive position of Belgian enterprises. According to Mr Vinck, the focus should shift to a new balance between economic growth, flexibility and social protection, because the "Anglo-Saxon model" does not fit the Belgian context: the VEV supports the principles of the "welfare model".

These statements represent a clear break with the point of view normally advocated by Flemish employers in the past. They also are an important stimulus for the "Flemish social dialogue" between the Flemish Government and social partners. This social bargaining is in parallel with the federal process, but seems to have more prospects for positive results. Moreover, the Flemish Government announced in September 1997 that BEF 20 billion will be available to support a social agreement for a three-year period.

Based on this knowledge, the VEV president gave an important hint to the Federal Government: open up opportunities for the Flemish Region (if necessary by way of a new round of changes to the state structure) to use fiscal and para-fiscal instruments to decrease employer contributions. Mr Vinck mentioned the fact that the cost of employment will have to be lowered drastically (by between 5% and 10%) and that the Government will have to contribute by investing in training and supporting innovative sectors. as well as by cutting the number of bureaucratic obstacles to flexible investment. Mr Vinck was equally clear in his message to the trade unions: they also will have to make employment their number one priority, whereas before they focused on protecting wages and social rights.

If the unions and the Government are willing to support the VEV point of view, and if a social agreement at the Flemish level can be negotiated, then the VEV is willing in return to engage in the creation of possibly up to 150,000 new jobs in Flanders over the next three years.

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