Debate on overall reduction of working time in Belgium

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In Belgium, the debate on the generalised reduction of working time has entered the social and political arena by the backdoor in autumn 1997. Even before the Government and social partners had discussed the issue, experiments had been tried out in a few firms including Volkswagen in the Brussels Capital Region and the Cockerill-Sambre steelworks in Liège and Charleroi. Their example might have remained isolated if the debate had not been reopened following the French Government's decision to introduce a 35-hour working week by 2000.

The general reduction of working time used to be a taboo subject in Belgian political circles and one that had reached deadlock amongst the social partners. Then suddenly, in autumn 1997, ideas and proposals sprouted again like mushrooms after rain. This feature takes stock of current developments.

In September 1997, the Planning Office (Bureau du Plan) an economic-forecasting quasi non-governmental organisation, said in its latest report that a reduction in working hours combined with a reduction in social security contributions on the final hours worked - along the lines of the model proposed by the former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard- would be more likely to create jobs than any of the reductions in employers' contributions allowable under the various employment promotion schemes operating in Belgium. The secretary-general of the administration in the Ministry of Employment and Labour, Michel Jadot, said on 24 September that they had to put an end to all these employment plans, "which piled up like carpets in the mosque, with each minister wanting to attach his name to one".

Government opposes generalised reduction of working time

For many years, to promote employment, the Belgian Government has favoured various formulae for reducing labour costs through measures to cut employers' social contributions. With the same aim of combating unemployment, it had also thought up a range of aid measures to get the jobless back to work. All those measures were under direct governmental control. The Government wished to see the same sort of provisions in the multi-industry, intersectoral agreements negotiated between the social partners, based mainly on worksharing formulae such as the promotion of part-time work, career breaks or early retirement.

For the Government, the generalised reduction of working time as a means to promote employment has been regarded as a way of fighting unemployment only in the special case of firms in difficulty or in the process of restructuring, which called for application of the Vande Lanotte plan. That plan, which was adopted as a Royal Decree, was an initiative of Mr Vande Lanotte, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, of the Flemish Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij, SP).

The Vande Lanotte plan

Under the Royal Decree of March 1997, firms recognised as being in difficulty or restructuring are eligible for a reduction of employers' social contributions if they sign a collective agreement reducing working time to 32 hours a week. The reduction of working time is meant to help firms avoid collective redundancies. If a firm in difficulty wants this aid and is prepared to reduce working time, it must make provision to compensate its workers for their loss of earnings. The amount paid is settled by collective agreement negotiated within the firm with the employees' representatives. There is therefore no obligation to maintain pay levels.

One characteristic of this plan is the creation of a link between the extent of cost reduction and the reduction of working hours. To encourage firms to approach a 32-hour week, the greater the reduction in working hours, the greater the reduction in contributions. But the Royal Decree is valid for only two years. If at the end of that period the firm is no longer in difficulty but maintains the reduction in working hours, it will still be eligible for a flat-rate reduction in contributions for two more years.

It is precisely this temporary aspect of the reduction in contributions that still worries the employers, which fear that it will be impossible to get back to the original hours of work. The unions, however, although generally in favour of this measure, felt that the amount of compensation should be fixed in the Royal Decree and cover the whole loss of pay.

The measure has had some success since April 1997- for example, at the Volkswagen Forest plant (BE9709116N) - further strengthened by the powers that the regional authorities have to help firms in difficulty financially, according to their own rules. Thus the Walloon Region has undertaken to compensate the loss of pay financially within the framework of existing provisions. These types of aid resulted in the negotiation of an agreement at the Cockerill Sambre steelworks in Liège and Charleroi.

Certain company plans have been negotiated in various sectors along similar lines, but these belong more to the category of worksharing arrangements on the basis of a model proposed by the Government. So far, no sectoral agreement has made any general or collective provision for the reduction of working time, except in the insurance sector (BE9707111N).

Employers oppose reductions in working time

The Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises Belges/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen,FEB/VBO), the national employers' organisation, has always refused to enter discussions on a generalised reduction of working time, which it considers harmful to firms' competitiveness. To encourage employment, it stresses lowering employers' contributions and, incidentally, during the debate on the 1998 budget in October 1997, accused the Government of not having earmarked sufficient resources for the compensation of the effects of this reduction in the social security budget.

However, critics of FEB/VBO are today gathering new strength because of the interest being shown in the French example, announced in October 1997 of moving towards a statutory 35-hour working week from 2000 (FR9710169F), and because of the positions of the trade unions and the francophone Socialist Party in favour of the four-day week.

However, FEB/VBO dubbed the forthcoming French bill on the 35-hour week as "a delusion" (Infor FEB, No. 36, 24 October 1997). FEB/VBO defends the idea that a reduction of working hours, with or without the same pay, can only increase production costs. And even if the Government compensated for the cost increases by reducing contributions, as it did it under the Vande Lanotte plan referred to above, it would threaten the social security balance, while opening the "Pandora's box" of generalised reductions in working time.

Wilfried Beirnaert, the FEB/VBO director-general, said that the four-day week was "a Trojan horse for the old demand for the generalised linear reduction of working hours" (Libre Belgique, 1997). There was no question, said Mr Beirnaert, of discussing such a measure at multi-industry level, firstly because the sectoral agreements for 1997 and 1998 had already been signed and secondly because firms had to find the most attractive formula for themselves. However, FEB/VBO said it was open to talks on greater flexibility in the ways to allow weekly working hours of between 30 and 50 hours according to fluctuations in demand, while maintaining intact the annual average.

FEB/VBO concluded its argument by stressing that no measure could be imposed from outside, either by sectoral or multi-industry agreement, or especially by law. Employers are convinced that the Government will not encourage such a proactive policy of working time reduction.

The Walloon Union of Enterprises (Union Wallonne des Entreprises, UWE), representing employers in the Walloon Region, also declared its opposition to a generalised reduction in working hours at its general meeting in Tournai on 18 October. It picked up the FEB/VBO argument, but Pierre Beaussart, UWE's executive director, added that such a project would be inappropriate in a region in difficulties such as Wallonia.

UWE is not hostile to the four-day week, which is presented as a means to job creation, provided that it is considered as a form of part-time work, that is four-fifths working time. This position, which differs from the FEB's, was proposed by Mr Beaussart as a means for achieving a social compromise as it could form "a bridge" between the employers' and workers' positions.

The Union des Classes Moyennes, the employers' organisation representing small firms and traders in Wallonia, thinks that any position in favour of a reduction of working hours to 32, 35 or 36 hours over four days is only an electoral slogan. For its president, Roger Méné, they are no more than "miracle formulae that cannot be applied in the field". Reductions of working hours would cost far too much and would not create jobs; on the contrary, "we must work more and be more competitive to conquer markets and then recruit".

This is also the position of the National Christian Federation of Small Firms and Traders (National Christelijk Middenstand Verbond, NCMV) which represents Flemish small firms and traders. According to a survey organised by this powerful association, 90% of its members were opposed to it, even with pay reductions.

Unions favour four-day week

This four-day formula, publicly supported by the francophone Socialist Party at its latest conference on 23 October 1997, put the question back on the table with all the more controversy since Willy Peirens, the president of the Confederation of Christian Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) and Josly Piette, its secretary-general, adopted similar positions at the same time. According to some commentators, that was not pure coincidence. The next day they were joined by Michel Nollet, president of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV).

The view expressed by the leaders of the two organisations is that the collective reduction of working hours into a four-day week is the formula most likely to create jobs. However, they both stressed different aspects.

For CSC/ACV, the four-day week can be operated under different arrangements, but in particular flexibly. The aim would be "to establish a new social pact based on the reduction of labour costs, the redistribution of work and relaxation of the organisation of work". While maintaining its previous positions, CSC/ACV has incorporated into them the demand for a generalised reduction of working hours, which was not well received before. Until its conference in July 1997, CSC/ACV favoured individual worksharing formulae as a way to create jobs.

This change in the Christian unions' positions appealed to the president of the FGTB/ABVV . He saw it as a chance to broaden the movement demanding jobs and improvements in the quality of life. He pointed out that since 1994 his organisation has been campaigning for the reduction of working hours to 32 a week. Although that idea was not clearly stated in the positions adopted by politicians, for the FGTB a four-day week clearly implies the reduction of working hours as, for the time being, the majority of workers and employees still work 38 or 39 hours a week.

However, the two unions still want to remove ambiguities, in particular with respect to the rules governing legal hours of work and social rights. They believe that changing to the four-day week would require amendments to the legislation regulating labour and social security under which in Belgium "full time" is still defined as 40 hours a week, or by collective agreement as 39 to 37 hours. In other words, for unions, and contrary to what was suggested by in particular the UWE, the four-day week with a reduction of working hours must be considered not as four-fifths time, but as full-time with full social rights.

Commentary

News from France may have provoked the social partners and political parties into adopting positions on the problem of overall reductions in working hours in Belgium. The Belgian Government has clearly shown no enthusiasm for encouraging experiments or stimulating the social partners into taking this path, preferring instead employment policies that involve worksharing and the individual reduction of working hours and pay.

The fragmentation of collective bargaining across sectors and firms might also have slowed down their progress. At the moment, there are only isolated experiments which, though interesting to many trade unionists, cannot be seen as a model for a multi-industry agreement. (Philippe Dryon and Estelle Krzeslo, Point d'Appui Travail Emploi Formation - ULB).

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