Towards union representation in local retail outlets ?

In May 1997, negotiations underway across the retail sector and in retail companies in Belgium are coming to an end. Once again employers' and employees' representatives in the sector - which covers department stores, supermarkets, chain food stores and the independent retail trade - are at odds on two major issues: the reduction of working time and union representation.

In the retail and distributive sector, each type of shop - conventional department stores, retail shops, food supermarkets with at least two branches and independent retail shops - is covered by its own joint committee and, depending on its type, its employees work 36, 38 or 40 hours a week, have pay differentials of between 20%- 25% and the right to be represented by a union delegation or not.

One of the employers' strategies is to transfer departments within stores to subsidiaries, creating specialised companies outside the retail sector which are not governed by the same rules. Another is to create chains of small franchised stores (with fewer than 20 employees) for which collective agreements are less favourable.

In the present dispute, the unions in the sector - the national white-collar union affiliated to the Socialist union (Syndicat des Employés, Techniciens et Cadres, Setca) and its Christian equivalent (Centrale nationale des Employés, CNE) - are seeking answers to those strategies. They hope to achieve harmonisation of the working conditions of employees in franchised stores, on the one hand through a reduction of working time of two hours a week (from 40 to 38 hours for some and from 38 to 36 hours for others) and, on the other hand, by obtaining the right to representation by a union delegation. They claim that these shops are not really independent at all and that they must be covered by the same general rules.

Stoppages have taken place across the country, but the most spectacular lasted from 15 -25 April 1997 in the French-owned group Intermarché, when the national distribution centre was locked out and occupied, which forced stores to get supplies from France.

Main retail enterprises, such as GB and Delhaize, arguably play it both ways: they have been trying hard to lower their labour costs by setting up their own franchised shops, but would also like Intermarché to adhere to the more favourable collective agreements that cover the department stores. Intermarché is affiliated to the same retail employers' federation as GB and Delhaize - FEDIS (Fédération des entreprises de distribution), a member of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des entreprises de Belgique, FEB). But Intermarché, like other franchised groups, tends to adopt the positions of small and medium-sized businesses and the organisations of the self-employed, which are very hostile to any demand for the reduction of working time and particularly to any demand for union representation.

If a collective agreement were to lead to the authorisation of union representation in those enterprises, the door would be opened to the better regulation of labour relations in small and medium-sized enterprises in Belgium, which represent more than 90% of the country's employers.

Sources

"Année sociale" (Social year), A Vanheerswynghels,1993.

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