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Workplace Representation

Belgium has structures at workplace level representing both all employees and trade unionists, but, with only trade unions able to nominate to the works council, the key body is the union delegation. It is the union delegation which negotiates key issues with management, although the works council has extensive information and consultation rights. The it works council also has decision-making powers in some areas.

Belgium has structures at workplace level representing both all employees and trade unionists, but, with only trade unions able to nominate to the works council, the key body is the union delegation. It is the union delegation which negotiates key issues with management, although the works council has extensive information and consultation rights, and although it is a joint body with an employee majority, it has decision-making powers in some areas.

Workplace representation in Belgium runs through two separate channels. The works council (CE in French and OR in Flemish) represents the whole workforce, although it is only elected in larger workplaces (above 100 employees). The trade union delegation (DS in French and SD in Flemish) represents trade unionists. There are also separate bodies for health and safety (CPPT in French and CPBW in Flemish) elected by the whole of the workforce, provided there are more than 50 employees. Where there are between 50 and 100 employees, these health and safety committees also have information and consultation rights on economic and social issues, where there are between 50 and 100 employees. These rights were introduced in 2008 to give effect to the EU directive on information and consultation (2002/14/EC).

In practice, particularly at smaller workplaces, the individuals involved will often be the same in both the works council and the trade union delegation. The two bodies have different functions, but generally it is the trade union delegation which plays the central role, particularly in workplaces where there is conflict with the employer.

Both elements of the system of representation have a clear legal basis. The powers and operation of works councils are set out in a law on the organisation of the economy first passed in 1948 and subsequently amended. The legal position of the trade union delegation, on the other hand, is determined by a series of legally binding collective agreements, with the national level agreement signed in 1971 and agreements for individual industrial sectors reached later. These agreements cover the vast majority of employers, although the details vary.

The law on works councils is enforced through regular checks by the labour inspectorate, although the fact that it only applies where there are more than 100 employees means that only about one third of all employees are covered by works councils. There are no statistics on the extent to which workplaces have trade union delegations.

Numbers and structure

Works councils should be set up in all workplaces with at least 100 employees. As stated above in companies with between 50 and 100 employees the health and safety committee (CPPT/CPBW) has some of the information and consultation rights exercised by the works council in larger companies. The works council has both elected employee members and representatives of the employer, although there can never be more employer than employee representatives. Employee representatives are elected on the following basis:

Number employed

Number of employee representatives

101-500

6

501-1,000

8

1,001-2,000

10

Thereafter two extra for each additional 1,000 employees until 6,000 when it is one extra for each additional 1,000. The maximum number is 25.

Manual and non-manual employees should be represented in proportion to their number in the workforce and separate representation within the works council is guaranteed for young workers (aged under 25) and for management once their number reaches a certain level - 25 for young workers, 15 for senior managers.

The works council is chaired by the senior representative of the employer, but the secretary comes from the employee delegates. The works council must meet at least once a month and the employee members have the right to meet separately before the meeting.

The numbers in the trade union delegation as well as the thresholds for setting one up depend, like all the other regulations governing its operations, on the legally binding agreement reached for the particular sector. There are wide variations. Some agreements have no thresholds, others set them at 10, 50 or 75 employees and in some cases the agreements also stipulate a minimum trade union presence. The number of members typically ranges from two to perhaps eight depending on the number of workers, with a workplace with 300 employees normally having a trade union delegation of four or five.

Trade union delegations consist entirely of trade unionists with the different unions in the workplace represented according to their relative strength. Normally members from different unions (usually two) meet separately before the joint meeting.

Tasks and rights

The role of the works council is essentially to be informed and consulted about a range of economic and employment issues, although it does have some limited decision making powers.

The law lays down rules on how often different types of information should be provided. On economic and financial issues, a range of basic information on the general position of the business - such as market share, financial structure, production levels and future prospects - must be provided every four years, when the works council is newly elected. This information, together with the financial results, is updated on an annual basis, and every three months the management must present the current position and indicate how it diverges from its plans. Information on new economic or financial developments that could seriously affect the business must be presented to the works council without delay. The works council can ask for the help of the auditor, who in any case should give the works council a report on the annual accounts.

Each year the business must also provide the works council with a social balance sheet setting out: the number and type of people employed, joining and leaving; details of any employment creation measures; and information on training.

The employer must consult the works council on cases of mergers, closures, business transfers, large scale redundancies, training plans and the introduction of new technology, as well as any other major developments likely to have an impact on employment.

The decision-making power of the works council is more limited. It includes: introducing or changing works regulations; the general criteria for redundancy and re-hiring; the timing of annual and other holidays; and the management of social benefits, including pension funds, as well as canteens and sports clubs. The works council also chooses the auditor, potentially a check on management.

The central role of the trade union delegation, on the other hand, is to negotiate new agreements and ensure that existing ones are kept to. The trade union delegation also deals with disputes between the employer and the workforce, both on an individual and collective basis.

It also has a right to inform the workforce about employment and trade union issues. These rights include distributing leaflets, holding meetings and being involved in the induction of new employees.

In addition, in workplaces with less than 50 employees, where there is no legal requirement to have a health and safety committee, its function and those of the works council are taken on by the trade union delegation.

Overall, in terms of the different roles of the two bodies, the trade union delegation is the body which makes the demands and negotiates; the works council is the body which receives information and is consulted.

Election and term of office

Employee members of the works council are elected every four years by all employees at the workplace. Only “representative” unions can nominate candidates, which means that all works council members are also union members. The elections, which are conducted in line with detailed regulations, are seen as a key test of each union confederation’s support. Trade unions are recommended to draw up their lists of candidates for the works council in a way that reflects the proportion of men and women in the workforce. In the 2008 elections just over a third of the elected candidates were women.

The members of the trade union delegation can be either elected by the trade union members in the workplace or chosen by the local union organisation, depending on the collective agreement covering the sector. In most cases they are appointed by the trade union organisation. The term of office for the trade union delegation is also four years.

Protection against dismissal

Members of the works council can only be dismissed for “serious fault” or for economic or technical reasons. In both cases the employer must justify the decision in advance, either to the labour court in the case of “serious fault” or to a joint union/management body where the reasons are economic or technical.

Before dismissing a member of the trade union delegation, the employer must normally inform both the delegation as a whole and the trade union involved. However, the exact position depends on the collective agreement for the sector.

Time-off and other resources

The employer is required to provide adequate time and facilities for the works council to function effectively. Meetings of the works council are counted as work time and paid accordingly. The law also specifies that at the start of each four year period and then once a year the works council has the right to meet for at least eight hours, normally over several meetings, to discuss the basic and annual information on the business.

The amount of time off provided to the trade union delegation will depend on the size of the workforce. In a company with between 300 and 500 employees, it would be usual for three people to have full-time release from their normal duties.

In many larger companies, each trade union has its own office, provided by the company, with a telephone and sometimes also a fax and computer.

Members of the works council and the trade union delegation also have the right to undertake paid training in works time provided by the unions. The details of how much and under what circumstances are fixed by the collective agreement for the appropriate industrial sector. Typically it will be six to eight days a year. The training is paid for by the union but the time off is paid for by the company.

The works council can make use of experts who are paid by the company either to obtain additional information or to explain the information already received. This is in addition to the auditor.

Representation at group level

There is no specific group level representation in the Belgian system. But works councils at different workplaces in the same company can have joint meetings, which are chaired by the head of the whole company.

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.