First collective agreement against racial discrimination at work

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As part of the European Year against Racism, a collective agreement signed in the temporary work sector in Belgium has laid down a "Code of Best Practice" on the prevention of racial discrimination against foreign temporary workers. We review the agreement, signed in May 1996, and its background.

The fight against racial discrimination at work took a new turn this year, arising from the decision to designate 1997 as the European Year against Racism. In this context, a collective agreement signed in May 1996 in the Belgian temporary agency employment sector is particularly interesting and relevant. The accord laying down a Code of Best Practice to prevent racial discrimination against foreign temporary workers was concluded by the sector's social partners, comprising UPEDI (Union Professionnelle des Entreprises de Travail Intérimaire/Beroepsvereniging van Zendkantoren or Professional Union of Temporary Work Agencies) and two trade unions, the FGTB (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond or Belgian General Federation of Labour) and the CSC (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond or Confederation of Christian Trade Unions).

The temporary employment sector was the first to conclude such an agreement, inspired by the European-level social partners' joint declaration adopted on 21 October 1995 to prevent racism and xenophobia and to promote equal treatment at work. That declaration was signed at the "Social Dialogue Summit" in Florence, by the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the (now) European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). What should be noted is not the social partners' discovery of practices discriminating against migrant workers or workers from ethnic minorities, but the fact that they recognised some responsibility in suppressing or mitigating that discrimination, and especially their desire to take action within enterprises. The intention was to distribute this document widely and to create a dynamic movement among member associations in view of the European Year against Racism and Xenophobia.

An initial action was to commission the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions to study the extent of this problem in each country. Another was to propose to the social partners in the Member States if not a model agreement, then at least a common analysis of possible remedial measures and a reference framework. Such agreements were concluded in only a few countries. The example of Germany stands out: there, the IG Metall metalworkers' trade union proposed a model collective agreement for its sector which was adopted and adapted on 1 July 1996 in two firms, Thyssen and Volkswagen.

The Belgian example of the collective agreement between UPEDI and the trade unions is also innovatory. It is the first collective agreement at sector level to take an initiative directly concerning its own members. The initiative also indirectly covers other sectors, as this binding collective agreement applies not only to enterprises and unions in the signatory sector but also to the FEB (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen or Federation of Belgian Enterprises,) insofar as it represents user enterprises of temporary agency workers. Infringement of any provision of this agreement will be prosecuted in the same way as infringement of any other collective agreement made binding by Royal Decree.

The agreement lays down not only a "Code of Best Practice" but also its own complaints procedure. A mediation committee (Commission des Bons Offices) has been created within the sectoral joint committee responsible for examining all cases referred to it. In addition, besides the committee, other complaints procedures are enshrined in company policies, and cases can be referred to the courts under the terms of the Belgian Law of 30 July 1981, which is intended to suppress certain racist and xenophobic acts.

The Code of Best Practice

The Code of Best Practice in the temporary work sector bans the use of any criteria for making placements that are irrelevant to a temporary worker's functions. By irrelevant criteria, the Code means any criteria concerning a person's race, colour, religion, ethnic or national origin. This ban applies to consultants in temporary employment agencies when they select and propose applicants: it means that such data cannot be recorded at the time of registration nor can it be passed to the users of such labour even if they ask for it. If user enterprises impose criteria or express demands which may be considered discriminatory, then temporary employment agencies must inform them that they will not be taken into account.

According to the Code, the user enterprise must attempt to take the measures necessary to enable a temporary worker with only a limited knowledge of the language to understand all instructions, especially in health and safety matters. The Code also covers the question of discrimination in the field of qualifications as follows : " Skills and experience gained in other countries shall not be ruled out automatically or without examination" (art. § 3).

Commentary

It is not by chance that the first experiment in non-discrimination agreements is being carried out in the temporary work sector: 70% of temporary workers are blue-collar workers and half are under 25 years old. The majority of temporary workers in Brussels are foreigners, according to Edwin Loof (of the CSC migrant workers section) who stressed this fact when he addressed a meeting on the ETUC day against discrimination on 21 March 1997. He said that the agreement had the advantage of encouraging temporary workers to join trade unions and urging union delegations to stand up for those workers. This is because they are not represented on works council s, even if works councils are competent to consider the employment of temporary workers and to insist on permanent employment in the event of a job of lengthy duration.

There was a strong demand from the trade unions for such an agreement in the temporary work sector, in order to promote unionisation, but above all the unions want this experiment to be extended to other sectors with large numbers of immigrant workers. (Philippe Dryon, Estelle Krzeslo, Point d'appui Travail-Emploi-Formation)

Reference

"Discrimination interdite" (Discrimination banned), JC Bodson, L'Année sociale, Institut de Sociologie, ULB, Bruxelles (1992), pp. 283-287.

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