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Collective Bargaining

A national agreement sets the key elements of pay and conditions every two years and this agreement itself is tightly constrained by legislation limiting pay increases to forecast pay costs in Belgium’s neighbours. With automatic pay indexation linked to inflation, negotiators have only limited room for manoeuvre.

Collective bargaining in Belgium is highly structured with a central level at the top covering the whole of the private sector, an industrial level beneath, covering specific industrial sectors, and company level negotiations at the bottom, although negotiations on pay only take place in some companies. In each case the lower level can only agree improvements on what has been negotiated at the level above and the agreements are binding.

This structure means that the proportion of private sector employees covered by collective bargaining is high. The European industrial relations observatory (EIRO)Eurofound estimates coverage at 96%.1 In the public sector, negotiation or consultation with the unions results in so-called protocols, which although not legally binding like private sector collective agreements, have a moral and political force.2

The framework

Collective bargaining in Belgium is highly structured with a central level at the top covering the whole of the private sector, an industrial level beneath, covering specific industrial sectors, and company level negotiations at the bottom, although negotiations on pay only take place in some companies. In each case the lower level can only agree improvements on what has been negotiated at the level above and the agreements are binding.

The state potentially plays a major role in collective bargaining. A 1996 law allows it to link pay increases to the forecast pay trends in Belgium’s neighbours, Germany, France and the Netherlands in order to maintain the country’s competitiveness. The national level negotiations take place in the context of an official technical report which sets out this forecast and the government has the power to intervene if the two sides cannot agree on a figure within this limit.

This structure means that the proportion of private sector employees covered by collective bargaining is high. The European industrial relations observatory (EIRO) estimates coverage at 96%.3

In the public sector, negotiation or consultation with the unions results in so-called protocols, which although not legally binding like private sector collective agreements, have a moral and political force.

The state potentially plays a major role in collective bargaining. A 1996 law allows it to link pay increases to the forecast pay trends in Belgium’s neighbours, Germany, France and the Netherlands, in order to maintain the country’s competitiveness. The national level negotiations take place in the context of an official technical report which sets out this forecast, and the government has the power to intervene if the two sides cannot agree on a figure within this limit.

 

In recent years the room for negotiation on pay at national level has become increasingly limited. A draft agreement for the period 2011 to 2012 was rejected by two of the three union confederations, leading to the government imposing the terms of the original draft. For the period 2013 to 2014, there was no agreement at all. The leader of the FGTB/ABVV confederation stated that the government’s intention to limit pay rises to the automatic increases required to keep pace with inflation (see below) made an agreement impossible. In 2015, agreement was reached with two of the three federations – the FGTB did not sign.

Who negotiates and when?

Negotiations at national level – normally setting a two-year binding framework for pay and other issues take place in the so-called “Group of 10”. The five members on the union side are made up of two representatives of the CSC/ACV, two from the FGTB/ABVV, and one from the CGSLB/ACLVB.

At industry level negotiations are carried on by the unions and the employers’ federations meeting in joint committees, which cover the whole of the private sector, with sub-committees for smaller industrial groupings. At the start of 2014 there were 101 joint committees and 72 sub-committees4 . The agreements reached in these joint committees and sub-committees are binding on all employers in the industries they cover.

At company level, the trade union delegations together with the local union organisations negotiate with individual employers. However, agreements are only valid when signed by a trade union official from outside the workplace.The number of company agreements has increased in recent years, and currently around a third of companies have their own agreements, although they may deal with topics other than wages.5

The normal cycle of negotiations is two-yearly with the negotiations at the national level being followed by industry level negotiations and then company-level negotiations.

The subject of the negotiations

At national level, the negotiations between the two sides cover a much wider range of topics than normal pay and conditions issues, including job creation measures, training and childcare provision. Pay rates, with the exception of the minimum wage, are normally dealt with at industry and company level, but the framework for pay increases is set at national level.

Unlike in most other European countries, pay in Belgium is indexed:; it rises in line with prices. However, the mechanics of indexation vary from industry to industry in line with the appropriate collective agreement. In 1993 the government intervened to take a range of items - tobacco, alcohol, petrol, diesel and the impact of taxes on energy products - out of the index. As a result there is a gap between the index used for pay rises and the actual increase in the cost of living. In addition, the new government elected in 2014 imposed a break in the system of indexation, which meant that the next 2% increase in prices would not result in a corresponding increase in wages.

Belgium has a national minimum wage, which is fixed by agreement between the unions and the employers’ federation at the national level. The amount also rises in line with the government’s revised price index.

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.