Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Belgium

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Belgium, 20 November 2008, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
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: 10,500,000
Capital: Brussels
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Further attacks on the right to strike took place during the year. Ryanair threatened to leave Belgium unless the regional government guaranteed that the airport will never be closed down due to a strike. Workers in small companies still do not have the right to collective representation.

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 employers' organisations as well as managers of SMEs and continued disagreement between the social partners. On 29 March the European Court of Justice ruled that Belgium had failed to implement the directive. No changes in the national law could be reported at the time of writing.

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 and Violations in 2007

Background: Severe political difficulties meant that Belgium only had an interim government during most of the year. After the ruling coalition lost the elections, the election winners were not able to agree on the new coalition until the end of the year.

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.

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 is 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. 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.

... notably in the transport sector: The 13 April strike of security staff and firefighters in the Brussels airport, organised to protest poor working conditions, abusive personnel management and no progress in collective bargaining, affected 26 000 passengers. In a few days, 200 passengers, led by the lawyer Peter Cafmeyer, who was also travelling that day, sued the 46 strikers for 2,000 euros each in damages. On his website Cafmeyer recruits more passengers to join the suit for a modest administrative fee of 50 euros. According to the website, the aim of this lawsuit is not only to get damage compensation, but also to dissuade striking workers from future strikes and to draw the authorities attention to the need for new strike legislation. At the time of writing, it was known that the case would not be discussed before 2009. Meanwhile, some politicians backed by employers' organisations have tried to re-open the debate on minimum services in transportation and some other key sectors, against strong trade union opposition, since this initiative has already been declared unconstitutional a few years ago.

The low-cost air carrier Ryanair, heavily affected by a wildcat strike in July, threatened to cancel its services in Belgium as of 12 November unless the government of Wallonia "guarantees" that the airport will never be blocked due to strikes again. Following more negotiations with the airport authorities and after an agreement between the Ministry of Transport and the public service unions to establish a 48-hours strike notice, Ryanair remained in business and even increased its Belgian operations.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

Search Refworld