EMCC European Monitoring Centre on Change

Perceptions of globalisation: attitudes and responses in the EU — Belgium

  • Observatory: EMCC
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 02 March 2008

Sabine Wernerus and Emmanuelle Perin

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

Belgium, as a small country in the middle of Europe, is dependent on the commercial and economical exchanges with other countries and therefore its own economy could not survive without international trade. The Belgian authorities are therefore very open to foreign investments in Belgium and their policies could not be, in that sense, qualified as protectionism. The employers are also favourable to globalisation for the reason that they can extend their activities outside Europe in terms of trade but also in terms of production. Trade Unions generally consider this phenomenon as inevitable and they try to foster the development of a European and even an international worker’s representation in order to prevent the negative effect of globalisation on the labour. In order to protect the Belgian workers from relocation, trade unions and the authorities have developed a legal framework to respect (“loi Renault/ Renault wet”) in case of restructuring causing collective redundancies. The authorities are maybe favourable to globalisation in order to attract foreign investments but they remain protectionist when relocation concerns their own workers.

Institutional responses to globalisation

Government action to prevent or reduce the extent of off shoring/relocation

Are there any recent examples in your country (i.e. over the past 3-4 years) of the government intervening to prevent particular activities from being relocated abroad or to reduce the scale of this?


If so, please give summary details and indicate the activities concerned

Note: we have to note the particular Belgian institutional context due to its federal character. The authorities involved in relocations are therefore manifold. The policies that concern the economy and employment are divided between the different authorities.

The regions are in charge of all the competences linked with the notion of territory. The Flemish region, the Walloon region and the region of Brussels intervene, among others, in the economical field in policies such as the regional aspect of the economy and the international trade, but also the development of the infrastructures, transport and energy. Finding a job for unemployed people and the linked training policies are also the responsibility of each region.

The communities (the Flemish community, the French-speaking community and the German-speaking community) are responsible for policies linked to people and their language such as culture, education or health.

The competences non-allocated to regions or communities remain under the jurisdiction of the federal authorities. These competences include, regarding the matters concerned in this study, business laws and corporate laws, patent rights but also the determination of taxes on labour and other fiscal policy concerning the employment and the social welfare.

This institutional context explains why different governments are intervening in the different cases.( for more information concerning the Belgian institutional context, please see, Delpérée, Francis & Renders, David,,2003, Le code constitutionnel, Bruxelles, Bruylant)

The governments ‘intervention generally consists in political interventions via the actions of its diplomatic services but they also intervene through fiscal or legal measures favourable to the foreign-owned firms.

Volskwagen Forest (NACE 34.10) : In November 2006, when the management announced the restructuring that will cause a collective redundancy concerning 4,400 jobs, the federal government intervened by proposing to decrease the production costs including the loan costs of 20% and to adapt the working time at 38 hours a week instead of 35 hours a week for the same salary.

In exchange of these conditions, the management of VW promised to maintain 3000 jobs with the building of a new car model from 2009.

In 2005, the region of Brussels had already sold to Volkswagen a development site with favourable conditions allowing the company to extend its activities in Brussels and to prevent any relocation.

In the case of the steel group Arcelor (NACE 28.00), the intervention was not really obvious, and so not related in the press, because of this unofficial way of acting from the governments. In April 2005, when Arcelor took the decision to close the blast furnaces situated in the Liège steel producing area (East of Belgium), the Walloon government intervened in order to maintain a certain economical activity in the region. They therefore negotiated to balance the direct lost of the 2,700 jobs employed by Arcelor by an investment of this last one in the region. The company Sodie, involved in the economic development of SME’s was given a mandate by Arcelor to foster the creation of 2,700 new jobs by helping the subcontractors of Arcelor to diverse their activities in order to survive without the hot phase. (For more information about this case, please see BE0505301N and BE0706029I, forthcoming)

Another case concerns a SME, Nestlé (NACE 15.50): In September 2005, Nestlé, a company specialised in the manufacture of dairy, decided to relocate its Belgian site in Spain and Portugal. The Walloon government offered the company some subsidies in order to maintain some employment on the site and to reduce the consequences in terms of lost jobs of the relocation. This case is particular because it concerns a SME. In Belgium, SME’s have no obligation to constitute a workers representation in the company. Workers are therefore not represented while relocation is announced and besides, they do not benefit of the legal frame of the Renault law, establishing an obligatory consultation between the management and the trade unions in case of restructuring.(see below) This question of the representation of workers in SME’s is a highly controversial subject, for more information, please see BE0704019I .

A last example is Reilly Chemicals (NACE 24.00), this chemical industry obtained a financial support from the Walloon region in December 2002 in order to maintain some jobs on the Belgian site and to reduce the scale of the relocation planned by the company.

Social partner attitudes towards off-shoring/relocation

Have there been cases over the past 3-4 years where the possibility – or threat – of relocation of production has featured as a factor in collective bargaining?


If so, please indicate the cases concerned, how the possibility has been used and whether its use has become a more frequent occurrence.

All cases of relocation feature collective bargaining for the reason that there is a legal framework to respect in case of collective redundancies and that establishes an obligatory consultation between the management and the trade unions.

This procedure is established by the law we call Renault Law (Loi Renault/Renault Wet), because settled after the relocation of a production site of the car company Renault.

Before the relocation case of Renault in Vilvoorde (North of Brussels), a consultation procedure already existed. A social collective agreement (Convention collective de travail n°24/ collectieve arbeidovereenkomst n°24) already settled such procedure implementing the European directive 75/129.

In case of collective redundancy, the employer must inform and consult 60 days before the closing the Works council (Conseil d'Entreprise/ Ondernemingsraden, CE/OR) of the company. The representatives of the workers are allowed to ask questions, to argue or to formulate counter-proposals regarding the redundancies.

The Renault Law strengthen the legal framework of the procedure and allow the workers to contest individually the redundancies, if the procedures were not respected. Before the Renault law, the procedures existed but if the company did not respect the procedures, no sanction was applied. Now, the workers can contest their redundancy if the law has not been respected.

These procedures are not implemented in SME’s because the company must employ at least 100 workers and must lay off a minimum of 20 workers and be considered in a restructuring process to fulfil the condition of the Renault Law.

In addition to this legal framework, trade unions are used to negotiate a social agreement with the employer when the company restructures with collective redundancies. This is the occasion for the representatives of the workers to negotiate the redundancies compensations or the conditions of the pension benefits of the older ones.

Are there any cases over the past 3-4 years where trade unions have successfully resisted plans to relocate production abroad or have managed to reduce the extent of this?


We must note that trade unions had never resisted globally to relocation of the production but sometimes they are able to reduce at least the scope of the relocation (limited to certain departments or to reduce the number of lost jobs).

Mittal-Arcelor (NACE 28.00): In May 2007, trade unions (Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV and Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV)) had convinced the new management to re-examine the decision to close a blast furnace implemented under the direction of the ex-management of Arcelor.

In March 2007, the trade unions prepared a report intended to Laksmi Mittal, singing the praises of the Liège steel region to expand its activities. The report included a serious study proving the high productivity quality of the Belgian site and its cost-effectiveness. Moreover, the trade unions insisted on the quality of the social negotiations system and the good will of the workers. Finally, the trade unions and the management had reached an agreement planning a potential reopening of the blast furnace closed two years ago. This re opening will create between 220 and 250 jobs. (For more information, please see BE0706029I, forthcoming)

Volkswagen Forest (NACE 34.10): This is the most recent case. The trade unions (with the help of the government, see above) through collective bargaining succeeded to maintain around 3000 jobs on the site with the manufacture of a new car model: Audi A3.

The trade unions accepted to increase working hours from 35 hours a week to 38 hours a week without any increase of the salary.

Through bargaining, the trade unions are still trying to get more car models for their site to prevent any relocation in the future. (See BE0705029I, forthcoming)

Stocko contact (NACE: 31.30), in December 2006, trade unions reached an agreement with the management in order to maintain 91 jobs until the end of 2008 after the decision of the company to relocate its activities towards the Czech republic .

If so, please indicate the cases concerned and outline their main features Are there any cases where trade unions have accepted the need for the relocation of production – or part of it – abroad as a means of maintaining or improving the viability of companies and so of preserving some jobs and even ultimately expanding them?


If so, please briefly describe the cases concerned

Generally the balance of power between the two parts is unequal and trade unions and workers have no choice because financial reasons are not easily contested. So, trade unions accept the relocation of one part of the enterprises in order to save another part and then a part of the employment.

A good example would be AGC Automotive (NACE 26.1), specialised in the manufacture of windscreen: the trade unions accepted the relocation of the production of tempered glass, not enough competitive in comparison to other glass manufactures. The main objective for the trade unions was to maintain at least 400 jobs in the other departments. (For more information on this case, please see BE0502304N)

General Motors (NACE 34.1) in May 2007 decided to relocate the production of the Opel Astra towards other European countries. This relocation should have cost the lost of 1,400 jobs if the trade unions did not intervene.The trade unions accepted the relocation at the conditions that the management agreed to transfer the production of other cars’ model in Antwerp. According to Mr.Hutsebaut, trade union representatives for the steel and motor sector (FGTB/ABVV), “we had to choose between the total closure of the production site or the relocation of the biggest part of the production!”

The redundancies had not been avoided but at least they had been reduced. (See, BE0705029I, forthcoming)

Government policy on foreign-owned firms controlling significant sections of the economy

Does the Government in your country have an explicit policy on restricting the acquisition of domestic companies in certain sectors by foreign-owned firms?


If so, please give summary details and indicate which sectors this applies to as well as whether any distinction is made between companies according to their nationality (e.g. whether non-European companies are treated differently from European ones)

No, Belgium is totally open to foreign-owned firms. Besides, the three regions developed specialized organisms in order to attract foreign investors in Belgium.

Are there any restrictions on foreign-owned companies setting up branches or subsidiaries in your country either generally or in specific sectors?


Please indicate the sectors concerned and the stated reasons for the restrictions. Please also indicate whether the restriction apply to companies from other parts of the EU as well as from outside


Are there any sectors of the economy in which the acquisition of a domestic company has not been allowed over the past 3-4 years?


If so, please indicate the sectors concerned and the nationality of the foreign companies involved as well as the reasons given for the decision


Social partner responses to the take-over of domestic firms by foreign-owned ones

Have there been any recent cases (i.e. over the past 3-4 years) where trade unions have resisted foreign acquisition of domestic companies explicitly because of the nationality of the company concerned?


If so, please give summary details, indicating whether there is any evidence of different attitudes being shown towards European firms as opposed to companies from outside Europe


Have there been any recent cases (i.e. over the past 3-4 years) where domestic companies have resisted acquisition by a foreign-owned firm on the grounds of its nationality?


If so, please give summary details, indicating the nationality of the company concerned and whether there is any evidence of European and non-European companies being regarded differently in this regard.


Attitudes to globalisation

Have employers’ associations in your country adopted a stated position as regards the main aspects of globalisation – i.e. outsourcing or the relocation of production abroad and the acquisition of domestic companies by foreign-owned ones?


If so, please give summary details, indicating whether or not the position varies across sectors of the economy

Belgian Federation of Employers (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO), the Union of the Middle Classes (Union des Classes Moyennes, UCM) and the Flemish employers’ organisation (Vlaams Economisch Verbond, VEV) consider globalisation as positive because it allows a diversification and extension of the economical activities of the country creating jobs and increasing the prosperity of each Belgian’s citizen. Globalisation is also used by the employer’s federation as an argument to reach their own objective: to reduce the taxes on the labour, to adopt a more favourable attitude towards workers’ immigration, and so on, in order to maintain their competitiveness in comparison to other countries.

Have trade unions in your country adopted a stated position as regards the main aspects of globalisation – i.e. outsourcing or the relocation of production abroad and the acquisition of domestic companies by foreign-owned ones?


If so, please give summary details, indicating whether or not the position varies across sectors of the economy

*A Eurobarometer survey on globalisation was carried out in 2003 in the EU-15 Member States. This might serve as a useful point of reference for the countries concerned, to see, for example, whether or not national attitudes expressed in the survey are in line with similar surveys which have been conducted nationally. The survey findings are available at:


The Belgian trade unions (The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions ( Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV), the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicats Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB and the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) consider the Europeanization and globalisation processes as inevitable and then, they tend to focus on the necessity to respect in this global context the notions of equality, solidarity, social justice and the preservation of the environment.

The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC/ACV) has settled in its “Memorandum 2007”, its demands towards the federal government regarding the European integration and globalisation. Its demands consist in the establishment of a higher level of European social policies in the matters of enterprises restructuring, the settlement of a fiscal policy at the European level and a European framework for collective agreements. At the global level, they insist on the necessity to establish a social model at the world level with the objective to foster the notions of decent jobs and sustainable development.

On the other hand, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB/ABVV) underlined the negative effects of globalisation such as the liberalisation and privatisation of prominent public services. They consider that globalisation of the representation of the workers constitutes the best mean to prevent these negative effects on the citizens.

Have there been any surveys of public opinion in your country over the past 3-4 years on attitudes towards globalisation or on the various dimensions of this (as listed above)?


If so, please summarise the main findings of these. Please give a breakdown, where possible, in terms of the characteristics of respondents (e.g. by sex, age, socio-economic group, education level, occupation, sector of employment or region).


Have these surveys made a distinction between the different dimensions of globalisation (as listed above) or have separate surveys been carried out on these dimensions?


If so, please summarise the main findings of these as regards:

off-shoring(or the relocation of production abroad;

the take-over of domestic companies by foreign-owned ones and/or the growing extent of control by foreign companies of parts of the domestic economy

the establishment of new plants and offices by foreign-owned companies

Where possible, please give a breakdown in each case in terms of the characteristics of respondents (e.g. by sex, age, socio-economic group, education level, occupation, sector of employment or region)


Have these surveys made an explicit distinction between globalisation and the process of European integration, by, for example, distinguishing between relocation of production to other EU Member States and relocation to countries outside the EU or between the take-over of domestic companies by EU-owned firms and take-over by a non-EU companies?


If so, please give summary details of the differences in response to EU integration as opposed to globalisation.


Comments: There has been no survey conducted near the Belgian population about their perception of globalisation. However, for this study, we interviewed some representatives of the trade unions and experts in relocation and they considered that the trade unions were more reluctant to relocation to another European country than a non-European country. The reason would be that relocation outside Europe could be understandable regarding financial reasons or logistic and transport reasons. This kind of reason seems to be not good enough perceived for relocation inside the European Union.


Confédération des syndicates Chrétien/ Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, Memorandum 2007, April 2007

Fédération Générale du travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB internationale. L’avenir du movement syndical est international, http://www.bonusalemploi.be/code/fr/fram025.html

Fédération des enterprises de Belgique/ Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, Stratégie 2010: Croissance et employ: brisons les tabous,http://www.vbo-feb.be/index.html

GRESEA-Belwatch- Observatoire des enterprises, http://www.gresea.be/ This paper was realised thanks to the statements of Mr. Hutsebaut (FGTB/ABVV steel & motor sector), Mrs Vincent (Crisp, Centre for social and political information), and Mr. Demez (Professor of social law at the Institute for Labour Studies, Catholic University of Louvain and Mr. Balthazar from the “Fondation André Renard”, socialist trade union study services.

Sabine Wernerus and Emmanuelle Perin, Institut des sciences du travail, Catholic University of Louvain

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