Belgium: Latest working life developments – Q2 2017

A proposal requiring rail employees and trade unions to register upcoming strikes; new sectoral collective agreements; and a simplification of the overtime system in the hospitality sector are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the second quarter of 2017.

Proposed legislation for minimum service in Belgian railways

François Bellot, Federal Minister for Mobility and member of the Reformist Movement party (MR), has drafted proposals for a law to introduce a minimuml rail service in the event of a strike by employees of the National Society for Belgian Railways (NMBS). The new system will not guarantee a minimum number of trains for this service, but envisages an ‘8-4-1’ system, with:

  • unions obliged to give eight days’ notice of a strike
  • employees having to register for the strike up to four days in advance
  • NMBS expected to inform passengers one day in advance about changes to their timetables.

The introduction of a minimum service has always been a controversial topic, with trade unions strongly opposed to the idea as it would weaken the effect of their industrial action. However, after two years of debate between the NMBS management and trade unions, Minister Bellot has gone ahead with his proposal without agreement from either party.

The minister says his system will improve the information available to travellers on the day of the strike. Employees who refuse to report their participation in strikes will be fined €12.50 as well as it being noted in their personal record.

Trade unions are angered by the proposal and have announced possible action this summer. In Parliament, majority parties the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) and the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) have welcomed the proposal. However, the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (CD&V), which is also a member of the government, is more critical saying that there will have to be more talks with the trade unions before the draft is approved.

Suspension of law limiting voting by smaller unions

A law allowing NMBS to take part in social elections was passed in 2016. This is unusual since social elections (to choose members of a company works council or health and safety committee) are normally not allowed in the public sector. However, the new voting rights apply only to the three large and nationally recognised trade unions:

  • The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV-CSC)
  • The Belgian General Federation of Labour (ABVV-FGTB)
  • The General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (ACLVB-CGSLB).

Smaller, unrecognised trade unions, such as the Independent Union of Rail Workers (OVS-SIC) and the National Union of Public Services (UNSP-NUOD) disputed their exclusion under the new law and their case was upheld by the constitutional court in May. The case is still continuing and is being investigated by Minister Bellot’s office.

Sectoral agreements concluded in Q2

White-collar workers

On 1 June 2017 social partners in Joint Committee 200 (JC 200 – Belgium’s largest joint committee covering 431,182 white-collar workers), concluded a sectoral agreement for 2017–2018. It contains a number of provisions. Most notably, there will be a 1.1% increase in purchasing power for employees within the joint committee, from October 2017. The form of this increase, such as an increase in pay or health insurance, can be decided at company level by the social partners; if they cannot agree by 1 September, wages will rise by 1.1%. In companies with no trade union, the employer must inform each employee covered by the joint committee of what form the increase will take. Additionally, in 2018, employees covered by this joint committee will also be eligible for two days of training.

Blue-collar workers in the metal sector

On 24 April 2017 social partners in Joint Committee 111 (JC 111 – Belgium’s largest joint committee in the metal, mechanical and electrical construction sector covering 115,519 blue-collar workers), concluded a sectoral agreement for 2017–2018.

  • There will be an increase of 1.1% in purchasing power for affected employees – the form of the increase again being decided by the social partners at company level. If they fail to reach an agreement by 1 July 2017, the effective wages will raise by 1.1 %.
  • There will be increased compensation for temporary unemployment and illness.
  • From 2018, each worker will have the right to eight hours training annually. From 2020, this system will be replaced by one where employers have to invest 1.9% of the total wage bill in training.

Overtime regulation simplified in hospitality sector

Kris Peeters, Minister of Employment (CD&V), has announced changes in how overtime is regulated in the hospitality sector. According to current labour law, overtime in the sector is only possible if there is a case of ‘extraordinary increase in workload or unforeseen necessities’, requiring official registration. However, these reasons can be ambiguous and open to interpretation by employers in the sector. Minister Peeters’ changes now require instead that written consent be given by each employee every six months, stating they agree to work overtime as needed.

Commentary

It will probably take a considerable amount of time before the law is implemented regarding a minimal service in case of a rail strike: the Council of State has to give its opinion and include additional remarks if necessary; then some lively debate is expected in parliament; and the last step will be an operational plan to be set up by both NMBS and Infrabel (the organisation responsible for railway infrastructure). All three traditional trade unions have kept relatively quiet about the suspension of the law that limits action by the smaller railway unions. However, there is a real possibility that trade unions will resort to industrial action in the coming months on the proposal for a minimal service. The change in labour law proposed by Minister Peeters is still at an early stage and it will probably take quite some time to be approved in parliament.

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