Intersectoral agreement concluded for 2001 and 2002

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On 22 December 2000, Belgium's central trade union and employers' organisations formally signed an intersectoral collective agreement for 2001-2. The accord provides for an indicative pay norm of an increase of 6.4% over two years (or up to 7% in well-performing sectors), as well as provisions on matters such as training, working time, older workers, reductions in employers' social security contributions and the harmonisation of blue- and white-collar status.

On 6 December 2000, representatives of Belgium's central trade union and employers' organisations reached a draft intersectoral collective agreement for 2001-2 (succeeding the 1999-2000 accord - BE9811252F). It was presented a few days later to the government, which accepted it unconditionally. Then the member organisations of the signatories debated some points of this agreement internally before finally approving it, opening the way for its formal signing on 22 December. On the trade union side, the signatories were:

  • the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV);
  • the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV; and
  • the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicaux Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB);

The employer-side signatories were:

  • the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO);
  • the two organisations for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SME s), the Union of Small Firms and Traders (Union des classes moyennes, UCM) and Union of Independents (Unie van Zelfstandige Ondernemers, UNIZO); and
  • the two Farmers' Unions (Union professionnelle agricole, UPA, and Boerenbond)

The way is now open for sectoral negotiations, which should be the main Belgian industrial relations event of 2001, while various working groups will deal with certain specific matters. Below we set out the main points and innovative provisions of the intersectoral agreement for 2001-2.

Increased purchasing power

Pay norm

The fixing of a maximum margin for pay rises in the intersectoral agreement was hotly debated over the months prior to the conclusion of the accord (BE0008323F). The trade unions rejected such a norm, claiming that the periods of recession were over, while the employers demanded it, in the name of obligatory pay restraint in order to remain competitive in an open economy.

The issue of the pay norm was at the centre of the negotiations, and the following agreement was finally reached:

  • the hourly wages of workers in the private sector may increase by 6.4% in the period 2001-2, including pay indexation and collectively agreed increases;
  • this norm of 6.4% is indicative - it is given for guidance, but is not a requirement; and
  • sectors with a good economic performance may exceed this norm, going up to, but not beyond, a maximum increase of 7% in the hourly wage over the two years.

As the norm is only indicative, the framework agreed at intersectoral level "consolidates and reinforces the return to free but responsible bargaining" at sector level, said the president of FGTB/ABVV. "It is no longer a case of moderating pay but controlling pay," said Luc Denayer of the bipartite Central Economic Council (Conseil Central de l'Économie/Centrale raad voor het bedrijfsleven CCE/CRB).

The forthcoming sectoral bargaining in almost 120 joint committee s will have the role of implementing the pay norm.

Other financial provisions to increase purchasing power

Other measures will complement the pay norm with the objective of increasing workers' purchasing power:

  1. double holiday pay will be granted for a full four weeks of annual leave. Employers and unions have agreed to bring these changes into effect on 1 January 2001, which requires urgent legislative changes; and
  2. the reimbursement of the costs of commuting between home and work will be raised to 60% of a public transport season ticket. In principle, these measures will come into effect on 1 April 2001 but will require an amendment to the relevant agreement concluded by the social partners in the bipartite National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/Nationale Arbeidsraad, CNT/NAR) (agreement N° 19 of 26 March 1975 on the financial intervention of the employer in the travel costs of workers, amended by collective agreement N° 19bis of 7 June 1988).

Reduction of employer contributions

In 2002, employers will be able to enjoy new reductions in their social security contributions. However, these reductions will occur only if several conditions are met: a positive evaluation of efforts with regard to employment and training (see below); the existence of an available budget margin; and the existence of sufficient alternative financing to enable social security benefits to be redeveloped.

Worker training

Employers and unions confirmed their commitment in the previous intersectoral agreement with regard to continuing training. In practice this means that, up until the end of 2002, companies will have to increase their spending on such training to 1.6% of pay costs (the aim is to bring Belgium up to the level of its three neighbouring countries in 2004, ie expenditure of 1.9%). The intersectoral negotiators have expressly requested the individual sectors to give priority in their agreements to training for certain target groups (such as older workers, women, unskilled workers, and occupations experiencing labour shortages).

As in the previous agreement, an effort of 0.10% of the total paybill has also been requested for the training and employment of people from "risk groups".

A new feature of the agreement is that part-time workers will now also be entitled to "paid education leave" for professional training.

Finally, there will be additional training possibilities for workers over the age of 45.

Working time

The Minister of Employment and Labour, Laurette Onkelinx, recently made a number of proposals on working hours and free time (BE0005312F). The social partners have responded to these proposals in the intersectoral agreement. According to Josly Piette of CSC/ACV, the employers and unions have "modelled" the measures proposed by the Minister, while taking into account the reality on the ground. Employers' representatives stated: "we have reached pragmatic solutions."

Working week

The working week is currently a maximum of 39 hours. The Minister of Employment and Labour had asked the social partners to reduce this limit to 38 hours by 1 January 2001, which was unthinkable for employers in small and medium-sized companies (UCM and UNIZO). The agreement leaves the negotiations on this issue to the sectors and companies, but with the requirement to achieve a reduction in the working week to 38 hours by January 2003 at the latest.

The social partners have asked the government to make a reduction in employers' social security contributions available early to companies that conclude collective agreements reducing working time as of 2001 (and not 2002).

Better reconciliation of work and family life

The negotiators will put in place a collectively agreed framework as of January 2002 to grant workers:

  • the right to a "time credit" of one year, full time or half time;
  • the right to a career break equivalent to one-fifth of a week for five years;
  • the right to half-time work or 80% work for workers aged over 50;
  • a system of specific leave (eg parental leave or leave to care for an ill family member); and
  • a specific system for very small companies with fewer than 10 workers (which will include a requirement for the employer's consent for the new forms of time off).

Independent of these measures, paternity leave has been raised to 10 days (previously three).

Older workers

The trade union organisations successfully requested that all existing early retirement systems be maintained and extended. The approach to this issue taken by the agreement is aimed at maintaining the current retirement systems, while improving the employment opportunities for older workers, through a "voluntarist and incentive-based" approach, as follows:

  • workers aged over 45 will be able to switch from night-shift to day-shift work and receive an additional sum to compensate for the loss of income. This requires a change to National Labour Council agreement N° 46 on shiftwork (planned for the end of 2001);
  • workers aged over 50 will be entitled to reduce their working time to four days per week and receive an allowance, or to work half time with a higher allowance; and
  • the recruitment of unemployed workers over the age of 45 will be encouraged (through reductions in employer social security contributions and the "activation" of unemployment benefits to subsidise the recruitment of older workers)

Mobility

Various measures have been agreed concerning mobility, which is becoming "a subject for consultation in its own right" (according to Michel Nollet of FGTB/ABVV). These measures include:

  • a higher reimbursement of the costs of commuting between home and work; and
  • the possibility for company investments in "transport plans" (BE9903264F) to be tax deductible.

Status of blue- and white-collar workers

The continuing differences in status between blue-collar and white-collar workers in Belgium has long been the subject of debate (BE0003307F). The previous intersectoral agreement provided for a harmonisation of the periods of notice for the two categories of employee. In the 2001-2 intersectoral agreement, the two sides requested the National Labour Council to put forward by the end of 2001 proposals to harmonise the two statuses further. The implementation of these proposals will be scheduled over a period of six years.

Equality between women and men

The social partners agreed to "maintain the effort initiated in the previous intersectoral agreement" withe regard to achieving greater quality between women and men. In addition, they have undertaken to develop a pilot project with the European Social Fund on gender mainstreaming in Belgium. As an example, they cite the possibility of examining the issue of "the impact of the analytical review of job classifications in the sectors".

Social dialogue in SMEs

Various sectors have organised a specific system of consultation arrangements for companies with fewer than 50 workers (which are not covered by statutory works councils and health and safety committees - BE9710219F). The negotiators have requested, as in the previous intersectoral agreement, that the sectoral negotiators organise this same system of consultation, which occurs beyond company level, for their sectors, if possible.

Other provisions

Other issues covered by the new intersectoral agreement include:

  • administrative simplification. The employers' organisations requested administrative formalities to be cut back to a minimum so as to "improve the entrepreneurial climate and stimulate employment". A work programme has been set up in this respect;
  • temporary agency work. Up until now, the use of temporary agency staff has been legally banned in the construction sector. The social partners have agreed to "discuss objectively" the possibility of lifting this ban; and
  • international cooperation and sustainable development. The social partners have asked the government for the resources to facilitate cooperation between the intersectoral and sectoral employer and union organisations and their counterparts in other countries of the world.

Implementation

The sectoral social partners will now implement many of the agreement's provisions through negotiations in the joint committees. With regard to various other matters, it has been agreed to form four working groups to look into the ways of implementing certain points:

  • a working group on the budgetary implementation of the measures (including the Minister of the Budget, Social Integration and Social Economy, Johan Vande Lanotte);
  • a working group on the social aspects of the implementation of the agreed regulations (including the Minister of Social Affairs and Pensions, Frank Vandenbroucke);
  • a working group within the National Labour Council which will examine the legal framework (including the Minister of Employment and Labour, Laurette Onkelinx); and
  • a working group on taxation which will specify the implementation of the announced tax deductions (including the Minister of Finance, Didier Reynders).

Commentary

Beyond the framework set by the social partners for the sectoral negotiations, which in itself is considerable, the intersectoral agreement also pursues other not insignificant objectives, such as the implementation of a new legal framework on certain industrial relations issues for all workers in the private sector. However, in addition to making practical advances, this agreement also plays an enormous symbolic role. It enables the employers and unions to put forward their own priorities in areas such as pay, employment and the training of workers. Consequently, it allows them to put in second place the measures proposed by other actors on the Belgian industrial relations scene. Thus, the proposals of the Minister of Employment and Labour, Laurette Onkelinx, on the reduction of working time have been deliberately put to the side for the time being. The Minister has responded by calling this agreement "timid".

It should be said (but is this a relationship of cause and effect?) that the social partners have not particularly appreciated the positions adopted by certain members of the government on matters that traditionally belong to the partners. Government decisions have, in fact, been taken by the new intersectoral agreement through government proposals on the status of blue- and white-collar employees and the government mobility plan, as well as measures relating to social security. These measures, which are classified as "orders" in the Belgian consultation system, sometimes made the negotiations between unions and employers difficult. As an example, FGTB/ABVV asserts (in its explanatory note on the draft intersectoral agreement) that the employment plan presented by the government has been "greeted with enormous mistrust by the employers, which is reflected in laborious discussions on the methods of application that the negotiators have had to finalise at the request of the government".

Those involved can only congratulate themselves on the conclusion of this agreement. They "refused to reduce the negotiations to the simple implementation of government decisions and continually insisted on free and responsible bargaining", according to FGTB/ABVV. "As a result of this agreement, our companies will be able to concentrate on their main activity: enterprise", according to FEB/VBO. (Catherine Delbar, Institut des Sciences du Travail, UCL)

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