White-collar workers' joint committee prioritises training

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The National Auxiliary Joint Committee for White-Collar Workers (CPNAE/ANPCB) is the most important sectoral joint committee in Belgium. In addition to its weight in numeric terms, it also covers an unusually wide spectrum of activities, including a significant proportion of the new "emerging" sectors. The most recent sectoral agreement signed within the committee, concluded in May 1999, focuses exclusively on vocational training and may point the way for the future development of bargaining in Belgium.

In Belgium, most sectoral collective agreements are signed within joint committee s, of which there are 105. For the past two decades, joint committee 218, also known as the National Auxiliary Joint Committee for White-Collar Workers (Commission Paritaire Nationale Auxiliaire pour Employés/Aanvullend Nationaal Paritair Comité voor Bedienden, CPNAE/ANPCB) has been the most important sectoral joint committee.

The catch-all joint committee

CPNAE/ANPCB covers 50,000 enterprises and 300,000 salaried workers. Its primary purpose is to cover white-collar workers who are not catered for within other sectors. Its scope thus ranges widely, covering highly disparate sectors such as those in which blue-collar workers form the majority (eg construction), new activities (eg information technology) and sectors that are being privatised (eg telecommunications). The disparate nature of the enterprises covered by CPNAE/ANPCB also arises from the proliferation of subsidiaries, an important trend in sectors such as banking or supermarket/hypermarket chains. Such subsidiaries do not necessarily come under the joint committee competent for the parent company.

Of the 300,000 workers covered by CPNAE/ANPCB, 60,000 are employed in industrial sectors (construction, printing and publishing), 120,000 in commerce, and 120,000 in the services sector (information technology, telecommunications, tourism etc). Service activities (60%) and, within these, those linked to the "new economy "- ie information and communication technologies (40%) - are important in terms of numbers of workers. The companies covered are predominantly small enterprises or micro-businesses: 27% of the workers covered by CPNAE/ANPCB are employed in firms with fewer than 10 workers, 33% are in firms employing 10 to 50 workers and only 20% in firms with more than 200 workers.

Geographically, 15% of the companies that come under CPNAE/ANPCB are to be found in the Walloon region, 54% in Flanders and 31% in Brussels. A breakdown by language reveals an overall 60% Flemish and 40% French-speaking split. By activity, 30% of workers are involved in sales, 40% in administrative tasks, 20% in technical functions and 10% in logistics. By age, the sector is relatively young: 50% of workers are under 35 and 26% are aged 35 to 44.

One of the main trends in recent years is that employment growth in the sectors covered by CPNAE/ANPCB has averaged 3% per annum. This growth is higher in some subsectors such as services: in particular, employment in information technology, consultancy and telecommunications has grown by 7%. Proportionally, there was also a significant increase in flexible contracts in newly created jobs in 1997 and 1998, though this trend was less clear in 1999. Finally, staff turnover (recruitment and dismissals) is important. (The above statistics are from the National Office of Social Security [Office national de sécurité sociale/Rijksdienst voor Sociale Zekerheid ONSS/RSZ] and the research centre of the CPNAE/ANPCB Training Centre [Centre de formation de la CPNAE/Opleidingscentrum van het ANPCB, CEFORA/CEVORA]).

Within CPNAE/ANPCB, representation of employers and workers is non-specific. The former are represented by the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO). The latter are represented by the white-collar workers' trade unions affiliated to the two major confederations - the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) - as well as by the smaller Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicaux Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB). The representation of subsectors at the joint committee negotiating table is organised within the four social partner organisations' own structures.

Vocational training: a major issue for CPNAE/ANPCB

The most recent collective agreement concluded within CPNAE/ANPCB by the employers' and workers' organisations - in May 1999 - pertains exclusively to vocational training (BE9903167F). In application of the provisions of the 1999-2000 intersectoral agreement (BE9811252F), the CPNAE/ANPCB agreement provides that each worker employed in the sector be entitled to at least four days of training over the three-year duration of the agreement. Several factors underpinned the choice made by the sector's social partners to sign an agreement that specifically addresses this issue: the nature of the economic trends that are boosting the importance of CPNAE/ANPCB (technological change and increasing weight of small and medium-sized enterprises, or SME s); the insufficient development of vocational training in Belgium; and the weak level of workers' qualifications when it comes to new information and communication technologies. In the absence of solutions, the mobility of workers is at risk and so is employment, given the high staff turnover in the sector. The problem affects all activities covered by CPNAE/ANPCB, in which many workers are poorly qualified in areas such as office automation.

The text, signed in May 1999, provides that all full-time workers in the entire sector be entitled to four days of training over the three-year validity of the agreement, under penalty of compensation in the form of days off. The entitlement for part-time workers is reduced in proportion. Although some central coordination is foreseen at sectoral level, the content and nature of training programmes will be set at the local level by the enterprises that wish to benefit from the scheme. The focus is on training programmes that enhance professional qualifications. These may be conducted on the job or externally, and must take place during working hours.

There are three options for the application of the training measure:

  • where the firm involved has a trade union delegation, which has concluded an agreement with the employer on the subject, the four days of training can be transferred between workers and may be taken at any point of the sectoral agreement's duration. The training scheme is eligible for funding by the joint organisations operating at the sectoral level. At this stage, it is not yet known which category of personnel will benefit most from the transfer arrangements;
  • where the firm involved does not have a trade union delegation (as is the case for the smallest companies), the employer may participate on a supplementary basis in one of the schemes offered by CEFORA/CEVORA. In this case, only two out of the four training days are transferable between workers; or
  • where the firm involved has a trade union delegation but no agreement could be reached with the employer, and if the latter opts to participate on a supplementary basis in one of the sectoral training programmes, no transfers of training days are possible between workers.

To date, this sectoral agreement has elicited the interest of 5,100 enterprises, employing over 120,000 workers. For the most part, the enterprises are SMEs lacking trade union representation.

Commentary

Beyond the large number of workers that it covers, CPNAE/ANPCB plays an important role in industrial relations in Belgium. It ensures the integration of sectors in which trade union representation is low. It allows not only the specific coverage of white-collar workers where they are in a minority, but more importantly the coverage of SMEs that would otherwise elude the bargaining system altogether or could only be covered on a supplementary basis, through the extension of collective agreements concluded in other sectors.

The firms that are active in the sectors covered by CPNAE/ANPCB have increased in number during recent years, as in most western countries. In particular, the ranks of SMEs providing service activities have swelled. Thus, the trends that may be observed in CPNAE/ANPCB's domain could provide useful indications on the future development of industrial relations in Belgium.

Thus, a first conclusion that could be drawn relates to the now central character, for both negotiating parties, of agreements concerning vocational training. On the one hand, vocational training improves the fit between workers' qualifications and enterprises' needs. On the other hand, it also affords workers better chances of finding work again in case of dismissal.

The type of compromise negotiated within CPNAE/ANPCB in the domain of vocational training would appear to portend a significant change in collective bargaining. Increasingly, "qualitative elements" such as vocational training tend to be the main terrain for concessions between trade unions' demands for pay increases and unconditional working time reduction and employers' demands for flexibility. Nevertheless, the originality of the measures decided within CPNAE/ANPCB owes less to the very presence of vocational training in the sector's negotiating agenda than to the way it was put into practice. Whereas agreements in other sectors have been content with establishing budgetary norms, the agreement negotiated within CPNAE/ANPCB sets a minimum threshold level that is mandatory for all workers. As to the theme of vocational training, although it is relatively new on the Belgian scene, the obligation for sectors to negotiate measures in favour of vocational training had already found its way into the last intersectoral agreement.

Last, given the heterogeneity of companies that come under CPNAE/ANPCB, and, more generally, the wide dissimilarity of activities making up the service-based "new economy", one may well wonder whether an increasing number of agreements, like this one on training, are ushering in a tendency towards "two-stage" collective agreements. A first stage would thus consist of generic rules determined at the sectoral level, while the second would elaborate these into more specific provisions, but only applicable to enterprises with trade union representation (Pierre Walthéry - Institut des Sciences du Travail/Université Catholique de Louvain).

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