The present National Labour Council in Belgium had a number of predecessors. In 1892 a Hogere Arbeidsraad (Supreme Labour Council) was created with responsibility, at national level, for dealing with disputes between employers and employees and examining possible improvements to living and working conditions. To this end, the Council advised on matters submitted to it by the government and could itself, at the government's request, draft opinions. In addition to this general responsibility, which was used very extensively in connection, for example, with workshop rules, contracts of employment and accidents at work, the Council acted as the mandatory consultative body on matters relating to female and child employment, the Sunday rest day and working hours.

In 1935 this Supreme Labour Council was replaced by the Hoge Raad voor de Arbeid en de Maatschappelijke Voorzorg (Supreme Council for Labour and Social Welfare), which again was a consultative body. In addition to the various specific cases on which it had been mandatory to consult the Supreme Labour Council, the Supreme Council for Labour and Social Welfare had to be consulted on the subject of paid annual holidays, the 40-hour week and health and safety at work.

On December 19, 1944, in accordance with the principles of the Draft Social Solidarity Pact between employers' and employees' representatives, a National Joint Council was next set up. This was an informal body, with no legal status. The National Joint Council, again, fulfilled a conciliation function and presided over the conclusion of collective agreements. Various laws involved the intervention of the National Joint Council: for example, the Decree-Law of May 14, 1946 on salaries and wages, the Decree-Law of February 25, 1947 on the granting of a certain number of public holidays per year, the Essential Public Services in Peacetime Act of August 19, 1948 and the Laws of March 9, 1951 on annual holidays.

After various legislative steps, the present National Labour Council was eventually set up under the National Labour Council Act of May 29, 1952. In order to ensure its independence, it was created as a body in public law, like the Central Economic Council . Its powers were then substantially extended by the Collective Agreements and Joint Committees Act of December 5, 1968.

The present National Labour Council is composed of a maximum of twenty four members with an equal number of substitutes. As a joint body, its composition is equally divided between representatives of the most representative employers' associations and trade unions. These members are appointed by Royal Decree for a four-year term of office, which is renewable. They are selected from lists submitted by the representative employers' and employees' organizations offering two candidates for each seat. The Minister for Employment and Labour designates those organizations which are to be recognized as representative, and also fixes the number of candidates that each organization may propose. This distribution is chosen to reflect the strength of the individual organizations, and is settled by agreement between them.

The chairperson is appointed by Royal Decree from among independent individuals with specialist experience in social and economic matters. The term of office is six years and renewable, and the office carries no voting rights.

The main function of the National Labour Council is an advisory one, consisting in delivering opinions to a Minister or to the two Chambers of the legislature (either when consulted or on its own initiative) on general issues of a social nature. Since it deals only with general issues of a social nature, it is the counterpart of the Central Economic Council. Moreover, its responsibilities cover only universal issues, i.e. those affecting every employee and employer. Thus, problems which arise in a particular industry do not fall within the Council's sphere of responsibility, but within that of the Joint Committee for the industry concerned.

The matters it deals with are also confined to issues relating to employees and employers. Consequently, social issues connected, for example, with public assistance, the status of the self-employed in social legislation, etc., do not fall within the Council's sphere of responsibility. However, they need not be matters relating at the same time to both employers and employees.

Article 1 of the 1952 National Labour Council Act makes the Council responsible for "delivering an opinion on any jurisdiction disputes arising between Joint Committees ". Expressly assigning such responsibility to the Council was superfluous, since jurisdiction disputes between Joint Committees, as social issues, clearly fall within its sphere of responsibility.

Ministers and Chambers of the legislature are not obliged to consult the Council. In principle, the Council is required to deliver opinions when consulted. However, nobody can prevent it from delivering a particular opinion. Nor is Parliament or the Minister to whom an opinion or proposal is addressed obliged to adopt the Council's view. These opinions can be of great value in establishing the exact meaning of a legal text in cases where a legal provision originates from a Council opinion. Opinions must be delivered in the form of reports showing the various viewpoints expressed within the Council.

The innovation introduced by the 1968 Collective Agreements and Joint Committees Act is of great importance. It empowered the National Labour Council to conclude collective agreements covering a number of different industries and applicable over the whole of Belgium. It can also conclude an agreement for a particular industry for which no specific Joint Committee exists or where an existing Joint Committee does not function. Collective agreements concluded within the Council cover all private sector industries. Very extensive use has been made of this power.

Please note: the European industrial relations glossaries were compiled between 1991 and 2003 and are not updated. For current material see the European industrial relations dictionary.