Ministry rejects sectoral collective agreement

After three months of negotiations, a new Interprofessional Agreement (IPA) was reached in Belgium in January 2011. However, the government insisted that it should put a 0.3% limit on wage increases until the end of 2012. Since some social partners did not sign it, the agreement had to be enacted by royal decree. The stone quarrying sector, rejecting the IPA, then negotiated a higher wage rise. The Ministry of Employment has now declared this settlement invalid, angering unions.

IPAfinalised by the government

At the conclusion of negotiations for a new cross-sectoral agreement at the start of 2011 (BE1102011I),unions and employers’ representatives were facing deep disagreements over the annual wage increase. Negotiations on a new Interprofessional Agreement (IPA) for 2011–2012 had begun three months earlier in November 2010.

The government decided to use its authority to fix the level of the yearly wage increase at 0% for 2011 and 0.3 % for 2012, not taking into account Belgium’s automatic wage indexation device that compensates for inflation (BE1105011I). However, because somesocial partners did not sign the IPA, itwas transposed into law by a royal decree, instead of being signed by social partners and transposed by the National Labour Council (CNT/NAR).

Once these increases were fixed by the government, bargaining started in every sector.

Favourable agreement for a sector facing difficulties

Despite this restrictive framework, most of the sectors signed the new agreement. However, the stonequarrying sector,which employsa few hundred workers,is facing a difficult situation with a combination of hardworking conditions andan ageing workforce.

Employers’ representatives and unions were awareof this situation and in response they decided to come up with incentives to encourage young people to work in the sectorThey agreeda higher yearly wage increase than the IPA at around €0.06 per hour for 2011 and €0.07 per hour for 2012. This corresponds to an increase of 1% over two years against the 0.3 % outlined in the IPA.

Juridical decision versus pragmatic bargaining

Although the IPAwas commuted by royal decree rather than being brought into force in the usual way, the Ministry of Employment has effectively recognised it and all employers in any sector should be bound by it.

In early July the Ministry of Employment decided to reject the agreementarguing that the current IPA has priority over any sectoral agreement because it was brought into force by royal decree. Using the juridical principle of hierarchy of legal norms, the Ministry argued that only wage increases within the limits set by the IPA were valid.The unions, seeking to defend the basic right to collective bargaining, were angered by the ministry’s decision to reject an agreement negotiated independently between employers and unions.

However,at the moment it seems thatthe new sectoral agreement is only binding on those companiesthat were represented during negotiations,rather than the stone-cutting sector as a whole. It remains to be seen whether other sectors will be affected and whether the ministry will reject other sectoral agreements that do not comply with the wage increases set in the IPA.

Simon Erkes, Institute for Labour Studies (IST), Catholic University of Louvain (UCL)

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