Working time reductions agreed in Belgian companies

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While current sectoral agreements in Belgium favour the redistribution of work, a variety of companies have been adopting novel approaches to the reduction of working time in agreements signed in late 1997 and early 1998.

Most of the two-year sectoral collective agreements concluded in 1997 (BE9706205F) favour tackling unemployment by redistributing available work through, for example, early retirement, career breaks and part-time work. An exception was the insurance sector, where working time reductions were agreed, accompanied by working time reductions (BE9707111N). In recent months, company-level agreements on reductions in working time have been concluded in several different types of firm in very different sectors. They clearly have very different objectives: in some cases, the reduction of working time is intended to maintain the firm's viability, while in others it has been negotiated in exchange for increased flexibility or to create new jobs.

In autumn 1997, agreements to reduce working time were signed at the Cockerill-Sambre steelworks (BE9711123F) and at Volkswagen's Forest plant (BE9709116N).

Since then, a reduction of working time has been negotiated in exchange for increased productivity at the truck-tyre manufacturer Uniroyal (at Herstal), the Belgian headquarters of which was threatened with closure. The firm's 600 workers are covered by the agreement, which does not create any new jobs. The introduction of a 32-hour working week instead of a 37.5-hour week accompanies the introduction of four shifts working four eight-hour days over a six-day week instead of a five-day week. Wages are reduced in line with the reduction in the number of hours worked.

The management of Axial (Seneffe), a car-parts distribution centre, had planned to dismiss 82 of the firm's 254 workers in early 1998. A 10% wage cut for the remaining staff was also planned. Negotiations with the trade unions produced a formula involving transition to a 32-hour week, using the so-called "Vande Lanotte plan" which grants reductions in social security contributions to firms resorting to the reduction of working time when reorganising (BE9711123F). Workers will experience a real wage cut, but this is largely compensated for by bonuses arising from other government schemes (the net wage loss is 4%). The agreement is valid for two years.

The Defever laundry works (Bredene) employs 63 workers, of whom 24 will move from a 37.5 hour to a 32-hour week. The hours freed will be filled by the recruitment by four new workers. For certain workers, working hours will vary during the year according to the volume of work, but the agreement provides that no further flexibility measure will be introduced. The agreement used the so-called "proactive" provisions in the Vande Lanotte plan. While the "defensive" part covers firms engaged in reorganisation, the "proactive" part provides for the reduction of social security contributions when jobs are created. In this instance, the benefit of the reduction in contributions is shared between employer and workers: the "workers" part aims at compensating them partly for their loss of income.

The Frameries local authority has concluded an agreement with the General Confederation of Public Services (Centrale Générale des Services Publics, CGSP) trade union, providing for a general transition from a 38-hour to a 35-week for 274 municipal employees with new recruitment of at least 10 people. The hours reduction covers established officials as well as temporary staff. The salaries of those involved will remain at 97.5% of the previous level.

After six months of rotating strikes and protests, the 14,000 workers at the electricity-distribution firm Electrabel have obtained the gradual introduction of the 35-hour week from 1999 (BE9801130N). Salaries will be frozen until 2002 and first 300 and then 1,000 recruitments are planned.

Lastly it should be noted that pressure for a reduction in working time with compensatory recruitment has also been exerted by prison officers and the not-for-profit sector (BE9712225N). On 26 February, after a month-long strike, prison officers obtained a 36-hour week and compensatory recruitment.


"Le temps de travail. Transformations du droit et des relations collectives de travail", M Jamoulle et al, CRISP, Bruxelles (1997).

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