Controversy over workplace harassment case

The harassment and bullying case of a worker shocked Belgium when details of the incident were made public in November 2010, particularly after amateur film footage of it was broadcast. Controversy also focused on the dismissal of a former candidate for union representation who was said to have been involved. Social partners and politicians responded with training measures to raise awareness of harassment in the workplace. A thorough review of current legislation has been promised.

Man bound from head to toe and carried away

Between 1996 and 2007, a worker was bullied, pestered and humiliated by his colleagues at a firm in Soignies, Wallonia. The victim, described as a ‘broken man’ in publicity surrounding the case, was on long-term sick leave when it came to public notice in November 2010. He is now 54 years old and has taken the matter to court. The investigation is examining the roles played in his treatment by 25 suspects. The news sent a shock wave through Belgium in November 2010.

The story was published in the French-language magazine Paris Match Belgique. It was revealed that amateur footage existed of one of the humiliations the victim had to undergo when he was mobbed, bound from head to toe and put on a wooden stretcher. The film is several minutes long.

The events took place at a Soignies-based plant of the multinational adhesives company MACtac in Wallonia, southwest of Brussels. The victim made his first complaint in 2002. Two other victims have since complained to the court. The upcoming court case will consider whether the company should be prosecuted for possible negligence and ordered to pay damages.

MACtac’s management reacted to the media storm in November 2010 by stating that the facts were unacceptable. Furthermore, it stressed that back in 2002, when the harassment was first reported, the worker had been offered psychological support and transferred to another job. Six years later, in 2008, when management was informed about the existence of amateur film footage of him being bullied, it implemented dismissals. Company staff also reacted by issuing a press release stressing the good reputation and working conditions at the plant, and stating that they did not want to be identified with the small group of workers involved in the harassment, and whose behaviour had been unacceptable.

Union link

When the case first came to the attention of the media in November 2010, the spotlight fell immediately on the behaviour of a former candidate for union representation who had been dismissed by the company in 2008 after it emerged that he had been the person who filmed the mobbing incident. However, a labour court later decided that his dismissal breached rules protecting staff representatives and ordered the company to give the man his job back. The company nevertheless refused to do so and had to pay a fine of €250,000 as a result.

The reasons behind this ‘strange’ court decision later became clear. The court hearing uncovered the fact that the main attackers had not been dismissed. Two foremen who were involved had not been punished and the candidate for union representation was only dismissed six years after the incident, yet evidence identifying all those involved had been presented in 2002 to the company’s top management, in a report produced by its external disciplinary service.

It also became clear that the man was not a union representative at the time of the incident in 2002. He did not stand for election until 2004 and, although he was not elected, he qualified for protection from dismissal under Belgian labour laws for the next four years.

Union reaction

After some initial confusion, the union federation involved – the Christian Trade Union Federation (ACV/CSC) – reacted to the turmoil by admitting that its judgement was faulty on two counts. It should not have allowed the member of staff who made the film to stand in company elections and, secondly, it admitted that it would not have defended the person in question in court, had it known all the facts at the time. However, the union also stressed three other factors that should be taken into account.

  • A union official, the local chief shop steward, had played a key role in bringing the case to light in 2002, and putting the facts before the external disciplinary service whose thorough report had led to the victim of the mobbing being transferred. The company’s management had not, however, acted on the proposals put forward by the disciplinary service in 2002 or punished the main culprit. The court prosecutor admitted this during the case brought by the dismissed candidate for union representation. The local chief shop steward was also involved in reopening the case in 2008 when the victim again found himself working near the main aggressor, became highly depressed and ended up on long-term sick leave. In the presence of the victim’s wife and of the disciplinary adviser, the film was then shown to the management who only then responded by dismissing all the staff involved.
  • Based on these facts, the union concluded it had enough evidence to suggest that the company’s management were mainly to blame for not reacting to the harassment case promptly.
  • The union also promised to draw up an action plan to help its members and officials combat harassment at work more effectively, including the establishment of its own internal ombudsman service.

Responses from other social partners

Other unions, including the Belgian General Confederation of Labour (ABVV/FGTB) (see statement (in Dutch), have responded in a similar manner by renewing their awareness campaigns and asking for the existing legislation on harassment to be thoroughly reviewed.

The Belgian Federation of Employers (VBO) and the Flemish Employers’ Organisation (VOKA) expressed their concern about legislation protecting staff representatives and union officials from dismissal. Pieter Timmermans, the Director General of VBO, called for these rules to be reviewed and for the limits of this protection to be defined more clearly.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven (KUL)

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