Collective agreements on employment to be ratified by regional authorities

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In 1999, the Flemish regional government called for a new system whereby sectoral collective agreements between Flemish social partner organisations on matters of regional competence - such as employment - should be declared 'generally binding' for the region by the Flemish authorities, instead of the federal government. With little support for this plan, least of all from trade unions, talks involving the regional and federal authorities resulted in a compromise solution in September 2002. In future, any collective agreement covering matters of regional competence will need to be ratified by the regional as well as federal authorities.

In its coalition agreement concluded on 13 July 1999, the Flemish regional government stated (under the heading 'institutional innovation') that it wanted to create a statutory framework for it to declare collective agreements between Flemish social partner organisations on matters of Flemish competence to be generally binding for the Flemish region - ie to take on the role of extending Flemish collective agreements on matters falling within this region's competence. At first sight, this seemed a mere formality, not least because in the Belgian industrial relations system the public authorities' powers are kept to a minimum with regard to collective agreements. In accordance with the law of 5 December 1968, collective agreements are concluded between workers' and employers' organisations. In the case of industry-wide agreements, a request may be submitted to the Minister for Employment to publish an agreement in the Belgian Official Journal in the form of a Royal Decree, thus making it generally binding on all workers and employers in the sector concerned. Infringements of the agreement can then be made subject to penal sanctions. The federal authorities take charge of updating a register containing all collective agreement in hierarchical order, ranging from company-wide agreements up to intersectoral agreements.

Nevertheless, the division of powers in the federal state of Belgium is often an extremely delicate matter, all the more so when it comes to labour and employment. Labour law applies to all Belgian citizens and therefore falls within the federal scope. Employment policy, however, is highly regionalised, whereas training falls under the power of the various communities. When collective agreements affect employment or training, either wholly or partially, the fact that these agreement fall within the federal competence is regarded as problematic by the Flemish government.

The Flemish government thinks very highly of its modern administration and its integrated policy. This is true of Renaat Landuyt, Flemish Minister for Employment, who pursues a policy based on a 'management' approach, for example in the area of promoting training programmes and employment for those facing labour market difficulties. Hence the wording on employment targets in the Flemish governmental agreement: 'The need for programme management is felt in many different areas, such as training, the social economy, work experience programmes and subregional labour market policy. The various programmes need to be fine-tuned in a sound and transparent manner. Priority needs to be given to simplification, clarification and coherence.'

This approach has taken the form of the conclusion of cooperation agreements with various segments of Flemish industry (separate from collective agreements) setting up partnerships to implement government measures aimed at promoting employment in cooperation with companies. Furthermore, the social partners are involved in implementing policy through the Flemish Social Economic Council (Sociaal Economische Raad voor Vlaanderen, SERV), and more specifically through the Flemish Economic and Social Consultation Committee (Vlaams Economisch en Sociaal Overlegcomité, VESOC) (BE0206302T).

Trade unions view

The Flemish government's plans to ratify regional collective agreements itself encountered strong opposition from the trade unions. As early as 20 January 2000, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) declared itself against the government's draft decree on this issue. Its two main objections were that: collective agreements are the result of initiatives taken by employers and employees and are not meant to confirm the government's policy; and a parallel administrative system for Flemish collective agreements would disrupt the hierarchy of agreements.

A joint declaration by ABVV/FGTB, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) and the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicats Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB), issued on 19 March 2001, reiterated the argument that separate Flemish collective agreements would constitute a denial of the social partners' independence. According to this declaration, there is no need whatsoever for such Flemish collective agreements because the current decision-making procedure already allows for agreements to be concluded for one particular region or community. To conclude, the declaration states that the national intersectoral agreement for 2001-2 (BE0101337F) already calls for 'matters related to training, mobility and target group policies to fit in with the regional policy of the government and the social partners', whereas the Flemish social partners within VESOC had also drawn up recommendations for collective bargaining in companies and sectors.

Agreement reached

On 20 September 2002, the federal and regional authorities managed to work out a compromise in conjunction with trade unions and employers' organisations. This compromise was also made possible thanks to advice issued by the Council of State (Conseil d'Etat/Raad van State), which regularly has to comment on issues regarding the respective competences of the federal and regional authorities. In April 2002, the Council stated that the Flemish government does not have the power to change the rules of the collective bargaining process and that the autonomy of the social partners must not be tampered with. On the other hand, the Council stated that the Flemish government was correct in its claim that collective agreements affecting regional issues are unlawful if the regional authorities do not ratify them.

According to the new compromise, although it remains a federal responsibility to declare collective agreements generally binding, those agreements that have an impact at regional level need to be ratified by the regional government as well. The source of inspiration for this procedure is the ratification procedure applied by the various Belgian authorities for international treaties.

Commentary

The institutional framework for collective bargaining in Belgium mirrors the evolution of the federal state only partially. Trade unions have continually stressed solidarity between workers in the different regions and the necessity for them to share the same social security system and labour law. Yet it is not altogether clear why additional benefits - eg in terms of wages or 'time credits' (the system of reducing working time in various ways - BE0108360F) obtained at regional level - would do more harm to solidarity than benefits agreed at company level in the same way (BE0202305N).

This outcome of the conflict allows the social partners, and especially the trade unions, to confirm the independence of the collective bargaining process, albeit perhaps in words rather than in deeds. For decades the government has been the 'third partner' in forming and directing the bargaining and consultation process. That is why, understandably, there is a good deal of pressure to adjust this process to the existing governmental structures.

Around the end of the 1980s, for example, the public authorities pressured the social partners into helping them tackle the unemployment issue. As a consequence, the 1988 intersectoral agreement stipulated that in future part of total gross paybill (0.1% at present) was to be allocated to employment and training programmes for 'groups of people at risk'. Eventually this led to the creation of structural training funds, managed by the federal government. As these funds are related to regional affairs, however, the federal government acts only as an intermediary in the process (thus slowing matters down). (Jan De Schampheleire, TESA-VUB)

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