Armed attacks on cash transport sector jeopardise working conditions

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The death in hold-ups of three Belgian security guards collecting and delivering cash sparked off a general strike in the sector in January 1998, which continues at the time of writing (mid-February). Demanding better security and the recognition of risks specific to this kind of job, security guards are seeking to define the conditions for the practice of this new profession. However, these demands, which result in new costs for the employers (the security and patrol companies) jeopardise their business. The principal customers, banks and large stores, are pressing for a reduction in the costs of these services and seeking ways of doing without them, and jobs are threatened.

In early January 1998, following the death in hold-ups of three security guards collecting and delivering cash, a general strike was called in the sector, which continues in mid-February. A particular feature of this dispute is that besides the direct actors - the security guards' trade union representatives and the employers, the security and patrol companies - it also involves customers' representatives - the Belgian Bankers' Association (Association Belge des Banques/Belgische Vereniging van Banken, ABB/BVB) and the Belgian Federation of Distributors (Fédération des Entreprises de Distribution/Belgische Federatie van de Distributieondernemingen, FEDIS) - and the Home Affairs Minister.

Background

An initial four-week strike took place in the cash transport sector in March 1996 following the violent death of a security guard in the GMIC store. In fact the number of attacks had risen steeply in the years immediately before that: 14 attacks took place between 1995 and 1996, with 13 injured and four dead amongst transport staff. The unions demanded personal protection measures to guarantee workers' safety and special rules for the delivery and collection of cash.

Following the 1996 strike, the Home Affairs Minister temporarily banned night deliveries and collections on public security grounds, which indirectly answered union demands, but above all he wanted to persuade the firms and their customers to use a system of "smart bags" (capable of destroying their contents) and to set up security locks in buildings to prevent contacts between the carrier and public thoroughfares. Pending the introduction of such very expensive devices the employers - the security and patrol companies - conceded some specific claims including danger money and indemnities in case of death. They also agreed, temporarily, to put three people in each transport team. The 1996 dispute laid the basis for the definition of this new area of economic activity, but the current dispute goes one step further.

The security industry has had a joint committee only since 1983. This committee represents all firms, categories of workers and activities: night guards, patrol staff and all types of security and patrol agents. Cash collection and delivery is an extra service for firms, such as banks and multiple stores, which use outside security companies. These have subcontracted all their patrol and security activities to specialised firms which were able to offer the service at a lower cost, as the status of their staff was less favourable: blue-collar rather than white-collar job grades, casual work, flexible hours, very little social protection and very low wages.

Several collective agreements signed in the joint committee have gradually made it possible to fix minimum working conditions in security services: statutory working hours, recognition of night and week-end shift hours and a minimum wage. But before the increase in attacks in the early 1990s, these agreements did not include any specific measures for security guards collecting and delivering cash. The increase in injuries and death among those guards led the unions to demand specific benefits both in terms of security and wages: in 1993-4, their net average monthly pay rose to BEF 42,000, or 10% to 12% more than the minimum wage.

The current dispute

The current dispute has the same aim as previous initiatives: to further a demand for special status for cash transport staff with a wage rise, improvement in danger money and death indemnity and also the reduction of the retirement age. However, the main objective is to keep three-person teams to protect jobs and guarantee security. According to Jean-Marie Frissen of the Belgian Union of White-Collar Staff, Technicians and Managers (Syndicat des Employés, Techniciens et Cadres de Belgique/Bedienden, Technicien Kaders van Belgiê, SETCA/BBTK), one of the unions in this sector: "Between 1996 and today, the number of jobs has fallen from 1,200 to 900. We want those 900 jobs to be well protected."

A spokesperson for Group 4 Securitas, the leading firm in the security business, has stated that: "Between 1996 and 1998 we lost a large amount of business, as customers thought of alternative means of limiting the number of cash movements". This is why employers refuse to keep the third team member, who they consider to be pointless given the introduction of the "smart bag". They consider such a system too costly, especially as their clients are playing the competition to put pressure on prices.

In fact, the clients have intervened in the dispute directly. The ABB/BVB, the federation representing the banking sector, thinks that keeping the third member is a luxury: "With the smart bag, just one person would be sufficient". According to the organisation's director, G Ravoet: "The transport companies must show some creativity in saving jobs. There may be means of collecting and delivering cash other than armed vans; why not suggest anonymous transports, without arms, as in other countries?"

Such a solution has already been envisaged by the National Federation of White-Collar Workers (Centrale Nationale des Employés/Landelijke Bedienden Central, CNE/LBC), the Christian union for bank and retail workers, which has protested against transport by unprotected workers and demands a legal ban on such a practice. On 7 and 9 February 1998, SETCA/BBTK organised solidarity protests in the multiple stores and the banks on the security question.

The banks' intervention complicates the negotiations. According to Vincent Ancora, of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV): "The bosses do not know how to negotiate; they always hide behind their clients, the banks and the multiple stores. They should accept their responsibilities."

As the official conciliator appointed to find a solution to this dispute is the president of the security services joint committee in the Ministry of Employment, he is not empowered to talk to the banks and stores, the influence of which on the direction of decisions is crucial. Moreover, he must resolve questions to do with public security for which he is not competent, as they depend on the Home Affairs Ministry.

The Home Affairs Minister believes that a third team member would only increase the danger and he has refused to make three-person teams compulsory, as suggested by the conciliator in a proposal submitted on 10 February to resolve the deadlock. He backs only the "bags" and the security locks, but the first could not be operational for six months and banks and stores have not decided to install the locks.

Meanwhile, the strike goes on. Cash collection and delivery operations have been carried out by the police, and union negotiators have agreed temporarily to remove pickets to enable the Post Office- under union control - to collect the necessary cash to pay old-age pensions and some social benefits. However, concrete solutions will be found only by the workers' representatives and the security and patrol companies.

Commentary

Just as the cash collection and delivery industry was starting to introduce its own rules governing working conditions and competitive practices, their usefulness has been challenged by its main users, the banks and multiple stores. The logic behind the creation of the industry, namely to reduce costs through subcontracting, conflicts with the very introduction of the new rules, which attempt to professionalise the workers involved and regulate their working conditions. (Philippe Dryon and Estelle Krzeslo, Point d'Appui Travail Emploi Formation - ULB)

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