Belgium: Latest working life developments – Q1 2017

The conclusion of the interprofessional agreement for 2017–2018, job losses at ING and Caterpillar, and calls for a stronger migration policy to fight social dumping are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the first quarter of 2017.

Interprofessional agreement 2017–2018

At the beginning of January, the Group of Ten (top representatives of employees and employers at federal level) concluded the interprofessional agreement for 2017–2018. The agreement, which was signed by the government at the beginning of February, serves as a basis for all future negotiations between the Belgian social partners.

The most important measure is that the norm for wage rises is set at 1.1%, which will form a benchmark for the negotiation of wages every two years. Unions are not enthusiastic about this, but it was considered by all the social partners as the most realistic percentage possible.

Kris Peeters, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Employment in the federal government, plans to reform the 1996 law on wage-setting. This reform project will attempt to increase Belgium’s competitiveness by modifying the operating rules of wage-setting. Some ‘social challenges’ have also been identified that will be addressed during this project, including:

  • simplification of administrative procedures;
  • mobility (and specifically multimodality, associating different means of transport);
  • youth employment;
  • digitalisation and the collaborative economy;
  • restructuring;
  • burnout (to be addressed by a specific working group).

Redundancies reduced at ING and Caterpillar

In October 2016, it was announced that retail banking company ING wanted to lay off 3,500 employees in Belgium (PDF). Negotiations between the management and employees’ representatives have reduced the number of direct dismissals to 890, although the unions’ ideal objective is 409.

One of the agreed measures to accompany this collective redundancy is an early departure plan for all workers aged 55 or more with more than 10 years’ seniority. Another measure concerns the possible reclassification of dismissed employees through specific resettlement units and appropriate training programmes.

Changes will be made to the working conditions of employees who remain at the company, including:

  • an increase in flexibility (longer working hours for staff and call-centres staying open later);
  • salaries will be paid in arrears rather than in advance as is currently the case (with due compensation to bridge the gap);
  • sectoral pay scales will replace the company’s own pay grades (which are more beneficial than the sectoral ones) from 1 January 2019.

The collective redundancies (PDF) announced by heavy plant manufacturer Caterpillar in 2016 have generated huge media coverage. This issue now appears settled, since 75% of the workers voted on 28 February to accept a pre-agreement on their leaving terms and on how production will carry on until the site closes in spring 2018. The company’s executives have also voted for this pre-agreement. Since then, the Walloon Region has acquired the site and most of the facilities to develop new activities and redeploy the workers.

Situation of clandestine workers in Belgium

The Belgian General Federation of Work (FGTB/ABVV) estimates that there are around 150,000 clandestine workers in the country. The sectors most affected are construction, cleaning, care and market workers. The daily wage of these clandestine workers is estimated to be between €20 and €30. Unions are calling for a stronger migration policy to fight social dumping (which could be relevant within the context of a migration crisis). According to them, this issue represents a loss for both employees (through low wages) and the social security system (through the absence of contributions).

Negotiations on the ‘excellence pact’

Marie-Martine Schyns, Minister of Education for the Federation of Wallonia-Brussels, has submitted an ‘excellence pact’ intended to reform and optimise the education system and to reduce inequalities by 2030. This pact has been strongly criticised by the teachers’ unions. At the beginning of March, unions made a series of claims to try to continue work on this pact. These claims concerned issues such as:

  • volume of employment;
  • class sizes;
  • work schedules.

At the end of March, the unions said they were willing to continue negotiating, having received sufficient guarantees from the Federation.

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