Code of conduct agreed for industrial disputes

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On 28 March 2002, under the aegis of the Minister of Employment and Labour, the Belgian social partners concluded a draft agreement dealing with the resolution of industrial disputes, the simplification of employment promotion schemes, and the harmonisation of the status of blue- and white-collar workers. The social partners undertake to prioritise social dialogue in the event of any strike action. The deal has removed a serious obstacle to negotiations over a new intersectoral agreement for 2003-4.

On 18 February 2002, central trade union and employers' organisations presented the Federal Minister of Employment and Labour, Laurette Onkelinx, with a draft agreement (BE0203301N) setting out solutions to three key issues: the resolution of collective industrial disputes; the simplification of various employment assistance schemes; and the harmonisation of the status of blue- and white-collar workers (BE0003307F).

The first of these issues was by far the most sensitive. For the past few years, employers and trade unions have been involved in a controversy over the right to strike within enterprises (BE0110310N). Faced with industrial action that threatens their activities, employers have got into the habit of unilaterally petitioning the courts of first instance with a view to having financial penalties imposed on the workers involved (BE0110306F). The trade unions, for their part, have taken a tougher line and tended to support 'wildcat' strikes. This confrontation has led to a deterioration in industrial relations.

Under the terms of the draft agreement reached in mid-February 2002, the parties undertook to return to the Belgian system of 'concertation' based on dialogue. The employers promised to cease looking automatically to the civil courts and, as a quid pro quo, the trade unions agreed to comply with legislation on the right to strike. At the same time, the federal government promised not to present a proposed bill aimed at bringing the settlement of industrial disputes within the remit of the labour tribunals.

On 12 March, the general council of one of the three signatory union confederations, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV), decided to contest the draft agreement. The reason for this unexpected challenge was that the 18 February agreement provided that, in the event of a collective dispute, trade unions could mobilise only those workers who were directly involved in the dispute. In other words, the practice of 'flying pickets' or secondary action, whereby workers in other enterprises show solidarity by supporting their colleagues on strike, was being called into question. 'We cannot agree to a law that bans solidarity actions,' argued the CSC general secretary, Josly Piette, in the daily newspaper La Libre Belgique, 'nor can we head off workers' spontaneous actions when an employer mounts a serious attack on our fundamental principles'.

The attitude of CSC/ACV, the country's largest union confederation, was criticised by the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO), particularly as the other leading union confederation, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) had also indicated its wish to amend the initial draft. 'If the trade unions maintain their position, we will have to conclude that there is no longer an agreement,' stated CSC/ACV

Minister Onkelinx responded to the deadlock by reconvening the social partners around the bargaining table. On 28 March, at the end of the final meeting, the Minister brokered a compromise that added a number of clarifications to the mid-February draft agreement. The deal is divided into three main sections:

  1. collective labour disputes. The social partners assert the pre-eminence of social concertation over any other form of settlement, particularly in the event of a collective dispute. The agreement refers to International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 87 (on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise), which was ratified by Belgium in 1951. The trade unions and the employers agree to base their actions on case law and on the decisions of ILO bodies with regard to collective disputes;
  2. simplifying employment schemes. The agreement lays the foundation for a radical simplification of the numerous public financial aid schemes to support employment (BE0203303F). In future, the battery of existing measures will be divided into three categories - reductions in social security contributions applied to all workers, targeted reductions (eg for young and long-term unemployed people) and reductions made within the framework of adjustments to working hours; and
  3. harmonisation of blue- and white-collar status. The agreement confirms the 18 February draft agreement, in that the two statuses will be gradually brought closer together through intersectoral concertation. An initial phase will focus on the partial removal of the 'waiting day' for blue-collar workers (ie the first day of sickness absence, which is not paid). The matter will be addressed during the negotiations over the 2003-4 intersectoral agreement, scheduled for autumn 2002.

The agreement - which will be evaluated in a year's time - was described as 'honourable' by CSC/ACV, whose general council was due to give its final decision on 9 April. The reaction of the socialist FGTB/ABVV was also positive. Its president, Michel Nollet, stated (in the Soir newspaper) that 'we have cleared away some clouds that were impeding concertation, and we can now address the issues to be covered by the 2003-4 intersectoral agreement more calmly.' Talks over a new intersectoral agreement (to succeed the current two-year accord - BE0101337F) are due to start in autumn 2002. For its part, FEB/VBO has agreed to make its members aware of the provisions of the agreement reached on 28 March.

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