Government policy brings social unrest
Workers in Belgium took part in major protests in February 2013, including a march by civil servants against public sector reforms. The atmosphere was already tense at the end of 2012 after the government limited any possible wage rise that might be triggered by the automatic wage indexation system. Collective bargaining has been limited by the economic crisis, and labour market flexibility and the harmonisation of blue-collar and white-collar workers’ status are also contentious issues.
The State Secretary for Civil Services in Belgium, Hendrik Bogaert, is planning to reform the career structure of the country’s 80,000 public sector workers. The aim is to create more dynamic career patterns in the sector, although the plans also include cost-saving measures.
Currently, jobs in the public sector are divided in four categories, from A to D, based on function level. Each group has three or four different wage scales. Planned reforms will increase the number of wage scales to five or six. In future a worker’s pay scale will not be dependent on seniority but on a formal evaluation of skills.
Civil servants demand consultation
On 7 February 2013, thousands of civil servants demonstrated in Brussels to express their dissatisfaction with the proposals. Trade union estimates put the number of protesters at 10,000, though police said there were 7,000 marchers.
The General Confederation of Public Services (CGSP/ACOD) made its views clear in an online article (in Dutch) saying that this was the first time in 10 years that a united trade union front had called the entire public services section to action.
The trade unions denounced the lack of communication from the Secretary of State and complained about the absence of social dialogue on the reforms. The plans to reform the civil service career structure provoked most dissatisfaction. Workers are concerned that the changes put too much importance on the evaluation of an employee’s skills, and this might lead to arbitrary decisions being made. The Christian public services trade union (Christian Union ACV Openbare Diensten) pointed out that today less than half of the state public sector has an evaluation system in place.
The cost-saving measures of the planned reforms, which include a freeze on recruitment, were also criticised. The trade unions said restricting the replacement of employees who had left would inevitably increase the workload of the remaining members of staff. Unions were also unhappy with a decrease in bonus payments for workers, and plans to cut training opportunities.
State Secretary Bogaert reacted by saying he was happy to consult with the unions, although he emphasised that he believed reforms were necessary.
Private sector protests
On 21 February 2013, between 30,000 and 40,000 union militants demonstrated in Brussels. At the head of the protest were workers from the Ford body and assembly plant at Genk (see ERM Fact sheet 22392), which is due to close at the end of the year. They marched alongside workers from steel and mining company ArcelorMittal, which has announced 1,300 jobs will be lost in Liège as a result of restructuring (ERM Fact sheet 23213).
Trade unions, including the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC), the Belgian General Federation of Labour (ABVV/FTGB), and the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB/ACLVB), backed the protest. They wanted to express their concerns about the Belgian government’s recent policy decisions, and their dissatisfaction on the intervention of the government in social dialogue.
They were particularly unhappy with a decision to make changes to the automatic wage index in December 2012 which limited its margin of increase. The trade unions argued that the government was limiting the scope for negotiation, making dialogue more difficult by intervening and by splitting up the social dialogue process into smaller subdivisions (BE1211031I) and complicating the process for the negotiating partners. Multi-issue bargaining facilitates the trade-off of interests: receiving and giving in is easier when many issues are on the bargaining table. Union leaders have also accused the government of taking too long to consider the proposed social agreements put forward by employer organisations and trade unions. These agreements tackle issues such as improving social allowances, minimum wages and increasing labour market flexibility.
Public sector workers also joined the march to protest once more about the government’s career reform plans.
Social partners’ reaction
The day of protest was condemned by two employer organisations, the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB/VBO) and the Organisation of the Self-employed (UNIZO). They said very few workers had joined the march, and that the protesters were mainly union representatives. They claimed the global impact of the action was limited.
The trade unions emphasised that the aim of their action was not to harm the economy, but only to send a political signal about their concerns.
Members of the government said they understood the concerns of the unions, but stood by their policies. In a newspaper article (in Dutch), Pensions Minister Alexander De Croo said the main issues were competitiveness and ensuring labour costs did not rise too fast. Minister for Employment Monica De Coninck underlined in a video interview the need for the measures the government was taking.
Bruno Tobback, President of the Socialist Party (SP.A), emphasised the importance of retaining the automatic wage indexation system. He said this already guaranteed a welfare-proof income and thus moderated the effects of wage ‘freezing’ (as wages can still be adjusted for inflation).
Following the demonstrations, the government worked out a compromise proposal on improving social allowances and making the labour market more flexible. The next burning question in the national social dialogue is the harmonisation of the employment status of blue-collar and white-collar workers. The Constitutional Court has imposed an agreement that needs to be concluded by 8 July 2013 (BE1112011I).
Caroline Vermandere and Guy Van Gyes, HIVA KU Leuven