Continuity and change in Belgian occupational classification

Job classifications are currently topical in Belgium, under the pressure of recent wage freezes and recent legislation banning sex discrimination in this area. The example of the food industry reveals what is at stake in social terms in negotiations over job classifications, and illustrates the assumptions that underpin the mechanisms used to maintain and reform them in Belgium.

To justify pay differentials between occupations, the Belgian social partners have long been content with lists of jobs which were classified relatively arbitrarily according to their apparent complexity. In many sectors, such as building, the rule in most firms is to transpose the occupational hierarchy into a scale of minimum pay levels established by the sector concerned. However, this tradition of occupational lists at industry level keeps alive outdated job titles and obsolete or vague occupational categories that may vary locally. Furthermore, "in-house" job classification s become even more fragmented in the absence of a sectoral system, as has been the case for blue-collar workers in the chemical industry.

Blue- and white-collar status

The rigidity of Belgian occupational classifications is due mainly to the fundamental distinction drawn between white-collar worker s and blue-collar worker s, which was written into the law and trade union organisation at a very early stage of industrial relations development. Any attempt to realign blue-collar with white-collar occupational classifications is costly for the employer (in the cases of redundancy or illness) and runs the risk of weakening the federations of blue-collar workers' unions, the members of which would be transferred to white-collar unions.

Yet the automation of production has blurred the distinctions between the intellectual tasks performed by blue-collar and white-collar workers. The most radical attempts at achieving single status were made in chemical and pharmaceutical firms. This is how in 1989, after a long dispute, the blue-collar workers in the pharmaceutical firm, Beecham, managed to gain progressive transition to the status of white-collar worker. But that gain later turned sour on them. The factory in Charleroi, after a merger with another firm, is being reorganised: the workers reclassified as white-collar whose jobs are under threat on this site cannot now be transferred to another flourishing site which recruits only blue-collar workers for its production. So the standardisation of status, even though technically justified, may be thwarted by the diversification of classifications amongst companies themselves. Such diversity is even more marked at multinational level, where the wage costs involved in such an experiment can become an argument for relocation.

However, the status quo of Belgian occupational classifications is now apparently being shaken up by two types of state intervention: equal opportunities policies and, above all, wage freezes.

Equal opportunities and occupational classification

It is known that implementation of the principle of "equal pay for work of equal value" laid down by Collective Agreement No. 25 (and made compulsory by the Royal Decree of 9 December 1975) has not put an end to sex discrimination over pay. A new Royal Decree (31 December 1996) now bans discrimination in relation to occupational classifications as well. The Employment Minister has launched an information and training campaign on this theme, followed up by the publication of a manual in February 1997. This manual, designed with the help of a private firm specialising in job evaluation, recommends generalising these techniques on the grounds that they meet the needs for objectivity and the neutralisation of prejudices. However, the implementation of job evaluation is not necessarily as effective as is suggested in the manual. Equal treatment between male and female workers may still be hindered by the diversification of occupational classifications - and hence pay levels - from one firm to another. Such diversification may be further reinforced by general moves towards the decentralisation of collective bargaining, noticeable in Belgium as elsewhere.

Wage freezes and classification

The recent wage freezes (1993-7) imposed by the Government seem to have led directly to the introduction of even more occupational classifications.

Some trade unionists take the view that "when people are at a standstill, when it is impossible to take the path of quantity then the only way left is to take the path of quality, which means moving classifications". They do not expect a general rise in pay, but aim instead at raising the level of the lower classifications. This is the strategy adopted in the food sector, a sector which also shows how different constraints weigh down upon attempts to reform the system.

To replace obsolete and disparate job titles at sectoral level, the social partners in the food industry have opted for an analytical method of job evaluation. The complete lists submitted by the main consultants used (Orba and Berenschot) could be applied to both blue- and white-collar workers. This solution was adopted by the subsector representing hotels, restaurants and public houses (horeca) which is governed by a joint committee. In the food industry, on the other hand, the division between blue- and white-collar workers, which had been incorporated into the collective agreement structures, could not be overcome. As a result, two different methods have been used: the Orba system, since 1993, for white-collar workers; and the Berenschot system, which is still under negotiation, for blue-collar workers. In the baking industry subsector, the consultant did not succeed in analysing the know-how of the suspicious professionals. Here, at the beginning of 1997, the social partners agreed on a simple list which they have themselves used as the basis for modernising the 16 categories.

The case of the food industry also illustrates the problems arising from the "privatisation" of certain classification operations and the compromises reached. It is not in the interests of consultants to publicise the details of their methods, particularly the formulae used to quantify job values. But these formulae affect pay negotiations, which are a prerogative of the social partners. A protocol was agreed between the two main consultants and the two main unions which set up the job evaluation system and the appeals procedures. According to this compromise - which remains restricted to the signatories and has no legal force - knowledge of the details of the methods used is restricted to the union experts working at sectoral level and is to be kept confidential.

Such restrictive use of a technique which is meant to explain the basis of pay scales has contradictory results. On the one hand, such access, when restricted to experts, reinforces the division in union activities; on the other hand, if exercised at the sectoral level, it helps to standardise regional and local variations. In the food industries, where many large firms already have their own job evaluation systems, publicising the evaluation criteria might further reinforce the variations across the systems used. In the horeca subsector, on the other hand, this very publicity could help to spread the unifying "scientific" model to the great number of small firms. As we can see, what is at stake in occupational classifications is not so much the method chosen as their repercussions on collective interests (Marcelle Stroobants, CSTEF, Université Libre de Bruxelles).

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Añadir nuevo comentario