Belgium: Latest working life developments – Q3 2016

The definition of hazardous jobs, measures to promote youth employment, a series of collective redundancies and proposals to alter wage formation are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the third quarter of 2016.

Early retirement for workers in hazardous jobs

The social partners involved in the National Committee on Pensions (CNP-NPC) have been working to reach agreement about which jobs qualify as physically hazardous. The aim is to allow early retirement for people in these jobs – for example, firefighters or police officers.

An initial agreement (PDF) released in August stipulates that a job may be considered hazardous for the following three reasons:

  • if the worker has been exposed for a certain amount of time to one or more physical or psychosocial factors likely to produce long-term, irreversible effects;
  • if this situation is untenable for an extended period;
  • if the position is untenable from a certain age.

The unions advocate this collective approach, whereby the same standards are applied in every case. An individual procedure – making less use of pre-determined criteria – is still possible, but only in the case of a worker suffering from a disability or a serious illness.

Measures to promote youth employment

The National Work Council (CNT-NAR) recently reported that Belgian companies are not meeting the required quotas for young employees. The law stipulates that every company that employs at least 50 workers should ensure at least 3% of the workers it hires are under the age of 26. Yet only 79% of private businesses and 49% of public organisations are meeting this quota. The General Federation of Belgian Labour (FGTB-ABVV) has criticised the situation.

With this in mind, the Walloon government, the Brussels government and the Federation Wallonia-Brussels jointly adopted a series of measures to promote work-related training. Their goal is to combat youth unemployment with measures such as the recognition of foreign training and making it easier to access jobs in the public sector.

Collective redundancies at Axa and Caterpillar

The beginning of September saw two major announcements of collective redundancies at Caterpillar and Axa. At Caterpillar, this represents 2,200 job losses, although the total loss could be closer to 6,000 once subcontractors are taken into account. The company is planning to close its production site at Gosselies, citing reduced demand and financial reasons. All Belgian political parties have denounced this decision and unions are planning a series of actions for the coming months. The so-called Renault procedure (a mandatory procedure of information and consultation) is ongoing.

On 5 September, Axa called an extraordinary works council meeting to announce its intention to lay off at least 650 employees. The redundancies are part of the company’s strategic plan, which involves administrative simplification among other goals. The management is willing to negotiate with the unions to reduce the effects of the restructure – for example, by reducing wages, increasing working hours or reducing the age of pre-pension to 55 years.

For further information, see the European Restructuring Monitor (ERM) entries for Caterpillar and Axa.

Proposed changes to wage formation

The Federal Minister of Employment, Kris Peeters (from the CD&V party), wishes to modify the 1996 law on the formation of wages. Wage formation is currently calculated according to specific criteria, which the government wants to revise in order to set a maximum margin of increase. The government has introduced a bill to the Group of Ten - the national leaders of the most representative employers’ and workers’ organisations. The project has already been criticised by all Belgian trade unions, which have begun to organise strikes. More related industrial action is expected. 

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