Belgium: Latest working life developments Q4 2018

Trade union plans for new strikes against the government, unrest in the national postal service and the collapse of the federal government are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Unions plan industrial action against the government

In December, socialist trade union the General Federation of Belgian Labour (FGTB/ABVV) announced they would be taking industrial action against current government policy. [1] The federation believes that the government agenda favours companies and the well-off, and sees the unresolved and ongoing debate regarding pensions for those in ‘heavy’ occupations [2]as an example of this.

The other unions eventually followed FGTB/ABVV’s lead and supported efforts to oppose the government as well as employers. Besides criticising current government policy, the unions stressed the importance of free wage negotiations in the upcoming bi-annual Interprofessional Agreement.

In reaction to the threat of strikes from trade unions, the government decided to assign mediators to facilitate the negotiations regarding heavy occupations. [3] Flanders’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Voka), an employer organisation, voiced its disapproval of the strikes as the chamber feels it is unwise to shut down companies in times of economic uncertainty.

Unrest at Bpost leads to strikes

National postal service Bpost has been experiencing understaffing problems recently, leading to increased work pressures and a loss of service quality. Unions decided to undertake action in the final quarter of 2018 because the company chairman, Koen Van Gerven, was committed to making changes to company policy. Strikes went on for five days at the beginning of November, with a different department stopping work each day. [4] Minister of Post and Telecommunications Alexander De Croo sympathised with the demands of the employees and stated that both parties should come together to resolve the issues.

However, subsequent negotiations failed, leading to further action by the unions. [5] This, in turn, led to additional pressure on company management, as large Belgian retailers started to utilise private delivery companies as an alternative. In mid-November, a preliminary agreement between both parties was drafted and the strikes temporarily ended. One of the main points within the agreement was the company’s promise to hire 1,000 temporary employees to alleviate work-related pressures. After consulting their members, the unions deemed the proposal insufficient and rejected the draft. [6]

Local strikes also took place in Wallonia[7] and other Bpost facilities in Flanders. However, these strikes were non-regulated and were influenced by far-left movements rather than the actions of the unions. The main claim was that Bpost should be re-nationalised and removed from the stock market. While the unions showed sympathy for the actions in Wallonia and Flanders, they urged the instigators to put an end to the strikes.

At the end of December, an agreement was reached between the trade unions and Bpost, leading to a new collective agreement for the company covering the next two years. The agreement includes measures to improve the purchasing power of employees at Bpost, as well the promise to hire 1,000 additional employees. [8]

Bpost’s first social elections were also held in the fourth quarter of 2018, with more than 54% of employees turning out to vote. [9] The socialist trade union (Algemene Centrale der Openbare Diensten, ACOD-CGSP) was the main winner.

Collapse of federal government

The end of December saw the collapse of the Belgian government after weeks of intense debates. One of the key subjects under discussion was the so-called ‘Marrakesh pact’, which led to a split between the governing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) party and other parties. Unlike the other governing parties, the N-VA was against allowing the prime minister to go to Marrakesh in order to sign the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The ongoing debate led to a special ministerial council that the N-VA left abruptly in protest after 40 minutes. [10] According to the prime minister, this action also signified their departure from government.

The government remained active as a minority government without the N-VA for 10 days, but ultimately collapsed after the socialist and green parties announced they would file a motion of no confidence. At the time of writing, the consequences of these events are unclear; however, it is likely that the government will remain in place until the elections in May 2019. The alternative is that earlier elections will have to be held, but the majority of the other parties are not in favour of this.

These events have had a significant impact on several earlier decisions relating to working life. The ‘labour deal’ that was agreed upon last summer, and which included 28 measures to improve employment, has come to a standstill as the N-VA has declared it will only approve the deal if it includes the degressive nature of unemployment benefits. Left-wing parties and the Flemish Christian Democratic Party disagree with this prerequisite, making it unlikely that the deal will be signed into law. Instead, different measures currently included within the labour deal will probably be voted upon separately in the future.

The ongoing discussions regarding heavy occupations are also likely to stall, delaying the reforms that were announced for civil servants (changes in the number of sick days, changes in contracts when hiring new employees, etc.).

Commentary

The collapse of the government introduces uncertainty at the federal political level. At the time of writing, King Philippe is still negotiating with the heads of the different political parties in order to determine the route that will be followed in the coming months and whether or not preliminary elections will be held.

It is also unclear what the changes at political level will mean for the actions that were announced by the trade unions. While the situation at Bpost appears to have been resolved with the new collective agreement, the promises made by the management will cost the company approximately €20 million and have already had an impact on the company’s share prices.

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment