Wage agreement signed in hotels and restaurant sector
In September 2007, the social partners from the hotels and restaurants sector finally signed a wage agreement, following months of preliminary talks, difficult negotiations and several strike actions. The strong wage demands put forward by the trade unions, to make employment in the sector more attractive, met with fierce opposition from the employer organisation representing fast-food restaurants.
On 7 September 2007, the social partners from the catering sector reached a pre-agreement. After consultation with the rank-and-file members, the joint sector committee No. 302 of the hotels, restaurants and catering sector (Commission paritaire de l’Industrie Hotelière Nr. 302/Paritair comité voor het hotelbedrijf Nr. 302) signed the new collective agreement on 20 September 2007, covering the period 2007–2008.
Trade unions demand minimum wage increase
A crucial point of conflict between the social partners concerned the increase of the sectoral minimum wage to a level comparable with that of other relevant sectors of the economy. From the beginning of the negotiations, this issue was an absolute priority for the trade unions. They demanded more than only a moderate wage increase, which would compensate for price inflation and which forms the core of most of the biennial collective agreements in execution of the Belgian intersectoral agreement (BE0701019I). Instead, the trade unions called for a significant increase in the minimum wage of each pay scale (loonschaal/barème), in order to render employment in the sector more attractive for jobseekers. Moreover, seniority and competencies needed to be more valued according to the unions. The trade unions and large parts of the employers’ side are convinced that an important factor of the recruitment problems in the sector is the low starting salary. Hence, the sector has to be made more attractive for new recruits.
Opposition from fast-food restaurants
The Belgian Modern Restaurants Association, Bemora, was the main opponent of these demands. This particular employer organisation represents the large restaurant chains such as AC Restaurants, Carestel, Quick, Colmar, Le Pain Quotidien, Lunch Garden, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. The initial plan stipulated a gradual increase in minimum wages, which had to be finalised in four years. This period has been extended to seven years for the highest wage categories in the sector. Bemora as the umbrella organisation of the larger fast-food chains also received new guarantees that it would be more strongly involved in the sectoral social dialogue at all levels. Overall, Bemora member companies employ about 10,000 workers in the sector, which represents approximately 10% of total employment in the restaurant sector.
The compromise was reached following a summer during which the trade unions have been rallying and organising one-day strikes and blockades of fast-food restaurants. A mediator was assigned by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment (Ministère fédéral de l'Emploi et du Travail) to unblock the negotiations. The trade unions reckon that, on average, a worker in the restaurant sector will in due time earn 14% more than they do today, as a result of the new collective agreement.
Other important provisions of the new agreement include improved refunding for commuting expenses and a recommendation that workers have to be employed as much as possible in a five-day working week. The agreement also includes provisions to facilitate people with young children to take their annual holiday as much as possible when the schools are closed.
As such, the dispute in the restaurant sector represented one of the most difficult bargaining rounds in the services sector, compared with the industrial sectors (BE0706039I). However, once again most of the industries and services sectors reached a sectoral agreement for the period 2007–2008, by implementing the standards of the national intersectoral agreement.
Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven