Belgium: Latest developments in working life Q1 2019
Difficult intersectoral wage negotiations and strikes at sectoral and national level 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 2019 .
Intersectoral wage negotiations run into difficulties
At the end of January 2019, Belgian social partners started intersectoral wage negotiations based upon a report from the Central Council for the Economy.  The outcome of such bi-annual negotiations determines the margin within which sectoral wage negotiations are allowed to take place in the private sector.
Wage increases and the increased flexibility of early retirement systems proved to be particularly contentious issues. Trade unions left the negotiating table early on in the process and announced national strikes on 13 February in protest against the proposed wage increase, which was capped at 0.8% for 2019. They demanded an increase of 1.5% instead, which was rejected by the employer organisations.
In the wake of these issues between the social partners, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) called for the system of central wage negotiations to be abolished.  The N-VA sees the large differences between the Flemish and Walloon economies as an important factor when it comes to the relevance of negotiating on a national level. The alliance believes that negotiations would be more effective if they were held at sectoral and company level, making the Group of 10 (the highest bipartite collective bargaining committee in Belgium) obsolete.
At the end of February, the trade unions and employer organisations came to a preliminary agreement within the Group of 10 to increase the wage margin to 1.1% and allow for some flexibility in the recently tightened pension system.  The agreement received some criticism from political actors and while it was approved by the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV-CSC) and the General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions (ACLVB-CGSLB) by the end of March,  it was rejected by members of the General Federation of Belgian Labour (ABVV/FGTB). The final decision currently rests with the government, which has also voiced some criticisms. However, past wage agreements have been implemented without the unanimous approval of all trade unions.
Strike action and protests at sectoral and national level
The first quarter of 2019 was characterised by industrial action within specific sectors, but also on a national scale.
The growing unrest among air traffic controllers (skeyes) led them to undertake multiple actions throughout Q1, leading to significant delays and flight cancellations at different airports. A large number of controllers called in sick on several occasions, which drastically reduced the number of flights that could be operated. 
The controllers are denouncing high levels of work pressure, consecutive shifts and understaffing. While a preliminary agreement has been drafted, discussions between trade unions and the company management are still ongoing. Minister of Employment, Economy and Consumer Affairs Kris Peeters has appointed two mediators to facilitate the process. However, tensions remain high and the proposed agreement has been dismissed once already by both the controllers and unions. 
Major strikes were held within the education sector, with trade unions using the lead up to the elections in May to demand more investment in the sector.  In total, the plan that has been drafted by the unions and teachers would cost up to €1.8 billion to implement. Despite the general willingness among workers to undertake action, the strikes have not specifically targeted Flemish Minister of Education Hilde Crevits as she agrees with the need for additional funding.
The national strikes held on 13 February (see above) affected a wide range of sectors throughout the country including manufacturing, public transport and retail.  While trade unions declared the actions a success, employer organisations were critical of them, stating that they hoped to see the return to a sense of responsibility soon. The latter believe that the trade unions organised the actions on purpose as a delaying tactic in the run-up to the elections. 
In addition, the climate-related protests in Brussels were very prominent within the news and public debate. While the trade unions did not participate in the initial weekly marches, some joined later ones and a national request to strike was formally announced on 15 March by ABVV-FGTB. However, the decision to participate was not unanimously supported by all trade unions, leading to internal friction. 
It is unclear when or if an agreement will be reached regarding the wage increase at national level, as political actors have become involved in what is normally a bipartite matter. It will likely depend on the general political climate in the period leading up to the May elections. This period will also probably influence the number of actions that occur in the coming months, as national organisations and movements try to influence the political agenda.