Breakthrough in union representation in Belgian retail sector

Belgian consultative structures are known for their broad area of application. The social partners not only consult one another at national, sector and company levels, but are also involved in various tripartite consultative bodies, where they participate with government in the decision-making process on a range of socio-economic issues. However, there has always been one major partner missing from this extensive consultative network: small and medium-sized businesses. Change is on the horizon in late 1997 - for the first time, trade unions are now officially able to organise in companies with fewer than 50 employees, with particular reference to food and non-food retail.

The Organisation for Independent Enterprise (Organisatie voor Zelfstandig Ondernemen), the employers' organisation representing small and medium-sized businesses (SME s), takes part in the consultation process at national and sectoral levels as well as in tripartite decision-making channels. However, the formalised consultation process at the level of the small businesses themselves has not been regulated in the traditional joint manner. Indeed, businesses with fewer than 50 employees do not in principle have either elections for works council s or a workplace health and safety committee, though a trade union presence may be possible in the form of a union-appointed delegation. Even a works council is in principle required only for companies with at least 100 employees. Only rarely have there been any exceptions to these rules, in which case they have been laid down in sectoral collective agreements.

The principal argument put forward by employer organisations representing the self-employed and small businesses has been that labour relations in their companies cannot be based on formalised procedures since the nature of their social relationships is different. These are, they claim, more direct and should not be forced to conform to bureaucratic regulations as they rely on mutual trust and face-to-face contact. For a long time now, the Organisation for Independent Enterprise has been blocking the presence of trade unions in SMEs.

Flexibility without (union) limitations?

The lack of a fully fledged trade union presence in SMEs is not without importance. Indeed, a great number of intersectoral and sectoral collective agreements, as well as laws, provide for a role for union representation within the company for the specific purpose of adding detail to agreements, particularly with respect to the implementation of regulations governing flexibility.

This is precisely the reason why the lack of union presence in SMEs has for a long time been a thorn in the flesh of the trade unions in certain sectors, especially in the important retail sector. In retail there is a great deal of flexibility that is regulated at company level, such as variable working patterns within systems of part-time employment. The lack of formal employee representation can compromise the employees' position because negotiations are conducted on an individual basis. When this involves employees who are less able to defend their own interests, which is the case here because in this sector they are often unskilled women or young people, the unions fear that it will be much more difficult - or even impossible - for the individual employee to set limits to the flexibility demanded by the employer.

Recent developments are making the absence of unions even more an acute problem. In the retail sector there is an increasingly strong trend toward the breaking up of large companies into small subsidiary entities, which thereby manage to evade the laws regarding trade union representation. Systems involving franchising and apparent independence are becoming increasingly common, with the result that personnel policy in retail is being determined and implemented only at the level of individual shops.

For years now, the trade unions have been struggling against the growing trend to keep shops open on Sundays. The powerlessness of the unions to counteract this trend is due in part to the growth of subsidiaries and franchising, and the unions' absence in the decision-making bodies of the company.

Intermediate or final step?

An agreement to allow trade unions to organise in food stores with fewer than 50 employees was signed in June 1993, but until now not actually put into effect. However, it at last came into force on 1 October 1997 (covering around 270 food stores and between 6,000 and 10,000 employees) whilst a further agreement will come into force on 1 January 1998 for non-food stores with 20 or more employees (covering some 500 stores and 20,000 employees). Regional consultative bodies are being established with employers and trade unions on which it will be obligatory to carry out prior consultation on all those issues normally discussed by works councils. This agreement is of direct significance for up to 30,000 employees who work in companies in this sector with between 20 and 50 employees on their payroll. The agreement was negotiated within the joint committee s for food stores and non-food stores, two of the four joint committees in the distribution sector which also has separate committees for the independent retail sector and department stores.

The trade unions will not be directly present in the shops themselves. There will be a regional consultative body for each of the three regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. The trade unions which are represented on this body will be given the same rights as the traditional union delegations in large companies: contacts with employees; disclosure of information; consultation with employers; monitoring compliance with relevant regulations; dealing with individual and collective disputes and so on. Managers of individual companies will also be able to have their own representatives on the regional consultative body.

Commentary

In practice, of course, this agreement is only one small step - at any rate for the trade unions. For the individual employee, there will still remain quite high barriers against making contact with the union representative, not least because these employees have no tradition of union activity. The extent to which the employees in question will now be more prepared to undertake collective action or individual protest also remains unclear.

For the unions, this collective agreement is only a beginning. Substantial union activity requires time. The employees involved need to develop confidence in the unions and they perhaps also need to be prepared and trained. However, the unions themselves hope both to reach and to represent greater numbers of employees.

For its part, however, the employer association maintains that it will go no further than the present agreement and that there can be no question of a more direct union presence in SMEs in this sector. (Monique Ramioul, Support Centre for Employment, Labour and Training)

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