Belgium: Latest working life developments Q3 2018

Civil servant strikes, a dispute between Ryanair and trade unions, and negotiations about arduous work in the private sector are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the third quarter of 2018.

Civil servants strike over changes to benefits

The Flemish government agreed several changes with regard to the conditions and benefits civil servants are entitled to within their so-called ‘labour deal’. The main (and most disputed) ones are changes to the sick leave arrangements for civil servants. Under the new system, they will receive their full wages for the first 30 days and the amount will be reduced to 65% beyond this point (under the previous system, the full wage would be paid out indefinitely). Additionally, civil servants currently receive 21 sick days every year and if they do not use them, they can transfer them to the following year. The government intends to put an end to this arrangement.[1]

Another disputed point is the fact that dismissal options (which are currently much stricter than in the private sector) will be expanded. In the past, civil servants could only be fired after two negative evaluations within three years. Under the proposed new arrangement, two negative evaluations across an entire career will be enough for dismissal.

Strikes were first announced at the beginning of July by the General Confederation of Public Services (CGSP/ACOD). By the end of July, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV/CSC) also announced actions that would take place in September.

Lockkeepers undertook several particularly disruptive protest actions throughout Q3. Many locks on the inland waterways remained closed for periods of time, leading to problems in the different harbours. In addition, the sea and harbour pilots in the large harbours went on strike in September.

A large strike was planned for 21 September by all civil servant federations, followed by a general day of action against the government’s pension plan on 2 October, two weeks before the municipal elections. However, the unions and Minister Liesbeth Homans came to a compromise on 18 September and all actions regarding civil servants were cancelled (the general pension strike on 2 October continued as planned).[2]

The proposed changes have now been put on hold until a final agreement between both parties has been reached. A working group will meet each week to discuss the matter and try to find a compromise.

Travellers pay the price for Ryanair dispute

As in other European countries, a dispute arose between Belgian trade unions and Ryanair in Q3. The first strikes took place at the end of July, leading to the cancellation of approximately 100 flights. Both pilots and cabin crews undertook strike actions, with trade union representatives for the cabin crews even stating they were willing to strike every month.

The trade unions demanded that Ryanair signs a Belgian collective agreement, which would mean the company recognises Belgian labour law and courts. Such an agreement would also allow for a Belgian trade union delegation within the company. Ryanair agreed to sign the collective agreement as long as strikes planned for the 28 September were dismissed. Trade union representatives were critical of the statements made by company’s CEO Michael O’Leary and wanted to see formal documents and proposals first.[3] Minister of Employment, Economy and Consumer Affairs Kris Peeters demanded that Ryanair reimburse travellers that were affected by the strikes.

Private sector talks around arduous work stall

Discussions related to ‘heavy occupations’ (arduous work) within the private sector came to a halt in Q3, with negotiations between social partners failing to lead to an agreement.[4]

Minister of Pensions Daniel Bacquelaine expected the negotiations to be held in a similar way to those in the public sector, where employees with an arduous job in the private sector receive the same benefits as their public sector counterparts. However, the employer organisations see this as a step backwards, as there is currently no separate arrangement for heavy occupations within the private sector. Therefore, they are not willing to come to a compromise. The trade unions state that the employer organisations are dragging the issue out until after the summer, so that they can use arduous work as leverage during the upcoming wage negotiations. [5]

Another goal of the 2 October strike against the government’s pension policy was to increase pressure on the ongoing negotiations regarding arduous work. Several thousand trade union members participated in the strike across the country.


The dispute with civil servants has calmed for the moment, as the working group is currently negotiating behind closed doors. However, general dissatisfaction among the unions regarding the government’s pension policy remains.

The issues at Ryanair are likely to continue as there is little trust between both parties and O’Leary has accused competing airlines of interfering in the negotiations to gain a competitive advantage.

It is also likely that the social partners will fail to come to an agreement on heavy occupations within the private sector. With both sides offering Minister Bacquelaine their own advice on the matter, the decision will be largely up to him.


[1] De Morgen (2018), Ambtenaren zullen hun ziektedagen niet langer kunnen opsparen, ACV is kwaad, 25 July.

[2] De Tijd (2018), Homans en vakbonden Vlaamse ambtenaren bereiken compromis , 18 September.

[3] De Tijd (2018), Ryanair baas valt crazy unions in België aan , 27 September.

[4] Eurofound (2018), Belgium: latest working life developments 2018

[5] De Tijd (2018), Overleg zware beroepen in privé draait vierkant, 10 July.

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