New agreement for health and social workers in Flanders

After months of negotiation, the social partners and the Flemish regional government have concluded an agreement for the non-profit sector, which comprises mainly health, social and cultural work. The agreement will cover some 150,000 employees for 2011–2015. Wage rises and improvements in tackling work pressure and training are scheduled. Non profit organisations controlled at the national level are still waiting for one federal government to resume talks.

Background

Negotiations on employment conditions are generally difficult in a sector which covers mainly health, social and cultural work, combining public and private-not-for-profit institutions, organisations and social enterprises. To obtain a better bargaining position takes heavier lobbying and, indeed, strikes and protests. Employees and unions have been lobbying for more than a year for a new agreement with their ‘white rage’ campaign. The strike of 6 June 2011 coincided with the fifth white rage protest in four months. The strongest demands were for a reduction of workload and a rise in wages.

Negotiations

Initial negotiations on the Flemish Intersectoral Agreement (VIA) stalled, but on 23 September 2011 proposals made by the social partners and the Flemish regional government were put to union members by the leaders of the three major trade unions. The liberal trade union, which has fewest members employed in the sector, was the first to sign. Next to sign were the white collar sections responsible for the non-profit sector, the first within the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV) – the Nationwide Clerical Central-National Union for Managerial Staff (LBC-NVK) – and a similar section, the Belgian Union for Employees, Technicians and Cadres (BBTK), within the socialist trade union confederation ABVV.

A second signature was requested from ABVV since it has a separate section responsible for the blue collar workers in the sector (ABVV-AC). The AC section, however, disagreed with one of the proposals and refused to sign. The impact of this refusal is limited to sheltered workshops for disabled people, where additional negotiations may result in one or more agreements that cannot be extended to non-signing partners.

Scope

The non-profit sector is organised at two levels, regional and federal. At the regional level is youth care, care for the disabled, socio-cultural work, welfare work, psychological care, sheltered workshops and local provision of services. At the federal level are rest homes, hospitals, rehabilitation centres, childcare and homecare. However, because there is still no new government more than a year after the last national election, and with the outgoing government refusing to continue negotiations, there is no progress at this level. The VIA, however, will now cover about 150,000 employees in Flanders between 2011–2015. Part of the agreement will be executed by the Flemish government, and part will be implemented in subsector agreements through joint committees.

Contents

The package of measures and regulations will cost €210 million over the next four years. The trade unions say this is €70 million more than originally offered. The money will go to three areas:

  • €62 million goes on wage rises;
  • €118 million on sector measures;
  • €12 million on intersectoral measures.

All employees will now receive an extra month of pay at the end of the year. This is about 95% of an average employee’s monthly wage. Blue collar workers, however, will get only 87% and this lower rate led to ABVV-AC's refusal to sign the agreement.

Pension contributions to collective funds (the ‘second pillar’ of Belgium's pension provisions) will also rise.

Significant investment will also be made in the development of a way of classifying jobs to help employees plan their career path, clarify how they should train, and enhance their pay by, for example, having their seniority formally recognised.

Heavy workloads in the sector will be addressed by:

  • organising a better combination of work and family life;
  • expanding ‘time credit’ and career breaks to five years for all employees;
  • harmonising the existing agreements;
  • enabling employees to have three weeks of holiday in one go;
  • making it mandatory to monitor the available manpower in order to monitor workload;
  • creating 3,600 new jobs (equivalent to 2,500 full time jobs).

Commentary

Apart from the apparent discrimination against blue collar workers in their lower 'thirteenth month' payment, the new VIA was generally well received by the trade unions. However, even the ABVV-AC section welcomes much of the agreement. In exchange, the trade unions have now promised ‘social peace’. On the downside, negotiations have stalled at federal level and given the heavy cuts in spending that any new government will have to make, it may be that the 'white rage' campaign is not be over yet. At the same time, the ageing Belgian population will only increase demand on the sector, possibly opening up incentives for more commercialisation in many fields formerly dominated by not-for-profit organisations. Consequently, the trade unions may find they have new opponents to deal with.

Sem Vandekerckhove & Guy Van Gyes, HIVA-KULeuven

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