Pay talks open in French-speaking education sector

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In November 2003, the government of Belgium's French-speaking Community opened negotiations over a new collective agreement with teachers’ trade unions. The unions are demanding a 10% pay rise over the period up until 2010. It seems that it will be difficult to reach agreement on such a increase, given the Community’s reduced budgetary resources. Talks will also focus on a review of teachers’ terms and conditions of employment.

Negotiations aimed at concluding a sectoral collective agreement for 2003-4 for teaching staff in the French-speaking Community got under way on 6 November 2003 and are scheduled to finish in late January 2004. The 99,307 registered teachers in the French-speaking Community are employed in four areas - the French-speaking Community, the provinces, the local authorities and 'free' education.

The French-speaking Community’s Minister for the Public Sector, Christian Dupont, has met representatives of the teachers’ trade unions - the General Confederation of Public Services (Centrale Générale des Services Publics/Algemene Centrale der Openbare Diensten, CGSP/ACOD) affiliated to the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV), and the the Public Services Christian Union (Centrale Chrétienne des Services Publics/Christelijke Centrale van de Openbare Diensten, CCSP/CCOD) affiliated to the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV). The first meeting was mainly limited to drawing up an agenda for the negotiations, and the social partners agreed to set up two working groups: the first will look at 'quantitative' issues such as pay and holiday allowances; while the second will focus on 'qualitative' matters including a review of the work carried out by teachers, continuing training, and school buildings and equipment.

Mr Dupont believes that these talks should lead to a 'solid, lasting and serious' sectoral agreement. He also stressed the need to link decisions on qualitative measures aimed at improving teaching with a review of pay, while at the same time acknowledging that the latter is unavoidable. The Minister takes the view that there are financial resources at Community level for achieving both objectives, but that there will have to be the political will to make choices. This, Mr Dupont says, must be placed within the global perspective of the Community’s refinancing.

The French-speaking Community’s budgetary margins have been cut back sharply. However, the trade unions, noting that teachers’ pay has not been reviewed for 10 years, have warned that they will not hesitate to take action if their views are not listened to by the Community's government. Disagreement has arisen within the government as to the response to the teachers' demands. For example, the Minister for Early-Years Education, Jean-Marc Nollet (of the Ecolo green party), argues that French-speaking teachers’ salaries should be aligned with those of their Flemish-speaking counterparts, a move that would require a 7%-8% pay rise between now and 2010; this proposal is close to that tabled by the trade unions, that is to say a pay review leading to increases of 10% over seven years (2004-10). The Higher Education Minister, Pierre Hazette (of the Reform Movement, Mouvement Réformateur) has dissociated himself from the position taken by Mr Nollet: he believes that the government of the French-speaking Community has agreed to limit pay rises to 5% over a period of five years. Christian Dupont (of the Socialist Party, Parti Socialiste), the Public Sector Minister, has refuses to put forward figures at thus stage, stating: 'I think that 10% by 2010 is an ambitious objective. We will try to get as close as we can.'

According to a study carried out by the Department of Applied Economics of the Free University of Brussels (Université Libre de Bruxelles, ULB), there are very serious disparities between Belgium’s three language communities (ie the Flemish-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking Communities). For example, French-speaking 'early-years' teachers (ie those in nursery schools and primary schools) earn 6%-8% less than their Flemish-speaking counterparts, and these differences are also to be found in secondary and higher non-university teaching.

According to Michel Vrancken of the CGSP Education trade union: 'My mandate is clear. We are demanding a 10% salary increase spread over several years. And this is not negotiable. The only thing that we are prepared to discuss is how the agreement is to be applied. And if that does not work out well, we will assess the situation and mobilise the troops.' In budgetary terms, a 10% pay rise represents EUR 370 million, but in the view of Régis Dohogne of CCSP Education, there is nothing out of the ordinary about it - 'it means a an annual pay rise of 1.4%, and that is below the average increase in economic growth.'

The trade unions have also indicated that they will refuse to amend the current 'end-of-career' system for teachers. Currently, teachers may take early retirement at 55 (70% of teachers aged 55-60 opt to take early retirement), and this poses problems, given that the teaching profession is no longer attracting sufficient numbers of young entrants. Furthermore, several subjects - such as languages, mathematics, science and geography - are facing teacher shortages. The Community government would like to make the early retirement scheme more flexible.

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