Belgium: Latest working life developments – Q2 2016

Strikes over the government’s austerity measures, agreements providing better conditions for prison guards and more stability for temporary workers, and the end of the ‘wage index jump’ are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the second quarter of 2016.

Unions protest against flexible distribution of working time

The General Federation of Belgian Labour (FGTB/ABVV) organised a national protest on 24 May. This protest was primarily against the so-called 'Peeters Law' (named after the Minister for Employment, Kris Peeters), which provides a more flexible distribution of working time (so-called 'workable work') and the end of the 38-hour week. Working time will no longer be calculated per week but annually. The working time limit will be 9 hours a day, and 45 hours per week. FGTB/ABVV, which was joined in the protest by two other unions, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC/ACV) and the General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB/ACLVB) disagreed and claimed that, under the new rules, workers could be forced to work longer.

Better conditions agreed for prison guards after two-month strike

In April, prison guards and magistrates began a strike which was to last for nearly two months in protest at the decline in resources and staff allocated to them. Justice Minister, Koen Geens, and the unions finally concluded an agreement that will provide for 480 extra guards, the renovation of old prisons and the building of new ones. Two-thirds of the unions approved the agreement. The Flemish branch of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions agreed to the deal, with the union’s French branch rejecting it; the same division of response was seen in the General Confederation of Public Services (CGSP/ACOD). However, both the Flemish and French branches of the Free Trade Union of Civil Servants (SLFP/VSOA) agreed to the deal.

Dispute over wage index jump

Following the national protest in May, on 24 June a national strike called by FGTB/ABVV led to significant disruption to public services. The unions denounced, among other issues, the maintenance of the wage index jump. This was introduced in 2014 by the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel to stop workers getting automatic pay increases based on the Health Index figures, which tracks living costs but excludes the price of tobacco, alcohol and fuel. Under the old system, the changes are made as soon as a value called the ‘pivot index’ is exceeded. Unions say the wage index jump contributes to the impoverishment of workers. The automatic wage indexation was not applied this year by the government when the pivot index was reached, because salaries in Belgium have risen faster than in neighbouring countries, leading to a loss of competitiveness.

However, a high rate of inflation (reaching 2.2% in May, due mainly to an increase in VAT on electricity) resulted in the government deciding to end the wage index jump and reintroducing indexation of social benefits in June, with public sector wages being indexed in July. Following the increase in the inflation rate, the government decided to end the index jump sooner than initially planned.

Belgian railway network paralysed by strike

During this quarter, various union actions disrupted public transport. For almost a week between late May and early June, the Belgian railway company (SNCB/NMBS) experienced significant disruption following the action of the railway staff branch of CGSP/ACOD and the transport branch of CSC/ACV in protest against the decision by HR Rail, the Belgian employer of railway staff, to give fewer days in lieu.

48-hour rule for temporary workers to end 

At a meeting on 29 April, the Council of Ministers approved draft legislation to abolish the rule known as the 48-hour rule, which allows temporary workers’ contracts to be signed 48 hours after their work has started. According to the unions, this rule is a source of insecurity for agency workers and permits abuse.

Commentary

The ongoing strikes in the second quarter of 2016 show that unions are determined to oppose any further government measure, such as Peeters Law, that could be judged as being too drastic.

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