Pioneering sectoral agreement at Electrabel: 35-hour week and job creation

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Following a long dispute, in December 1997 employees at Electrabel, the Belgian electricity-distribution company, approved an agreement that focuses on the reduction of working hours and on recruitment.

An agreement regarded as a model in the field of reducing working time and job creation was signed on 23 December 1997 and so put an end to the six-month dispute at Electrabel, the electricity-distribution company (BE9711125N). The most recent collective agreement for the firm, signed in May 1997, provided for wage rises and the replacement of those retiring early by temporary employees. It was rejected by the two majority trade unions at the firm - GAZELCO (affiliated to the Federation of Public Services, Centrale Générale des Services Publics/Algemene Centrale Der Openbare Diensten) and the National Federation of White-Collar Workers (Centrale Nationale des Employés/Landelijke Bedienden Central, or CNE/LBC) - which wanted to stress the reduction of working hours and recruitment under open-ended contracts of employment.

The two unions have now gained satisfaction: the agreement has been revised and the management now agrees to "examine positively the reduction of working time to 35 hours a week" over the course of the next collective agreement periods - that is, 1999-2000 and 2001-2. This new agreement thereby covers the four-year period from 1 January 1999 until 31 December 2002. Hours will be reduced from 1 January 1999, but the rate of reduction is still to be negotiated.

Moreover, 300 additional full-time workers will be recruited and recruitment for the one thousand temporary posts planned will be speeded up. Wages, however, will be frozen until 2002.

For the unions which were demanding a 32-hour week, a 35-hour week in two years' time is a step forward: "one train-stop nearer the 32-hour station", said Mr Galler of GAZELCO.

Three points should be underlined.

  • This is the first sectoral agreement signed on the 35-hour week. Others have been concluded within firms, in particular to protect jobs, but Electrabel represents the entire national electricity sector. It employs 14,000 people and manages Belgian nuclear power stations and electricity distribution. The sector makes comfortable profits, but had so far rejected this demand by invoking profitability requirements with a view to market liberalisation.
  • The opposition between the GAZELCO and CNE/LBC unions on the one hand, and the signatories to the first agreement, on the other - the Federation of Gas and Electricity (Fédération du Gaz et de l'Electricité FEG), which is the Christian union in this sector, and the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicats Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden,CGSLB/ACLV- is an expression of inter-union tension over priorities regarding claims. At intersectoral level, unions now stress the reduction of working hours, but within firms union members have to choose and most often abandon the prospect of future wage rises in favour of the reduction of working hours to allow recruitment. It is a difficult choice, particularly in periods of wage freezes, but in Electrabel it was supported by 88% of the workforce in a referendum.
  • The debate on the reduction of working hours, in which employers' federations refused to engage until recently, has now been brought into the negotiating area, even if it takes place outside the framework of legal measures meant to encourage it.
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