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2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Belgium

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2007
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Belgium, 9 June 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c52ca4228.html [accessed 2 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 10,300,000
Capital: Brussels
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

There were further examples of employers using court orders and fines to prevent strike-related activities, particularly picketing. The Belgium government had still not implemented the European directive on workers' information and consultation rights, as disagreement over the representation rights of workers in small companies continued.

Trade union rights in law

Strong legislation: Workers have the right to form and join unions of their own choosing. The law does not require trade unions to register. However, every major conflict has been accompanied by attempts to force trade unions to acquire legal status.

A law dating back to 1991 grants special protection to staff representatives and deputies on work's councils and health and safety committees. In addition to financial sanctions, the law provides for the possibility, but not the obligation, of reinstating workers who have been sacked for their trade union activities. Trade union representatives who are not members of these two bodies have a lower level of protection.

Lack of worker representation in small companies: Workers from small companies are generally denied the right to collective representation. The transposition of the EU directive on workers' information and consultation rights due by March 2005, and expected to bring in changes in that regard had still not taken place by the end of 2006 because of opposition from managers of SMEs and continued disagreement between the social partners. The Belgian government has been summoned to appear before the European Court of Justice for failing to implement the directive.

Restrictions on the right to strike: The right to strike is recognised, as are collective bargaining rights, which are widely exercised. However, legislative authorities have intentionally refrained from defining the scope of the right to strike.

Trade union rights in practice

Circumventing the law: Employers prefer to pay out legal entitlements, even very large ones, rather than respect the special redundancy procedure or reinstate workers sacked as a result of their union activities. The law does, in fact, allow employers to deny a worker's request for reinstatement. In that situation, the employer simply has to pay additional compensation. An important text case involving a union delegate unfairly dismissed in 2005 by the ground services company "Flightcare", operating at Brussels airport, continued to make its way through the courts in 2006. (See the 2006 edition of the Survey for details).

Right to strike heavily penalised: Employers have been trying for several years to obtain the legal prohibition of certain strike-related activities. Their approach has been to petition the courts to ban certain forms of action, such as picketing. This are generally accompanied by requests that these acts be subject to fines if the ban is disregarded. Any union which decides to ignore such a ban, for example, by maintaining picket lines, ends up being heavily penalised. Employers have used these methods again since 2004, despite the conclusion of a "gentlemen's agreement" between the social partners in March 2002. Under this agreement the employers would avoid using legal procedures until all conciliation attempts failed, whilst the workers agreed to respect the notice periods required for strikes.

Meanwhile, the Belgian government failed to amend its legislation to prevent recourse to the law in ways that could undermine legitimate use of the right to strike. As a result, many employers again issued unilateral petitions to the courts, for example during the general strike in 2005. According to a study on the legal decisions taken at this time, the courts generally found that preventing employees or third parties wishing to enter a company building from doing so amounted to an assault, irrespective of whether or not any violence was used. Some judges also agreed to issue "preventive" orders in the absence of any concrete indications that assaults might be committed. More examples occurred in 2006 (see below). These decisions have significantly restricted the right to strike and are considered by the unions to be in breach of the case law of the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association.

Violations in 2006

Background: 8 August 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the worst industrial accident in Belgium's history, when 262 miners at the Bois du Cazier mine in Marcinelle died following an explosion.

Employer reneges on agreement with union: At the beginning of the year the aeronautics company Sonaca signed an agreement with the unions to defer redundancies, arising from a restructuring plan, until the middle of the year. A total of 279 workers were to be made redundant between 2006 and 2008. Management broke the agreement however on 16 March by dismissing 46 workers with immediate effect. Negotiations with the unions immediately broke off as a result, although dialogue resumed in April.

Employers seek fines to prevent strike action: When unions representing workers transporting ready-mixed concrete officially announced a strike on 12 June over the employers' demands for greater flexibility, the companies concerned went to court to try to stop them.

The concrete producer Sobemo S.A. from Anhee went to court in Dinant ahead of the strike to ask for a ban on any attempt to picket their premises, on pain of a fine of 500 euros each time the ban was infringed. The company claimed it had been warned of a wildcat strike, and was concerned for the physical integrity of its staff and its premises. The court agreed to the ban but not the fines, and authorised the use of the police to enforce the court order.

The companies from the same group, BVBA Everaerts Vervoer and NV Everaerts Wegenbouw, also sought an order banning strike pickets from a court in Hasselt. They asked for a one month ban on any attempt to obstruct its work for a month, and a fine of 2,500 euros per person per hour. The court agreed to the ban, but only for the period of the strike in question, and to the fine. The use of the police was also authorised.

On the day of the strike, 12 June, workers picketing the entrance to the Van Den Braembussche company were approached by a bailiff with a court order. Despite threats, the strikers refused to accept a copy of the court order.

Employer found guilty of attack on protestors: The owner of the paint company AIS was found guilty in November 2006 of an attack on trade unionists taking part in a protest demonstration. In April 2005 he drove his car at a group of people taking part in a small demonstration organised by the Centrale générale union federation in protest at the interference of courts in strike action. A court had ordered fines of 750 euros against any worker entering or picketing the AIS premises after they declared a strike in March 2005 in protest at the sacking of a colleague who had protested at poor health and safety standards.

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