The fixing of pay and employment conditions between the employer(s) or employers' association(s) and the employees' representatives by way of an agreement, known as a collective agreement . In Belgium there is a system of free collective bargaining, although the government, subject to having allowed the social partners the opportunity of negotiating on matters themselves, and to proper observance of a parliamentary procedure (1989 Preservation of the Country's Competitiveness Act), always has the power to intervene in collective bargaining in order to preserve the competitiveness of enterprises. In Belgium collective bargaining takes place at several levels. In 1988 the tradition of national multi-industry bargaining was resumed and a central agreement was concluded for the years 1989 and 1990.
This agreement covers employment and vocational training (education and training for young people and the unemployed who are difficult to place in new jobs, positive action in favour of women, career breaks, stages (special training opportunities) for young people, in-service courses), bridging pensions , and the older unemployed. The government was exerting considerable pressure when this agreement was concluded: extension of the Maribel scheme (assistance for employers in the form of reduced social security contributions in respect of any additional workers hired), and discontinuation of administrative controls on compliance with the obligations of enterprises to hire additional workers under the employment agreements imposed by the 5/3/3 scheme (see reduction of working hours ). At the same time the government took steps itself to deal with matters on which the social partners were not in accord and which were therefore an obstacle to a central agreement; these included special protection for the members of works councils and workplace health and safety committees , and the pensionable age (a flexible pensionable age). All this bears witness to the tripartism in Belgian industrial relations, with the government and social partners as its actors. In the past few years the social partners have regained part of their autonomy.
On November 27, 1990 a new central agreement was concluded for the years 1991-92. In this agreement the parties declare their support of freedom of collective bargaining and preservation of the competitiveness of enterprises: it places special emphasis on employment in the context of the economic situation, including the uncertainties resulting from the Gulf crisis. It covers, for example:
a. an increase in the guaranteed average minimum monthly income and adjustment of the average monthly income for minors;
b. vocational training and employment of high-risk groups: 0.25 per cent. of gross earnings, with 0.10 per cent. earmarked for the most vulnerable categories within these groups (long-term unemployed, young people in part-time compulsory education, disabled persons, new entrants to the labour market, low-skilled unemployed and employees). These matters are to be regulated in more detail in industry-wide and company-level agreements. The Ministry of Employment and Labour is to monitor relevant agreements and if necessary impose the payment of a contractual contribution to the Employment Fund, to be collected by the National Office of Social Security;
c. harmonization of the supplementary allowance for the older unemployed;
d. an increase in maternity leave to 15 weeks;
e. entitlement to three days' leave of absence on the occasion of the birth or adoption of a child;
f. an increase in the notional pay used as a basis for calculating the holiday allowance for blue-collar workers;
g. a one-off payment equivalent to the double-pay entitlement for the third day of the fourth week of holiday.
It is said that the cost of the agreement will amount to 0.62 per cent. of total wages and salaries (at present 1,700 thousand million Belgian francs).
This central bargaining or concertation is accompanied by bargaining at industry-wide level and at enterprise or company level. The central agreements do not go beyond relatively general provisions; more detailed provisions are filled in at the level of each industry. In 1983-1984, 66 per cent. of employees in a given industry were covered by a collective agreement concluded at industry-wide level; in 1985-1986 the figure was 75 per cent., and in 1987-1988 it was 85 per cent.
And in recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of collective agreements concluded at company or enterprise level: from 40-70 company agreements in the 1970s to 624 company agreements in 1982 and 1,989 company agreements in 1987. Bargaining at company or enterprise level is concerned mainly with new issues such as flexibility and work organization.
Although free collective bargaining on employees' pay has been restored, the government still possesses the power to exert pressure by imposing a pay policy under the 1989 Preservation of the Country's Competitiveness Act. In this connection the Central Economic Council is required to issue twice per year a report and an opinion on the competitiveness of Belgian enterprises, which are submitted immediately to the government and the two Chambers of the legislature (the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate). These documents serve as a basis for negotiations between the government and the social partners. Starting from the date on which the government has convened the social partners for negotiations, the latter have a period of one month in which to take measures themselves (in the form of a collective agreement) which restore or preserve competitiveness, or to propose to the government measures which fall within its powers. If the government is of the opinion that competitiveness is still jeopardized, it can submit a reasoned statement to this effect to the Chambers of the legislature. If the latter concur with the government, for a period of two months following the vote in Parliament the government, acting through Royal Decree, can take the measures deemed necessary to preserve or restore competitiveness.
In exceptional circumstances (events originating abroad, including dramatic changes in rates of exchange), more rapid intervention is possible. Should the case arise, the Central Economic Council is requested to deliver an emergency opinion and the social partners are convened for emergency negotiations. Where necessary, the social partners then have a maximum period of one month within which to take measures by way of collective agreement. If the government is, nevertheless, still of the opinion that competitiveness remains jeopardized, it can submit a reasoned statement to Parliament. If Parliament concurs, for two months following the vote the government, acting through Ministerial Decree, can take the measures necessary to preserve or restore policy on competitiveness.