Belgium: Latest developments in working life Q3 2019
Growing unrest among civil society organisations regarding the increasing power of the political system, restructuring measures and investigations of the former CEO at Proximus, and a resolution between trade unions and management at national air traffic controller Skeyes are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the third quarter of 2019.
Civil society organisations concerned about decreasing political support
Historically, civil society has been strongly embedded in Belgium and has had significant influence at all levels. However, Belgium civil society organisations have been experiencing power struggles in recent years and both the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) and the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD) are seeking to diminish their power and influence.
When the N-VA announced plans to decrease or even remove funding for several civil society organisations, the organisations voiced their concerns in public via a joint statement.  Published on 4 September 2019, the statement was signed by a large number of significant civil society organisations, including youth movements and organisations for the elderly, women’s rights organisations, development aid organisations, trade unions and others.
Danny Van Assche, the chair of Union of Independent Entrepreneurs (UNIZO), published his own public statement on 24 September expressing his concerns regarding the diminishing relationship between civil society and the political sphere. 
According to the UNIZO chair, civil society represents an important link between local level organisations (in this case companies) and the political sphere. He sees the high trade union density and membership rates of trade unions and employer organisations as being indicative of the importance of their role. He also acknowledges criticism that the extensive social dialogue procedures in Belgium often lead to delays and inconclusiveness. Nevertheless, for these reasons he stresses that it would be unwise to ignore or bypass the views of the civil society.
On 30 September 2019, the Flemish government proposed to withdraw its membership of Unia, the public institution combating discrimination and promoting equal opportunities, as well as terminating its subsidies.
Unrest at telecom provider Proximus
The disputes at Proximus, the largest Belgian telecom provider, began at the beginning of 2019 when the company’s management announced plans to dismiss 1,900 employees by the end of 2022 and create 1,250 additional jobs with a digital focus. Talks and negotiations with the trade unions have been ongoing since June, but with little progress. The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV-CSC), the General Federation of Belgian Labour (ABVV-FGTB) and the General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions (ACLVB-CGSLB) want to prevent any direct dismissals, but the management claims that it cannot give any certainty at this stage. 
In July, the situation escalated when plans for a joint venture between Proximus and Orange Belgium were unveiled. This provoked a reaction from the trade unions, who felt that this formed part of larger restructuring plans.
At the beginning of September, the situation worsened after news became public that the company’s CEO Dominique Leroy was due to leave Proximus and become the CEO of a direct competitor in the Netherlands (KPN). The trade unions demanded that Leroy be immediately dismissed and wrote a letter to the chair of the board of directors, stating that they considered the move a breach of confidence given the information Leroy had access to.
Several days later it was reported that Leroy had sold her Proximus shares back in August for €285,000. An investigation was launched to establish whether this should be considered insider trading or not. Leroy denied any misconduct, stating that she had not been planning to leave the company in August.
In reaction to these disputes, a number of actions were taken, including strikes at several Proximus stores and call centres on different occasions in September. The trade unions called for a neutral mediator to be involved in future talks between both sides of the table.
On 20 September, Leroy left Proximus. However, because of the ongoing investigation, her recruitment at KPN in the Netherlands was ultimately cancelled. 
Agreement reached with air traffic controllers
After several months of action and disputes at Brussels Airport, a resolution seems to be within reach between the air traffic controllers at Skeyes and the company management. 
A joint committee consisting of management from Skeyes and the sector’s trade unions reached an agreement on the scheduling of working hours for traffic controllers in mid-September. The agreement became possible after two of the three trade unions reached a consensus with the management on the most disputed point: the management being able to levy air traffic controllers in the case of disputes excluded from the agreement. The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions – Transcom (ACV/CSC-Transcom) abstained to consult with its members.
Skeyes CEO Johan Decuyper stated that he was very pleased with the result and saw it as a first step towards an improved understanding between all parties involved.
The difficult relationship between Belgian civil society and political parties is likely to remain for the foreseeable future if the current Flemish government’s proposal is accepted. Government formations at the federal level are still ongoing; it remains to be seen if the same trend will appear there.
It is likely that the situation will become calmer at both Proximus and Skeyes, as former Proximus CEO Leroy has left the company and was not hired by KPN. At Skeyes, the social agreement is expected to provide a good foundation for constructive negotiations between employees and employers in the future.
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