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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.

The framework

 

Collective bargaining in Belgium is highly structured with:

  • a central level at the top covering the whole of the private sector;
  • an industrialindustry-level bargaining beneath, covering specific industrial sectors; and
  • company-level negotiations (in some companies) at the bottom.

 

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. A report by Eurofound using figures from the Belgian employment services (SPF/WAD) estimated coverage at 96% in 2014.[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 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, since the economic crisis, the room for negotiation on pay at national level has been very limited and it has been difficult to reach agreement with all three confederations on what is known as an inter-professional agreement (AIP/IPA). Negotiations at this level take place every two years, and the two-year agreement signed in January 2017 for 2017-18, which provided for a 1.1% in pay costs on top of automatic pay indexation linked to prices (see below), is the only one to be agreed since the agreement for 2009-10.  

 

However, this does not mean that this national level of bargaining was unimportant in the periods when there was no agreement, as in these years the government set the terms by law. In 2013-14 it imposed a pay freeze unilaterally, and in the other years it imposed the terms of the deals which had been accepted by only some of the three confederations (just the CSC/ACV in 2011-12, and just CSC/ACV and CGSLB/ACLVB in 2015-16 and 2019-20).

 

As well as two-yearly national-level bargaining on pay and other issues (see below), unions and employers also meet in two national advisory councils. These are the Central Economic Council (CCE/CRB) and the National Labour Council (CNT/ NAR). Both have an advisory role in relation to the government and in the National Labour Council the two sides can also negotiate cross-industry deals (although this is not the forum where the two-year national deal is negotiated). Recent agreements reached in the National Labour Council have covered higher employer contributions to travel to work costs, an increase in the overtime limit from 100 to 120 hours a year and new arrangements for older workers cutting their hours (all 2019), temporary working and  working time credits (2018) and night working (2017). The agreement on the national minimum wage (see below) is also negotiated in the National Labour Council. As well as these national consultative bodies there are also similar social and economic councils in each of Belgium’s three regions: SERV in Flanders, CESW in Wallonia and CESRBC/ESRBHW in Brussels.

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 2018 there were 101 joint committees and 66 sub-committees.[3] Each employer is assigned to one of these committees or sub-committees.

 

The agreements are binding on all employers who belong to the employers’ federations that sign these agreements and they are almost always extended by royal decree to all the employers in the industry concerned. Where this happens, the agreements reached in these joint committees and sub-committees are binding on all employers (and therefore their employees) 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.[4] It is also important to note that the relative importance of industry and company bargaining varies across the private sector. In some industries, such as construction, transport and hospitality, the industry level is crucial and company-level bargaining only takes place in a few very large companies. In others areas, such as metal manufacturing, industry-level bargaining provides a framework for company negotiations.[5]

 

The normal cycle of negotiations is two-yearly with negotiations at 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, and industry-level agreements will often include job classification and grading structures.  However, the extent of pay increases is decided 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.

 

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

 

There is some evidence that the strict limits in pay increases set by the national level agreements has led to increased use of bonus payments negotiated at company level.[6]

[1] Working life in Belgium by Jean Van Oycke and Guy Van Gyes, Institution: Institut des Sciences du Travail – UCL, Published 27 July, 2018 https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/country/belgium#collective-bargaining

[2] See Collectively agreed wages in Belgium: indicators and trends; by Sem Vanderkerckhove and Guy van Gyes, HIVA-KU Leuven, 2012 https://hiva.kuleuven.be/resources/docs/vorming/20121129_CAWIEpaper_Belgium.pdf (Accessed 16.04.2015)

[3] See http://www.emploi.belgique.be/defaultTab.aspx?id=505

[4] See Collectively agreed wages in Belgium: indicators and trends; by Sem Vanderkerckhove and Guy van Gyes, HIVA-KU Leuven, 2012 https://hiva.kuleuven.be/resources/docs/vorming/20121129_CAWIEpaper_Belgium.pdf

[5] Opposites attract? Decentralisation tendencies in the most organised collective bargaining system in Europe: Belgium in the period 2012–2016, by Guy Van Gyes, Dries Van Herreweghe, Ine Smits and Sem Vandekerckhove (in Multi-employer bargaining under pressure: decentralisation trends in five European countries, edited by Salvo Leonardi and Roberto Pedersini, ETUI, 2018)

[6] Ibid

L. Fulton (2020) National Industrial Relations, an update. Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.