Belgium: Turbulent industrial relations follow new government agreement

The fourth quarter of 2014 was particularly turbulent for industrial relations in Belgium following measures brought in by the new federal government which the unions considered unacceptable. Power struggles developed between unions and government, and between unions and employers, over strikes and ways to narrow the salary gap between Belgium and other countries.

Content of the new government agreement

Following federal and regional elections on 25 May 2014, a new government was formed in Belgium. The outgoing legislature was a strong coalition composed of many political parties: socialists, liberals and centrists. Several months of bargaining ensued after the May elections, with a new, more liberal coalition government finally being formed on 9 October 2014.

Included in the policy document agreed by the new government were plans to reinforce the competitiveness of Belgian industry by not only reducing taxes for companies but also reducing the salary gap between Belgium and three of its neighbours (France, Germany and the Netherlands). This would be achieved through the abolition of the automatic wage index mechanism. According to the Central Economic Council (CCE/CRB), the salary gap with neighbouring countries is about 2.9% .

The new government proposed an extension of working life, with some exceptions, from 65 to 67 years old and the revision of the link between seniority and salary versus expertise and salary. A study by the Belgian Health Council showed that the link between pay scales and the seniority of workers would weaken the position of older workers in the labour market. The objective is to rethink wage structures by giving more importance to the expertise of workers rather than to their seniority.

The government pledged to provide more flexibility on working time related to market needs as well as work–life balance, and to continue the harmonisation of status between blue-collar and white-collar workers started in 2014.

The time credit scheme is to be modified by toughening up the rules on 'unjustified' career breaks. The scheme gives the right to employees to take a career break limited to one year for full-time workers, two years for part-timers, or five years for those working one fifth of a usual working week. During the time credit period, people receive benefits from the National Employment Office (ONEM/RVA). New measures distinguish between justified breaks for training or to care for a disabled or sick family member, and unjustified career breaks which do not give access to social benefits.

Other measures include continued reform of benefits to encourage the unemployed back into the labour market. This could lead to the setting up of community services schemes for long-term unemployed workers as well as specific training programmes. Discussions are also taking place with relevant authorities over the more efficient integration of disabled workers into the labour market.

Reactions of the social partners

These measures represent an important change of direction for the country and have sparked discussions, protests and power struggles between different interested parties.

Trade unions are concerned about the quality of social dialogue in Belgium as well as the poor bargaining margin left by the new measures. They are also unhappy that the government did not consult social partners before concluding the policy agreement. They reacted with a series of demonstrations and strikes towards the end 2014, supported by other unions across Europe.

The employers' associations urged the trade unions to come back to the negotiating table instead of staging strikes and demonstrations, which are considered unproductive by companies and by some workers. The Union of Small Companies and Traders (UCM) spoke out against the strikes, saying they were unjustified as the social partners had not yet started dialogue.

The business organisation, the Belgian Federation of Employers (FEB/VBO), called for more restrictive and structured rules on strikes. It declared that, if going on strike is a right, then being at work is right as well, and that the unions should not be allowed to block company entrances or people in the street.

Actions taken October to December 2014

The table below highlights some of industrial actions in Belgium during the last quarter of 2014.

Timeline of key industrial relations events October to December 2014

Date

Facts

Source

7 October

Belgian socialists – the Socialist Party (PS), the Socialist Party Different (SP.A), the Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB/ABVV) and the Socialist Mutual Insurance System – show their opposition to the new coalition through an internet campaign, distribution of leaflets, local and sectoral demonstrations or strikes, and an attack with paintball guns at the front of the headquarters of the Reformist Movement (MR).

Le Soir 7 October 2014
Le Soir 22 October 2014
La Libre 22 October 2014
L’Avenir 22 October 2014

9 October

Young members of FGTB/ABVV and PS, as well as the Association of Young People in Wallonia and Brussels (Latitude JEUNES) protested against the government agreement.

Le Soir 9 October 2014
Press release 9 October 2014 (200 KB PDF)
La Libre 9 October 2014

16 October

The Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB/ACLVB), the Central Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC/ACV) and  FGTB/ABVV state their opposition to the government agreement. They consider the measures to be anti-social and unsustainable with a large range of risks for workers and the unemployed.

FGTB/ABVV: 16 October 2014 
CSC/ACV: 16 October 2014
CGSLB/ACLVB: 16 October 2014

24 October

Young members of FGTB/ABVV and CSC/ACV protest against the government agreement and plan local, regional and national actions from October to December.

Press release 24 October 2014

6 November

The CGSLB/ACLVB, CSC/ACV and FGTB/ABVV together gathered around 120,000 people for a demonstration in Brussels to protest against the government measures and to ask the government to review its decisions which the unions consider to be a social time bomb.

La Libre 6 November 2014
L’Echo 6 November 2014
Le Soir 6 November 2014 
La Libre 7 November 2014

24 November

Trade unions (FGTB/ABVV, CGSLB/ACLVB, CSC/ACV ) met the Minister of Employment to discuss some of the measures put forward by the government but also with the hope of averting the need for the action plan developed by the unions. The meeting was not conclusive.

Strikes occurred in the provinces of Hainaut, Limburg, Luxembourg, and Antwerpen.

Le Soir 24 November 2014

26 November

Railway workers affiliated to the General Confederation of Public Services (CGSP/ACOD) used loudspeakers from trains and at stations to alert the general public to the government's measures.

RTBF 25 November 2014

1 December

Strikes occurred in the provinces of Namur, Liège, Oost-Vlaanderen and West-Vlaanderen.

RTBF 1 December 2014

8 December

Strikes occurred in the provinces of Brussels, Vlaams-Brabant and Brabant-Wallon.

Le Soir 9 December 2014

11 December

Employers' associations tried to avoid strikes by asking the courts to intervene in cases where workers are unable to reach their workplace because of unions' actions. They also asked every mayor to be alert to the situation in their city and to act if the right to work is not respected.

Le Soir 11 December 2014
L’Echo 11 December 2014
L’Echo 13 December 2014

16 December

Police officers initiated a strike action which consisted of slowing down the traffic in cities by operating roadside checks.

RTBF 16 December 2014

 

Note: all sources in French

Next steps

Following a review of their industrial action, the trade unions decided they would benefit from further discussions with other social partners. Just before Christmas 2014, they postponed further strikes and demonstrations, and said that the the ball was now in the hands of the government team.

The social partners met with the aim of reaching an agreement on the new pension age, as well as on the harmonisation of the status between blue and white-collar workers. The government has approved this agreement.  But even if this agreement is positive for the social dialogue dynamic, for the unions, it represents only a 'mini-agreement' and the main issues are still to be discussed.

Commentary

The fourth quarter of 2014 was turbulent for industrial relations in Belgium. The composition of the new government and the conclusion of the government agreement led to many demonstrations and strikes. Beyond the content of bargaining, the relevance and the quality of the social dialogue is in question. 

Employment and social protection matters are usually discussed between social partners. In this case, the unions were not consulted before the conclusion of the government agreement and they are concerned about the 'poor margin of bargaining'. 

The last meetings of the so-called Group of Ten – two representatives from FEB/VBO; one from the Organisation of the Self-Employed (Unizo); a member of UCM; a representative of the Federation of Belgian Farmers (BB); two representatives from FGTB/ABVV; two from CSC/ACV; and one from CGSLB/ACLVB – are encouraging in terms of the re-launch of the social dialogue’s dynamic. This led to a truce during the winter break. However, the beginning of 2015 will be very important. Several meetings between the social partners are planned to define, among other things, the next two years' cross-sectoral agreements. The results of the discussion as well as the position of the government could be decisive in preserving a constructive social dialogue. 

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