Intersectoral agreement signed for 2003-4

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In January 2003, despite difficult negotiations on issues such as the available margin for pay increases, the Belgian social partners signed a new intersectoral agreement that fixes the framework for collective bargaining in the whole of the private sector over 2003-4. While the signatory parties were largely pleased with the deal, their positions on its strong and weak points vary.

The central Belgian social partner organisations meet every two years to negotiate a new national intersectoral agreement that applies to the whole of the private sector (BE0101337F), setting the framework for subsequent bargaining at sector and company level. In a depressed economic climate, the negotiations over an agreement for 2003-4 were difficult (BE0203303F) and the 'pay norm', which fixes the available wage rises for the period of the deal, was a focus of particular debate, being challenged in some quarters (BE0212302N). The social partners even left the negotiating table, and the government had to play a mediating role. A draft agreement was eventually drawn up in December 2002 and, following consultations with their members, the trade union confederations and employers’ organisations signed the intersectoral agreement for 2003-4 on 17 January 2003.

The intersectoral agreement was signed on the trade union side 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 Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicaux Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB);

The employers' side signatories were:

  • the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO);
  • the two organisations for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the Union of Small Firms and Traders (Union des classes moyennes, UCM) and Union of Independents (Unie van Zelfstandige Ondernemers, UNIZO); and
  • the two Farmers' Unions - Union professionnelle agricole (UPA) and Boerenbond- brought together in AGROFRONT)

Main points of the agreement

In brief, the 2003-4 intersectoral agreement contains the following features:

  • an agreement on the movement in wage costs over the next two years. A 5.4% increase in wage costs over two years was finally accepted as an indicative rate. Furthermore, 'in view of the uncertain international and economic prospects, the social partners call upon the negotiators in sectors and enterprises to focus as much as possible on 2003 when fixing increases in pay costs';
  • control by the social partners themselves (ie rather than the government) over managing the issue of harmonising the status of blue- and white-collar workers (BE0003307F), even though no significant measure in this area will be adopted over the next two years given the uncertain economic situation during the life of the new intersectoral agreement;
  • the promotion of employment by a variety of means, including greater flexibility in the 'Rosetta' recruitment plan, full maintenance of the 'Plan 1-2-3' employment scheme for SMEs, and confirmation of a sum of EUR 71 million to be spent on reducing social contributions in favour of enterprises. The Rosetta plan (BE9911307F) obliges private sector enterprises with at least 50 workers to employ young workers to make up 3% of the average workforce. The new intersectoral agreement provides that students on alternating classroom-workplace training schemes, disabled workers and immigrants count twice towards this quota;
  • a restatement of commitments made in the previous 2001-2 agreement to make an extra effort in the field of continuing training, with a view to placing Belgium on a path which, after six years, will put continuing training expenditure at the average level of its three neighbouring countries (ie between 1.2% and 1.9% of pay costs); and
  • the renewal of some existing commitments, particularly in the field of special early retirement schemes, and schemes for night and shiftworkers.

Social partners' positions

FEB/VBO

The FEB/VBO employers’ confederation is pleased that the social partners have been able to reach agreement on a 'reasonable' pay norm: 'enterprises need a signal on pay restraint so that they can protect their competitiveness, and therefore employment.' However, it notes with regret that it was impossible to make significant breakthroughs on important matters such as increasing the economic activity rate and flexibility.

FGTB/ABVV

The FGTB/ABVV union confederation is delighted with the federal nature of the new agreement, which has the additional merit of preserving gains that came under attack during the negotiations (ie pay indexation and the agreements on early retirement) and not including new general measures relating to flexibility. It also stresses the desire expressed by all the social partners to encourage the recruitment of disabled and young workers, immigrants and workers from immigrant families. However, FGTB/ABVV is sorry that the agreement makes no provision for a significant improvement in the status of blue-collar workers with a view to achieving equivalent status for all workers. For the confederation, the harmonisation of these two statuses is a priority objective for the forthcoming sectoral and enterprise-level negotiations.

CSC/ACV

The CSC/ACV union confederation unanimously approved the new agreement because 'fundamental matters are safe, the worst has been avoided'. However, it has 'mixed feelings' because the agreement is silent on a number of important issues. In giving their approval to the intersectoral agreement, CSC/ACV activists were delighted with the maintenance of the current early retirement schemes, a priority demand of theirs. They were also pleased that automatic pay indexation has been maintained, and that the agreement contains no new flexibility provisions.

However, the agreement's adaptation of the Rosetta plan for young people of foreign origin aged under 30, which is designed to reduce discrimination in recruitment, has prompted reservations in CSC/ACV and a fear of perverse effects in certain sectors such as cleaning. Furthermore, there is disappointment at the absence of any gross increase in minimum pay, and at the two-year deferral of setting up a single status for white- and blue-collar workers. Another regret for CSC/ACV is the absence of any progress in terms of the position of workers in SMEs. It follows that trade union representation in SMEs will continue to be a priority focus (BE0102339N).

CGSLB/ACLVB

The agreement was given a lukewarm welcome by the liberal CGSLB/ACLVB union because of:

  • its 'narrow' approach, particularly in respect of the harmonisation of blue- and white-collar statuses, the perceived lack of future vision on the question of the end of employees' careers, and what is seen as scant attention paid to problems of an excessively high pace of work and of reconciling work and social life; and
  • the maintenance of the pay norm, which is seen as undermining any serious discussion on working conditions.

However, CGSLB/ACLVB is delighted that the provisions on early retirement have been extended, and that there are no additional flexibility measures. CGSLB/ACLVB delegates approved the intersectoral agreement by a majority of 71%.

UCM

As far as the UCM SME employers' organisation is concerned, the new deal is a 'minimal', but realistic, agreement: 'To reach an understanding with the trade unions on valid rules for all employees in the private sector is a measure of industrial peace, and a necessary framework for ensuring that negotiations in sectors and enterprises do not get out of hand.' UCM is pleased with the pay norm fixed at 5.4%, but regrets the absence of any progress in the field of flexibility for SMEs. On the other hand, it is seen as sensible, in the circumstances, effectively to freeze the question of harmonising blue- and white-collar statuses, as 'it was not possible to move forward without triggering unreasonable additional costs for enterprises.'

For the UCM, the issue of trade union presence in SMEs was 'not negotiable', and it is delighted that the matter is not referred to in the new accord.

AGROFRONT

The farmers' organisations see the agreement is a good one, as it enables people to work more 'calmly', and makes it possible for social concertation to continue in a positive climate.

Commentary

Examining the positions of the various signatory parties to the 2003-4 intersectoral agreement in detail, the priorities of each become clear, as does the difficulty in finding an agreement that unites all the parties. It underlines the potential breadth of the agreement, even if the accord has been described as 'timid', because it does not deal with crucial points. Indeed, four major issues do not figure in the agreement:

  • an extension of the 'time-credit' working time reduction scheme (BE0108360F);
  • the question of a trade union presence in SMEs;
  • an increase in the early retirement age; and
  • flexibility in overtime.

In conclusion, the signatory parties to the agreement are all pleased to have negotiated an agreement, albeit an imperfect one, as it enables them to look forward to the forthcoming sectoral negotiations in an a priori positive climate. (Catherine Delbar, Institut des sciences du travail)

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