Belgium: Developments in working life – Q1 2016

Budget cuts, the role of social dialogue and strike action, as well as more contemporary issues – such as the impact of e-commerce and the use of robots on working life – are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the first quarter of 2016.

Two main issues lie behind the policy initiatives and topics of debate in the first quarter of 2016. First is the federal government’s budgetary policy and disagreement about its implications. The second key issue is conflict about the role of social dialogue.

Social dialogue in times of ongoing budget revisions

Belgium’s current governing coalition was elected in 2014 with an economic programme focused on austerity and budget cuts. Since then, initiatives to implement those cuts, together with budget shortfalls and changes in expected income and expenses, have led to ongoing disagreements about policies and initiatives that affect work and the labour market. In some cases, such disputes have led to strike action and protest. Despite the scale of protests, the government met relatively few of the unions’ demands when it finalised the budget in the first quarter of 2015.

This outcome has placed a strain on tripartite relations. The Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), the federal governing party most sympathetic to the unions’ grievances, is trying to promote social dialogue. Meanwhile, the other two governing parties – Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open Vld) and New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) – are claiming the primacy of executive power over social dialogue, and are highly critical of the role of unions. As a result, unions are forced to choose between either a limited role in social dialogue or a more oppositional role, which carries the risk of being ineffective.

Strike action and e-commerce – traditional and contemporary topics of debate

Some of the first quarter’s issues were driven by traditional tensions, while others were influenced by more contemporary technological challenges.

Prominent traditional topics included a contentious debate about the regulation of strike action, with governing parties threatening further legislative restrictions. The government’s decision to raise the legal retirement age brought two other traditional and entwined topics of debate to the fore: the quality of working life and measures to increase the employability of older employees.

The newer topics of debate this quarter were linked to technological challenges and the needs of the knowledge economy. Examples include:

  • dual learning schemes to align technological skills and enterprise needs;
  • the issue of how to increase the involvement of employees and social partners in innovation processes;
  • the impact of robots on employment;
  • the organisation of working hours in relation to e-commerce with next-day delivery.

Overall, the first quarter of 2016 saw a variety of debates on different themes and at different levels, with occasional clashes. The very visible but largely inconclusive national debate on strike action, for example, eclipsed the more consensual themes such as employee participation or sectoral agreements on initiatives for older employees.

At the time of writing (April 2016), the announced budget revision includes further cuts and labour organisation measures, possibly leading to union protest. The response of trade unions is hard to predict at present, as the four-yearly elections of employee representatives are due to take place only in May.

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