Joint committee for the Belgian social and cultural sector

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After a 20-year wait, a trade union-employer joint committee was set up in February 1996 in the Belgian social and cultural sector. It covers a very broad and varied range of activities, and by late 1997 had already concluded several collective agreements and considered six industrial disputes.

Unlike other European countries where the social and cultural sectors are clearly separated, Belgium and France saw the birth of the concept of the "sociocultural worker" at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. They are to be found in cultural clubs, community art centres, youth clubs and youth or community education organisations. In Belgium, these organisations are voluntary and often campaign-oriented organisations. Government does not intervene in their running (except in the case of the cultural clubs and community art centres, where it represents 50% of the administrators), and its role is limited to the adoption of rules fixing the criteria for their official recognition and possible subsidies.

Joint committees: a long-standing demand

The absence of precedent, rules, statutes, definitions of responsibilities and so on led those involved, in particular the workers, to demand their own joint committee for this new socio-cultural sector. However, that demand rapidly ran into a series of problems, including:

  • the definition of employer and employee status, which complicated representation on the joint committee. Some officers of socio-cultural organisations were both workers (because of their employment contract) and managers (for instance, as members of the board of directors/governors or as representatives of the organisation on various external bodies);
  • the difficulty for members of the boards of directors/governors, who performed their duties on a voluntary basis, of considering themselves as employers and consequently the difficulty of grouping employers in a representative federation which could sit on the management side of the joint committee;
  • the small size and large number of organisations in this sector, the majority of which employ fewer than 10 workers each, made it difficult to set up workers' and especially employers' representation;
  • the variability of the status of the workers concerned, which includes conscientious objectors doing their civilian service, seconded teachers posted to organisations by the Ministry of Education, workers employed under various unemployment-reduction programmes (which involve putting different types of unemployed people to work in, for example, non-profit-making associations, their pay being borne 50%, 80% or even 100% by the public authorities), occasional workers and volunteers who are paid little or nothing;
  • fear and resistance in certain sectors that were afraid of the public authorities' interfering in their practices and of being locked into confrontational situations involving unions and employers roughly transposed into areas of activity claiming to be non-commercial, in which self-management philosophies still have many champions; and
  • the low level of unionisation across the sector.

The Ministry of Employment and Labour in fact tried to establish this joint committee on three occasions: in 1977, 1985 and 1992. The first two attempts covered the conventional socio-cultural field (including cultural centres, further education and youth organisations, youth clubs, media and libraries), but the third attempt was much wider ranging as it no longer defined organisations by the titles given them by the public authorities but by the definition of the type of activities they performed. The sphere of this joint committee's remit extended to sports associations and centres, non-commercial radio and/or television associations, social activity initiatives, vocational training, further training and retraining associations and institutions, non-commercial tourism organisations and development cooperation organisations.

Establishment of the joint committee

This very wide extension of the joint committee's coverage, combined with the growth in jobs with special status that the sector has experienced since the end of the 1970s, finally and despite everything, led to the establishment of a joint committee (no. 329) at the beginning of 1996, covering nearly 15,000 workers in the French Community in Belgium.

One of the important functions of a sectoral joint committee is to negotiate collective agreement s. Such agreements are concluded between one or more employers' organisations and one or more workers' organisations. They regulate the rights and obligations of the contracting parties (collective labour agreements are governed by the Act of 5 December 1968, published in the Moniteur Belge of 15 January 1969).

Several collective labour agreements for the socio-cultural sector were concluded in March and April 1997, in such areas as pay indexation and reimbursement of transport expenses, and others are in the pipeline (on issues such as union delegations, hours of work and flexibility).

A joint committee's conciliation office also plays an important part in the event of a labour dispute which cannot be resolved within a firm. It hears the parties, proposes arbitration, attempts to reconcile the views being expressed and even, in the most difficult cases, conducts negotiations within the organisation. The office may be approached by either of the parties; it is merely a question of applying to the official (a social conciliator) who chairs the joint committee.

This procedure, which proves vital when situations deteriorate, has recently demonstrated its value in the socio-cultural sector, as it has dealt with six disputes in the last nine months.

Commentary

Other more difficult discussions are expected in the future over issues like pay scales and job descriptions. It will, however, be up to the social negotiators to keep an eye on a major aspect emphasised by the sociologist, Pascale de Rozario: "... the purpose of a profession is to exclude non-professionals, even if they have carried out the activity for a long time, and any professional who fails to fulfil the duties necessary to practise the profession. Transition from the activity to the profession is accompanied by the ossification of roles which turn into statuses. Rules acquire the force of law." ("La professionnalisation des activités éducatives", P de Rozario, in "L'insertion en questions", Paris, Editions L'Harmattan (1995)). (Serge Noël, President of the Federation of Employers in the Further Education Sector (Fédération des Employeurs du Secteur de l'Education Permanente, FESEP))

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