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2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Belgium

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Belgium, 6 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd889632c.html [accessed 23 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: 10,712,000
Capital: Brussels

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

29 (Forced Labour (1930))
87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (1948))
98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (1949))
100 (Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value (1951))
105 (Abolition of Forced Labour (1957))
111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation (1958))
138 (Minimum Age for Employment (1973))
182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999))

Reported Violations – 2012

Injuries: 4
Dismissals: 10

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher

Introduction

Trade union rights are not sufficiently protected in law or practice. Employers and the public authorities tried to prevent strikes. At least ten trade union representatives were dismissed. Four workers were injured in strike pickets.

Background

On 6 December, after it seemed to have been on the verge of breaking up several times, the country formed a new government. Belgium's political crisis was of unprecedented length: 18 months without a federal government since the 2010 legislative elections. The political leaders from the North and South, with the notable exception of the Flemish nationalists, finally succeeded in agreeing on a programme of important institutional reforms, and very severe austerity measures.

Trade union rights in law

Basic trade union rights are guaranteed, however there are some areas of concern. Workers have the right to form and join unions of their choice. While special protection is awarded to workers' representatives on works councils and health and safety committees, freedom from anti-union discrimination is not adequately secured as union representatives are not fully protected against dismissal. Collective representation of workers in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is not fully protected either, although the situation improved with the adoption of a law in 2008 which secured consultation and information rights for trade union representatives in SMEs.

The right to strike is recognised, although there is no clear legal definition of this right. Civil courts have also weakened the right, in particular by restricting strike pickets. An appeal was lodged in 2009 with the European Committee of Social Rights. Also in 2009, the Brussels Industrial Court refused to recognise the seriousness of the grounds for dismissing a delegate during a collective action. In the same judgement, the industrial court said that the right to strike was not limited to strikes as such but could cover other types of actions (occupations...).

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

Non-respect of the 2002 "gentlemen's agreement" on the peaceful settlement of industrial disputes, right to strike flouted: Despite an informal agreement signed by the social partners in 2002, aimed at encouraging conciliation and mediation over all other forms of dispute settlement, employers have often and abusively called for the courts to intervene, claiming an "absolute emergency". Rather than enter into negotiation, enterprises file an ex parte application which results in the courts taking a decision before the workers have had an opportunity to plead their case. Heavy fines are foreseen if they ignore these rulings. Appeals are possible, but usually fail.

As a general rule, the courts consider that it is not acceptable to prevent employees or third parties gaining access to the workplace, regardless of whether violence is used in doing so, but judges have issued "preventive" orders even when there is nothing to indicate that such acts would be committed. Furthermore, if trade unions call off a strike, the courts consider that the dispute is settled and refuse to rule on the grounds for or possible infringement of the right to strike. The European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC, and the three national trade union centres ACLVB-CGSLB, CSC-ACV and FGTB-ABVV lodged a complaint with the European Committee of Social Rights against this undermining of the right to strike.

Employers still free to dismiss union representatives by paying compensation: A special procedure must be respected when dismissing workers' representatives on works councils and health and safety committees, failing which the workers' representatives can ask for reinstatement. However, in practice, workers' representatives are never reinstated. Employers prefer to pay out legal compensation, even large sums, rather than respect the special procedure or reinstate wrongfully dismissed workers' representatives.

The tactics of the far right: On 28 February the Antwerp Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Employees National Centre (Landelijke Bediendenn Centrale in Dutch, LBC) in a case brought against it by a former union delegate removed from his union post. In 2004 he stood as a candidate for the Flemish regional elections, for the far-right party Vlaams Belang. Following an initial judgement that invalidated his removal, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the CNE-LBC's decision, arguing that the party's programme was clearly anti-union. On 8 July, a trade union with close links to the party, the Vlaamse Solidaire Vakbond (VSV), was created with a view to breaking what it saw as the "illegitimate" monopoly of the three main Belgian trade union centres in the 2012 "social elections" (to elect the members of the works council and the workplace health and safety committee).

Binding pay rise ceilings restrict collective bargaining: After two trade union organisations rejected the text on the multi-sector agreement, the caretaker government set the "wage standard" (a ceiling on pay rises over a two year period) at 0.0% for 2011 and 0.3% in 2012. On 1 July the Employment Minister confirmed that the standard was binding, that its application would be checked and that infringements would be penalised. Sectoral and company collective agreements cannot therefore grant pay rises above this standard, on pain of being invalidated. In May, two new collective agreements in the stone quarrying industry were rejected on these grounds. In the view of the Liege branch of the FGTB, which negotiated the agreements with the employers, "the Belgian tradition of social dialogue is being trampled underfoot".

Facing the risk of a negative interpretation of the EU Agency Workers Directive: With a view to the transposition of the European Temporary Agency Workers Directive, employers organisations argued that collective agreements which restrict the use of temporary workers are in breach of the directive. If the government agrees with their argument, the transposition of the directive into national law could lead to an upsurge in temporary contracts to the detriment of permanent workers and of the right of trade unions to bargain collectively, if temporary agency work is de facto no longer considered a specific subject for collective bargaining.

Proposals for not very social reforms: Major socio-economic reforms were announced at the time of the governmental agreement. They included the acceleration of the degressive sliding scale of unemployment benefits and further restrictions on access to early retirement. The agreement implicitly restricts the possibility for public sector employees to take strike action, particularly prison guards and railway workers, not excluding the introduction of a minimum service requirement. There are also the six socio-economic "recommendations" of the European Commission, notably the reform of the salary indexation system and of the legal retirement age, as well as the rules on facilitating access to the labour market. Employers seized on these recommendations as a pretext to demand their immediate application.

Violations

Strikers attacked: During the 4 March general strike a lorry driver from the F. Michel Logistics company in the Houdeng industrial zone tried to force his way through a strike picket, injuring two trade unionists, one of whom had to be hospitalised. In Bruges a bus driver also inflicted light injuries on two trade unionists at a barricade.

Public authorities try to ban strike: On 22 April, the mayor of the Uccle commune decided to prohibit a public sector union from forming a strike picket outside a school on the grounds that classes were resuming after a school holiday. The union challenged the decision which was finally overturned by the highest administrative court.

Illegal wage penalties at Arcelor Mittal in Gand: During an industrial dispute at Arcelor Mittal in Gand over the negotiation of a new collective agreement, staff took part in go-slow strikes in September, stopping work every quarter of an hour. Management – ignoring the fact that a mediator had been appointed by the Labour Ministry – reacted by docking the workers' wages for every quarter of an hour the strikers stopped work. The unions challenged these penalties, which were not provided for in the company's employment regulations. An agreement was reached on incorporating wage penalties into the new collective agreement, of no more than the equivalent of a quarter of an hour's work.

Attempts at strike-breaking in the chemical industry:

On 17 October, during a strike at the Ineos chemical company in Feluy, the governor requisitioned nearly half the staff to work, on what it described as tasks in the "public interest" . The unions appealed to the Council of State which ruled in their favour, on the grounds that a requisition can only be made if there is a situation requiring work in the public interest.

On 26 October, during a strike at the Mac Bride company in Estaimpuis, specialising in cleaning products, the management assigned workers to production tasks that had been left by striking workers, ignoring the fact that they did not have the right skills for the tasks in question.

Discouraging protest: On 28 October, six students who interrupted an election meeting by the group of European liberals were handed one month suspended sentences for "inciting rebellion" (despite the completely peaceful nature of their protest). No trade unionists were involved, but the verdict could discourage organisations, trade unions and their members who wish to take protest action and could contribute to criminalising dissident opinion.

Anti-union strategies in the run up to workplace elections: Several press articles, not just press releases from employers organisations, frequently mentioned the possibility of dismissing workers and their representatives before January 2012 in order to avoid having to hold "social elections" (to elect the members of the works council and the workplace health and safety committee) or to limit the (larger) amounts that would have to be paid in compensation when dismissing workers' delegates on works councils and health and safety committees. False information was also spread concerning the possibility of allowing trade union representatives to take early retirement.

Smear campaigns against striking workers: During the week before a large demonstration by the three Belgian national trade union centres, an employers' organisation (UNIZO) launched the website www.wewontstrike.be (original version: www.wijstakenniet.be) in which it spoke of the irresponsibility of the trade unions in calling a general strike during an economic and financial crisis and of the fact that by their action the unions were compromising Belgium's economic recovery.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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