Mixed fortunes in 2003-4 sectoral bargaining

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In the first half of 2003, sectoral collective bargaining has been proceeding in Belgium within the framework of the intersectoral agreement for 2003-4. The agreements concluded by June indicate that the economic slowdown is having a major impact on employees' purchasing power, though there have been advances in areas such as employment, training, the status of blue-collar workers and end-of-career arrangements. Bargaining remains difficult in a number of large sectors.

In January 2003, national trade union and employers' organisations signed a new intersectoral agreement for 2003-4 (BE0302302F). This agreement set the framework for sector- and company-level negotiations in the first half of 2003. A number of sectoral agreements have since been concluded (BE0304302F), while other sectors have not yet completed their bargaining. The situation in early June in a number of major sectors of the Belgian economy is set out below. It appears that the current economic slowdown is having a substantial impact on the purchasing power of thousands of workers. However, the agreements concluded so far do contain advances relating to employment, training, the status of blue-collar worker and end-of-career arrangements.

  • On 28 May, employers in large-scale retail submitted a proposal for a collective agreement for 2003-4 to the sector's trade unions - the Belgian Union of White-Collar Staff, Technicians and Managers (Syndicat des Employés, Techniciens et Cadres de Belgique/Bedienden, Technicien Kaders van België, SETCa/BBTK), the National Federation of White-Collar Workers (Centrale Nationale des Employés/Landelijke Bedienden Centrale CNE/LBC) 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). This proposal prompted the unions to suspend threats of industrial action. The employers' proposal includes a moderate increase in pay scales as of 1 January 2004, and the possibility to negotiate work organisation at a company level. Moreover, all existing agreements relating to 'time credits' (BE0108360F) and early retirement would be continued. 'It is not a bad agreement, but the announced pay increase is slightly less than we had hoped,' responded Irène Pêtre, a CNE/LBC delegate. The unions were due to meet the employers on 5 June to discuss the proposal. The sector employs some 80,000 workers.
  • The negotiation of a 2003-4 sectoral agreement for the retail trade and small supermarkets is currently at an impasse. Notably, the unions (CNE/LBC and SETCa/BBTK) have demanded the establishment of union delegations in the sector's small enterprises (BE0102339N), a move rejected by the employers' organisations - the Union of Small Firms and Traders (Union des classes moyennes, UCM), Association of Independent Food Retailers (Association Professionnelle du Libre Service Indépendant en Alimentation, APLSIA), Belgian Federation of Distributors (Fédération belge des entreprises de distribution/Belgische federatie van de distributieondernemingen, FEDIS) and Union of Independents (Unie van Zelfstandige Ondernemers, UNIZO). In response, the unions walked out of the talks and took a series of actions which brought certain small supermarkets to a standstill. In the framework of a conciliation procedure, the employers' associations agreed to talk about improving the regional consultation bodies in the sector (which seek to provide for 'pooled' union representation for companies without union delegations - BE9710219F). On the other hand, they rejected the idea of creating a category of protected employees (ie employee representatives benefiting from special protection against dismissal) in small and medium-sized enterprises. The unions consequently considered that the conciliation process had failed and that the period for suspending industrial action had ended.
  • A new 2003-4 collective agreement for employees covered by the National Auxiliary Joint Committee for White-Collar Employees (Commission Paritaire Nationale Auxiliaire pour Employés/Aanvullend Nationaal Paritair Comité voor Bedienden, CPNAE/ANPCB) was signed on 15 May. The agreement includes a real pay increase of less than 1% from 1 January 2004. The overall pay norm of 5.4% (provided in the intersectoral agreement) will thus be strictly respected. The agreement also stipulates the maintenance of existing measures relating to time credits and early retirement, as well as new efforts in terms of training and stimulating the employment of young people. The CPNAE/ANPCB covers all white-collar employees in the private sector who do not come under a specific joint committee - ie 330,000 people spread over 50,000 companies, which makes it the largest joint committee in the country (BE0008324F). The collective agreement covers diverse sectors such as construction, glass, wood, printing, wholesale, information technology, consultancy, engineering consultants, tourism, advertising and cleaning. 'This agreement is an appropriate response to the challenges to be faced in these difficult times: a very moderate increase in purchasing power which safeguards the competitiveness of companies, increasing training opportunities for workers, extending the possibilities regarding time credits and early retirement, and finally new support for young people looking for a job,' stated Arnout De Koster, an employers' representative on the CPNAE/ANPCB.
  • In early June, the CNE/LBC and SETCa/BBTK unions and the Belgian Banking Association (Association Belge des Banques/Belgische Vereniging van Banken, ABB/BVB) stated that negotiations in the banking sector had recently been broken off because of the refusal of CGSLB/ACLVB to sign an agreement concluded in April relating to the field of application of joint committee 310 (BE0303301N). This agreement is supported by the other unions and ABB/BVB. For the latter, the implementation of the April agreement is a precondition for continuing negotiations on other issues to be covered in a new collective agreement (purchasing power, employment, training etc). CGSLB/ACLVB believes that suspending negotiations constitutes unacceptable blackmail and warned that 'if the employers refuse to negotiate, the liberal union will call on its members for a mandate to give notice of strikes and/or other action.'
  • At the end of May, white-collar unions in the metalworking and technological industries demonstrated outside the regional offices of the sectoral employers' federation, Agoria (Fédération Multisectorielle de l'Industrie Technologique/Multisectorfederatie van de Technologische Industrie). The unions strongly oppose Agoria's proposals for a 2003-4 collective agreement, covering 65,000 employees. In particular, Agoria wants to index-link part of the pay increase, in order to avoid the bad experience of the previous 2001-2 collective agreement (BE0105350F), when total costs increased more than expected because of higher inflation. The proposed correction mechanism is unacceptable to the unions, and they fear that automatic indexation will in time be compromised. A collective agreement was concluded in April 2003 for the sector's blue-collar workers, covering the next two years. Blue-collar unions have agreed the introduction of a correction mechanism.
  • Sectoral agreements have been concluded in: the tobacco industry- including a moderate improvement of purchasing power, the establishment of a right to training and the extension of notice periods for blue-collar workers; the steel industry- including harmonisation of white-collar and blue-collar statuses (BE0003307F) and an extension of the right to time credits; the construction industry- including pay adjustments and maintenance of early retirement schemes for people aged 58 and over; and the food industry, including a pay increase of 4.9% and harmonisation of white-collar and blue-collar statuses.
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