Call for harmonisation of white- and blue-collar status

In March 2000, a group of Belgian and foreign labour law experts and "opinion-formers" issued a call for the abolition of discriminatory differences between blue-collar and white-collar workers, and the creation of a unified employee status for all within the next five years. The call brought strong reactions from the social partners.

Belgium is one of the last countries in western Europe whose employment law makes distinctions between those who work with their hands (blue-collar or manual workers) and those who perform "brainwork" (white-collar or non-manual workers) The legal differences date back as far as the insurrections of 1886, which led to Belgium's first employment laws. The first law on employment contracts (1900) did not include white-collar workers, who at the time were relatively few in number and tended to be well taken care of by employers, which saw them as close collaborators. Only in 1922 was a law on employment contracts for white-collar workers passed, characterised by longer notice periods on termination of contract, and better income and job security compared with their blue-collar counterparts.

The differences in employment status are a legacy of the earlier years of the industrial era, when the differences between "manual" and "intellectual" work were obvious. Today, technological developments and extensive automation have in many cases changed the task content of manual jobs, to such a degree that it is hard to distinguish them from white-collar jobs - an example being monitoring of the production process. However, differences in status persist.

Discriminatory provisions

At present, the differences in employment status still result in less favourable conditions and employment protection for blue-collar workers. The main legal differences between blue- and white-collar statuses relate to:

  • notice periods. Blue-collar workers have shorter notice periods and thus lower compensation in the event of dismissal. Indeed, Belgium has the shortest notice periods for blue-collar workers in the EU, and has been criticised by the Council of Europe on this point. On the other hand, notice periods for white-collar workers are among the longest in the EU;
  • income security in the event of sickness. There is no guaranteed monthly pay for blue-collar workers. Only the first two weeks of sickness are paid by the employer, whereafter the blue-collar worker must falls back on lower sickness benefits. White-collar workers have at least one month of guaranteed pay;
  • "waiting day". In most sectors, the so-called "waiting day" for blue-collar workers still exists, whereby the employer is not required to pay the worker for the first day of incapacity for work because of sickness; and
  • temporary unemployment. Fluctuations in demand can be countered by employers by placing part of their blue-collar workforce on "temporary unemployment" (ie lay-offs and short-time working). In this case, the workers receive a replacement allowance, supplemented by payments from the sectoral welfare fund. White-collar workers, by contrast, cannot be placed on temporary unemployment.

Call for change

On 10 March 2000, on the 100th anniversary of Belgium's first law on "employment contracts" for workpeople, a group of Belgian and foreign experts in labour law and of "opinion-formers" issued a call for the abolition of the discriminatory differences in status between blue- and white-collar workers. Furthermore, a unified employee status for all should be put in place within the next five years. The call was launched in the leading newspaper De Standaard.

The subscribers to the manifesto demand that the government put an end to the current situation, which is considered discriminatory, out-of-date and discouraging. The initiator of the manifesto, Professor Roger Blanpain of the Catholic University of Louvain (KUL), also points to the more indirect social consequences of the distinction, stating that even though nowadays production processes require thinking and creativity at all levels, half of society's employees are still stuck with the label of "non-thinking operatives". Professor Blanpain considers the distinction between blue- and white-collar workers as socially perverse, asking how a society can continue to function if it locks half of its employees into a second-rate role. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that craftworkers are not being replaced by youngsters, says Professor Blanpain.

The government's position

With the explicit demand to establish a unified status within the next five years, the subscribers to the manifesto refer to a ruling by the German Federal Constitutional Court. This Court declared the distinction in Germany between blue- and white-collar employees to be "discriminatory" and "unconstitutional". The German government was given five years to rectify the situation, a task that was successfully fulfilled. In 1993, the Belgian Court of Arbitration declared that the distinction between blue- and white-collar workers could "hardly be called objective and reasonable". Nevertheless, the Court stated that efforts by the government for a gradual reduction of differences would be sufficient.

So far, the current "purple-green" coalition government (made up of liberals, socialists and environmentalists) has not taken any initiative in this matter. In the government's July 1999 coalition agreement, exactly one sentence is devoted to the issue: "As in most European countries, it is desirable that certain modalities of employment status – which have been inherited from the industrial society – converge gradually in order to get rid of the existing discriminations."

This rather moderate declaration of intent considers a change in status as desirable, and not as a necessity. Moreover, it speaks of the convergence of existing statuses rather then a unified status. In a reaction to the March 2000 manifesto, the socialist Minister of Employment and Labour, Laurette Onkelinx, has confirmed this government policy. She approves the underlying philosophy of the document but simultaneously makes clear that she favours proceeding in stages in order to achieve significant progress in the matter of convergence of statuses.

Structural obstacles

Whereas in most European countries the differences between blue- and white-collar workers faded in the 1950s and 1960s, they are still present in Belgium (and in a few other countries, such as Austria- AT9906153N). To a great extent, this can be attributed to the characteristics of the Belgian system of collective bargaining. The whole industrial relations structure is established along the lines of the distinction between blue- and white-collar workers. For example: blue- and white-collar workers have different joint committee s (the bipartite bodies at sectoral level in which wage and working conditions are determined); different collective agreements are concluded; trade union confederations have different central organisations for blue- and white-collar workers; and different labour courts are in place. In other words, a strong institutional framework has been established along the lines of the distinction between blue- and white-collar workers. According to Professor Blanpain, the conservative attitude of the social partners lies at the root of preservation of the blue-collar/white-collar distinction. Priority is given to the institutions rather than to the interests of the employees, he states.

Professor Blanpain's analysis is arguably partly correct. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that a number efforts to rectify the situation have been made by the social partners over the past few years. In some sectors, measures have been taken to bring closer the statuses of the two categories of employees, and progress has been made especially with respect to notice periods. The issue appeared on the national agenda when the government and the social partners made arrangements for the execution of the intersectoral agreement covering 1999-2000 (BE9811252F). Trade unions and employers' organisations agreed on a gradual doubling of notice periods for blue-collar workers in sectors where no sectoral agreements concerning this matter exist.

Reactions of the social partners

The Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO), Belgium's largest employers' organisation, is of the opinion that the "sloganeering language" used by the experts in their manifesto is in appropriate when it comes to eliminating the differences between blue- and white-collar statuses. According to Pieter Timmermans, director general of FEB/VBO, the harmonisation of statuses is a complex matter, will require time and is unacceptable for the employers if it results in an increase of labour costs. For the employers, the introduction of a unified status cannot entail that the most expensive regulations and agreements pertaining to one of the two categories of employees become the standard for all. According to Mr Timmermans, a crucial question is whether trade unions will be prepared to accept lower notice periods for white-collar workers.

The trade unions agree with the view that the distinction between blue- and white-collar workers is outdated and discriminating. A harmonisation of statuses is desirable but should be seen as a gradual process to be negotiated, rather than something that can be imposed at short notice from the top, in the form of a law. Furthermore, the trade unions vigorously resist the possibility of a downward levelling of white-collar status, as suggested by the employers' organisation. For the unions, the status of the white-collar worker remains the reference point, and it is out of the question that this status be downgraded.

The trade unions dismiss Professor Blanpain's imputation that union structures are one of the reasons why the distinction between blue- and white-collar workers still exists. Michel Nollet, president of the socialist Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond,FGTB/ABVV), refers to the progress made in the matter of notice periods during the most recent negotiations. Marc Leemans, national secretary of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) says that union structures evolve, pointing to the close cooperation that already exists between central organisations for blue- and white-collar workers in some sectors during negotiations. According to Mr Leemans, an imposed restructuring from the top is bound to fail. In contrast with its socialist and christian counterparts, the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicaux Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België,CGSLB/ACLVB) has no different central organisations for blue- and white-collar workers. It considers that the differences in status have been made obsolete by socio-economic and technological developments. Nevertheless, according to CGSLB/ACLVB, discussion on the matter should remain within the competence of the social partners.

Commentary

In a rather quiet period in the run-up towards the next round of workplace social elections of employee representatives (to be held in May 2000 - BE0001302N), the publication of the manifesto has provoked tumult in the camp of the social partners. The reactions to the document illustrate the sensitive character of the matter. Although slight progress has been registered at the sectoral level in terms of dismissal notice periods, a radical change that abolishes the discriminations and leads to a unified status seems far away. It looks like the institutional framework built around the "handworker/brainworker" distinction – in place now for over a century - will not be easily restructured. With respect to this restructuring, the experts' document has a major shortcoming: it does not say how unification of statuses is to be carried out at the concrete level. (Jurgen Oste, VUB/TESA)

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