The 1999-2000 intersectoral agreement, one year on

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In November 1998, the Belgian social partners reached an intersectoral agreement covering 1999-2000. The agreement consists of two parts: a global commitment on three basic issues (pay, employment and training) and a list of 10 dossiers "concerning working conditions likely to contribute to social cohesion". In September 1999, a generally positive first evaluation of the implementation of the agreement's global pay, employment and training provisions was conducted by the National Labour Council and the Central Economic Council. However, some of the specific dossiers had not been dealt with, and the government and the social partners selected four of the dossiers, on which the social partners had to reach a joint position by 15 December 1999. Should they fail to do so, the government would take the initiative and decide upon the matters concerned.

In November 1998, the Belgian social partners concluded an intersectoral agreement covering the 1999-2000 period (BE9811252F). The agreement consists of two parts: first, an overall commitment on three basic issues (pay, employment and training); and second, a list of 10 dossiers "concerning working conditions likely to contribute to social cohesion". In September 1999, a first evaluation of the agreement's implementation was conducted by the bipartite National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/Nationale Arbeidsraad, CNT/NAR) and Central Economic Council (Conseil Central de l'Économie/Centrale Raad van het Bedrijfsleven, CCE/CRB)

Basic commitments

In the first part of the intersectoral agreement, trade unions and employers agreed to guidelines for the development of pay, employment and training. Concretely, the agreement provides that during 1999 and 2000:

  • hourly labour costs may not increase faster than in Belgium's three main neighbouring countries (France, Germany and the Netherlands). Pay increases are therefore limited by a framework of a maximum 5.9% equivalent full-time labour cost increase;
  • in terms of expenditure on lifelong training and education, Belgium must achieve within six years the average level of the three neighbouring countries - ie, in the range of 1.2% to 1.9% of labour costs. For 1999-2000, this translates to a training effort equivalent to 1.2%-1.4% of paybill at the end of the period; and
  • in terms of employment, the social partners intend to pool efforts so that Belgium's employment rates are at least as high as in neighbouring countries, and if possible higher, taking into account the commitments on employment, training and reduction of labour costs.

The social partners had agreed that 10 months after the conclusion of the agreement, CNT/NAR and CCE/CRB would globally assess trends in these three areas. In the event of a positive evaluation, an initial reduction of employers' social security contributions granted under the agreement would be increased in the second year covered by the accord.

At the time of the evaluation, actual statistics for the period under consideration were not yet available; the evaluation was thus based on Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts.

As regards pay trends, based on calculations made by CCE/CRB (on the basis of June 1999 OECD estimates), the increase in labour costs in Belgium, in terms of both equivalent full-time hourly costs and hours worked, has not exceeded the increase observed in the three reference countries. According to Eurostat, hourly labour costs in Belgium will rise by 5.8% over 1999-2000, which is equivalent to the mean increase for the three neighbouring states.

With respect to employment, for 1999-2000, the OECD forecasts that employment in Belgium will increase by exactly the same percentage as in the three reference countries - ie an average rise of 0.8% per year (in the number of employed persons) in the private sector.

On the development of lifelong training and education, data on continuing training are sketchy, and only the figures from companies' 1996 and 1997 "social balance sheets" were available at the time of the September 1999 evaluation. Based on these figures, training efforts amounted respectively to 1.1% and 1.2% of paybill expenditures in 1996 and 1997. Looking at individual sectors, and based on collective agreements filed up to September 1999, the conclusion was that 80% of sectors were covered by agreements that include training provisions.

Following the evaluation, CNT/NAR and CCE/CRB concluded that the "auspicious climate in which the execution of the intersectoral agreement and the conclusion of sectoral agreements took off was a major contribution to the achievement of social peace, and by that very fact, to stability at the level of sectors (...) The agreement appears to be making good progress in terms of concretisation; consequently, and on the basis of currently available information, this first evaluation is positive" (Evaluation of trends in labour costs, employment and training efforts, Central Economic Council and National Labour Council, joint session, 20 September 1999).

The evaluation thus led to the enactment of the second tranche of reductions in employers' social security contributions, which the intersectoral agreement had made contingent on obtaining positive results.

Specific dossiers included in the agreement

The second part of the intersectoral agreement highlighted 10 dossiers "concerning working conditions likely to contribute to social cohesion". In line with the contents of these dossiers, the following measures have since been adopted:

  • the establishment of a minimum net monthly income, as a specific employment-related measure (BE9910308N);
  • on 30 March 1999, a national collective agreement (No. 72) was signed concerning policies to deal with job-related stress (BE9904269F) - a measure seen as a further advance as regards the improvement of working conditions; and
  • the statutory working week was reduced from 40 to 39 hours as of 1 January 1999. The evaluation of this measure has not started yet.

On the other hand, other dossiers - such as employment of disabled people, equal treatment for men and women and the status of part-time work - have not yet been tackled.

In order to establish deadlines, the government and the social partners selected four priority dossiers, on which the social partners had to provide a joint position by 15 December 1999. Should they fail to do so, the government would take the initiative and decide upon the matters concerned without further consulting the social partners. These dossiers concern: notice periods in the event of dismissal (reducing the difference between notice periods for blue-collar and white-collar employees); the fight against the "employment trap" (increasing the difference between take-home pay and unemployment benefits); the issue of workers nearing the end of their careers (aimed at keeping workers aged over 50 in economic activity); and the leasing of personnel (allowing an employer to "lend" its workers to another employer).

Notice periods

In many sectors, collective agreements have been concluded to extend notice periods for blue-collar workers in the event of dismissal and ensure that they benefit from greater employment stability and/or income stability via complementary subsistence security schemes. On the other hand, the issue has not been addressed in all sectors. The social partners asked all sectors that had not yet concluded an agreement covering this subject to examine it very diligently in the course of negotiations within the framework of the 1999-2000 intersectoral agreement.

Propositions for a supplementary scheme, to apply where there is no sectoral agreement, were elaborated within CNT/NAR. A preliminary compromise between the social partners involved an increase the notice period for blue-collar workers, currently set at 28 days, to 42 days (for workers with at least 10 years of service with an employer), 56 days (10-15 years' service), 84 days (15-20 years' service) and 112 days (over 20 years' service). Following initial negotiations between the partners on 7 December 1999, the proposed changes were agreed but the employers asked to delay the application of the measure to the end of 2000 at the earliest, a point which the trade unions refused. The partners needed to reach an agreement on this subject by 15 December 1999.

Fighting the employment trap

The social partners asked CNT/NAR and CCE/CRB to conduct a study on the "employment trap" that seems to be preventing unemployed people from re-entering the labour market, in order to formulate proposals to the political decision-makers (BE9901161F).

Six themes were selected with a view to elaborating concrete recommendations. These recommendations are the responsibility of the CNT/NAR and CCE/CRB technical office. They were subject to discussion between the social partners within CNT/NAR and were to be presented to the government by 15 December. The six themes are:

  • family allowances and the costs of caring for children;
  • the integration of the different hiring systems into a single one;
  • an encouragement incentive to be distributed to unemployed workers after a certain duration of unemployment;
  • the definition of an intermediate threshold as regards attachment of earnings;
  • analysis of the transition from full-time to part-time work; and
  • the accompaniment and the "leasing" of unemployed people.

Workers nearing the end of their careers

Belgium has one of the EU's lowest employment rates for workers aged over 55 (22%) and an increasing unemployment rate of persons aged over 50 (BE9909183N). The social partners have therefore decided to devote a thorough discussion within the CNT/NAR to the issue of workers nearing the end of their careers.

In a first phase, the social partners plan to examine the situation of workers in the 45-55 age bracket, viewed from several angles (prevention and reintegration into professional activity via financial incentives, invitation to sectors to implement preventive personnel management policies etc). In a second phase, they will address future trends in the activity rate for workers over 50.

On this subject, the workers' representatives do not wish to discuss the employers' demand to raise the age for early retirement, focusing instead on measures favouring the continued presence of older workers in the labour market. In the construction sector, for example, an agreement provides for financial compensation benefiting older workers who agree to keep on working beyond the early retirement age, in order to compensate for the lack of qualified workers (BE9905273N).

The leasing of personnel

The social partners are examining within CNT/NAR the opportuneness of, and scope for, extending the practice of "leasing" personnel from one employer to another. From an examination of the current legal provisions, it appears that some notions are susceptible to differing interpretations. One such notion is the "limited period" during which leasing is possible, subject to the agreement of the relevant company's trade union delegation and to prior authorisation by the authorities. Another controversial point concerns the "momentary" character of the specialised tasks for which prior authorisation is not required within the framework of personnel leasing.

"According to employers, it is only a question of the ability to borrow workers for precisely defined and temporary tasks, in order to compensate for shortages of specialised personnel (...) For the trade unions, such 'loans' could degenerate into doubtful practices reminiscent of gangmasters or 'coolie labour' markets. Flexibility is already on the increase through temporary agency work and subcontracting; the fixed-term employment contract is fast becoming the norm," says Michel Nollet, head of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV). Moreover, among employers, "some federations (metalworking, chemicals) eagerly seek to borrow specialists. The temporary agency work sector would like to keep its hold over these transactions by creating an open-ended temporary agency work contract" (according to Bénédicte Vaes, in the Le Soir newspaper, 7 December 1999).

The social partners needed to reach an agreement on this subject by 15 December.

Commentary

15 December was the deadline for the social partners at the intersectoral level to agree on the four priority dossiers. On 6 December, they met but failed to achieve a joint position on all four themes. They declared that "as long as there is no agreement on everything, there is no agreement on anything." On the one hand, employers are adamant about extending the facility for leasing personnel, failing which an overall agreement would in their view be totally unbalanced. The workers' representatives do not see things the same way. Given that employers obtained the reduction of labour costs, which the "Rosetta plan" on youth employment later adjusted in their favour (BE9911307F), the unions feel that they too are entitled to have their demands met.

At any rate, if negotiations on 15 December failed to solve the impasse, the state was to take over, with the government making its own decisions concerning matters that are traditionally the province of the social partners. In this context, the state is overstepping the boundaries of arbitration and of establishing the rules of the game, becoming a full-fledged protagonist. Contrary to the position in 1996, the social partners succeeded in negotiating an intersectoral agreement in December 1998. Let us hope that its implementation through these four dossiers can remain in their hands. (Catherine Delbar, Institut du Travail)

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