Unemployed people demonstrate against tougher sanctions and benefit cuts

More and more organisations of unemployed people in Belgium have joined an awareness-raising campaign against tougher checks and sanctions, which have led to an increase in exclusions from benefits. The campaign included a week of action in early April 1998. The unemployed groups, created spontaneously or led by trade unions, have been acting together with the support of various democratic and political associations.

Starting from 2 April 1998, a first week of action was organised by associations of unemployed people campaigning against sanctions and the exclusion of particular categories of unemployed people, as decided on by the National Office for Employment (Office national de l'Emploi/Rijksdienst voor Arbeidsvoorziening, ONEm/RVA).

In Charleroi, 250 members of the collective known as "Active Unemployed" (Chômeurs actifs), supported by the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV), the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) and the League of Human Rights (Ligue des Droits de l'Homme), visited the offices of the political parties and ONEm/RVA, which is in charge of paying benefits. In Liège, the collective "Unemployed, Not Dogs" (Chômeurs, pas Chiens), with groups from the CSC/ACV and FGTB/ABVV, challenged the ONEm/RVA regional director. In Brussels, the Setca-FGTB Committee of the Unemployed (Comité des chômeurs du Setca-FGTB), the European Marches for Jobs (Marches européennes pour l'emploi) collective and political activists went to the ONEM/RVA's central office. In Nivelles and in various towns in the provinces of Hainaut and Luxembourg, the demonstrations were organised by the CSC/ACV committees of unemployed people. Information campaigns, petitions and rallies are planned in every town and a major demonstration was mooted at the end of April.

Sanctions and exclusions

The reason for this anger among unemployed groups is not really new. ONEm/RVA has tightened its rules for checking up on unemployed people and multiplied the grounds for temporary or permanent exclusions from benefit. It has taken sanctions against artists who made or displayed a work of art (BE9710120N) and against unemployed people who were part of an exchange system for services (Services d'Echanges Locaux), or who did voluntary work for Oxfam and so on. However, sanctions have most frequently been targeted against "cohabitees", mostly women, excluded for false declarations or on grounds of long-term unemployment. In Belgium, anyone who has worked is entitled to unemployment benefits for an indeterminate period, but the amount of benefit is reduced if the unemployed person is living with someone who has an income or lives alone. For those categories, the amount is reduced after a year and benefits can be stopped if the period of unemployment is considered "abnormally long".

For the period from 1 July 1996 to 30 June 1997, the latest ONEm/RVA figures reveal that, out of 58,942 decisions to suspend benefits, 28,005, or 47.5%, concerned long-term unemployment (up from 23,000 in 1995). The rest were due to transgressions committed by the unemployed people themselves: leaving a job "without a legitimate reason", doing paid work or making a false declaration concerning their family situation.

The complexity of the rules and the diversity of statuses applicable to the unemployed increase the number of checks on declarations made by unemployed people. An employed person who is a head of household, for instance, and starts living with another person, must warn ONEm/RVA as she or he changes status: as a cohabitee, his or her benefits are reduced and she or he can be excluded on grounds of long-term unemployment.

ONEm/RVA organises house visits to check the truthfulness of the declarations made by unemployed people, but the methods of checking and the weakness of the means of defence available to the unemployed people have been increasingly contested.

In January 1998, in his response to a question from T Detienne, an Ecologist MP, the Justice Minister declared that it was unlawful to seek signs of cohabitation such as an extra toothbrush or clothing belonging to someone of the other sex. However, the Minister of Employment and Labour justified such checks, within limits: no to searches, but yes to visual observation. In the view of trade union lawyers, the League of Human Rights and the unemployed associations, an unemployed person becomes a second-class citizen. According to P Blanjean of the CSC/ACV: "in court, it is up to the prosecution to prove guilt. Here it is the opposite. The right to defence is not observed ... If called for a hearing (before ONEm/RVA), the unemployed person cannot consult his or her file."

The associations of unemployed people have made the following demands to ONEm/RVA:

  • the abolition of cohabitee status, that is, a flat rate of benefit for all, with supplements for family responsibilities;
  • an end to home visits;
  • an end to checks based on denunciations by others;
  • a revision of the conditions for hearings of unemployed people before ONEm/RVA, through proper access to files; and
  • a reversal of the burden of proof and observance of the presumption of innocence. It should be up to ONEM to prove fraud and not up to the unemployed person to prove that there is no fraud.

The unions and unemployed people

Committees of unemployed people have existed since the 1980s in the trade unions, and in their regional and trade federations. Many unemployed people remain members of their unions and receive their benefits through union offices. They can ask union representatives to help them prepare their defence for ONEm hearings. As groups of members, however, they have little weight within their union organisations and have often made this fact known.

Today, these committees have revived their fortunes by associating themselves with independent collectives. There are many of these and they generally include both union members and non-members. There are, for instance: the European Marches for Jobs collective, set up around the Amsterdam (EU9707135F) and Luxembourg (EU9711168F) European Council summit meetings in 1997; Unemployed, Not Dogs, which links theatre and street activity; Active Unemployed, set up within a training association run by the CSC/ACV and the FGTB/ABVV; the Solidarity Against Exclusion Collective (Collectif Solidarité contre l'exclusion); and Mordicus.

Getting trade unions to look after unemployed people has never been hard, and autonomous groups are now looking for union involvement. Although the unions have admitted having difficulty in leading grassroot groups, they are supporting campaigns, and their officers in charge of unemployed members are taking part in the various committees and collectives. Others are prepared to set up union delegations to represent unemployed people on job programmes in community services.

Commentary

The recent unemployed protest movement in France (FR9801189F) and Germany (DE9802148F) has been taken up in Belgium and seems to be growing. It aims mainly at the protection of people's dignity in the face of tougher checks that restrict individual freedoms. The imposition of more obligations on unemployed people (such as work placement schemes, training and support sessions) means that the number of penalties is increased. There is, for example, a proposal to force young people to go on training courses or work placement schemes to keep their benefits. This is a trend that union officers, overburdened with defence files, deplore.

The campaigns by unemployed people in Belgium are not so much aimed at the level of benefits as at protesting against the weakening of the means of subsistence as a result of increases in the number of statuses and regulatory obligations. They are aimed at the system of checks that restrict the individual freedom of unemployed people by obliging them to inform ONEm about their private lives and to ask for permission to travel abroad, even within the European Union, or to help their neighbours, do voluntary work and so on. (Philippe Dryon and Estelle Krzeslo, Point d'Appui Travail Emploi Formation - ULB)

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