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Strikes in Belgium: background summary

While the right to strike is neither enshrined in the Constitution nor explicitly mentioned by the law, it is nevertheless acknowledged in case-law and exercised on a regular basis, with Belgium having a number of individual days not worked due to industrial action in line with the EU average over the period 2000-2009 ranked among those EU Member States with the most working days lost to industrial action. However, there is strong pressure from employers and the Government for the right to strike to be defined in law.

  • The right to strike is part of positive law in Belgium by virtue, on the one hand, of the European Social Charter, which recognises the right to strike as a fundamental social right, and, on the other, of the Belgian Court of Cassation, which acknowledges the right not to perform work in the event of a strike.
  • However, the culture of social dialogue means that keeping the industrial peace takes precedence over the ability to strike. Accordingly, in collective bargaining agreements, the social partners undertake to comply with the provisions of the agreement and uphold the industrial peace. It follows that recourse to industrial action occurs, in principle, only once the possibilities for conciliation have been exhausted.
  • In order to organise a strike, trade unions must observe a notice requirement, often laid down in the collective bargaining agreement, beginning by sending a registered letter to the chair of the joint committee, where the strike concerns a sector as a whole, or to the employer for a strike within a company.
  • Failure to comply with this procedure in the event of a strike generally leads to a withdrawal of support from trade union organisations.
  • While there are rules governing the staging of strikes, Belgium remains one of the Member States with the highest number of individual days not worked due to industrial action, mainly due to strikes in the public sector and calls for general strikes. This number hit a high in 2014 with 760 297 strike days recorded by the National Social Security Office (ONSS/RSZ), although it did not match the 1993 record of 916 874 days. These numerous protests arose from trade union opposition to the Michel Government’s plans for making savings and for pension reform.

The right to strike under threat

  • Nevertheless, as Jan Buelens and Leïla Lahssaini have pointed out, ‘the substance of the right to strike and the way in which it is exercised are ... still under attack’. This pressure ‘has been intensifying for decades and is particularly marked at present’: the right to strike ‘is in the sights of a swathe of political parties within the Government’.
  • For instance, the Government has included in its coalition programme (liberals, Flemish Christian-Democrats and Flemish nationalists) the introduction of a ‘guaranteed service’ within key public services that could undermine the ability to exercise the right to strike. Some politicians have also criticised the trade unions for engaging in ‘political strikes’, with the aim of discrediting the actions of trade unions opposed to the government reforms. Finally, certain political parties have gone as far as to table legislative amendments to place the right to strike and the right to go to work on the same footing in order to protect non-striking workers.
  • In 2015, during a general strike in the Province of Liège, activists from the socialist FGTB trade union confederation blocked the E40 motorway, delaying a surgeon travelling to a hospital to perform an emergency operation. This delay apparently led to a patient’s death. Exploiting this incident, far right politicians denounced this action as criminal, whilst the Employment Minister, Kris Peeters, called on the trade unions to modernise the way in which they exercise the right to strike in order to adapt to the realities of society.
  • However, negotiations conducted at cross-industry level to reform the right to strike broke down in March 2016. The main stumbling block is the employers’ demand that striking trade unions should appoint one of their members as a designated representative who would both serve as a point of contact for employers, but also be personally liable in the event of any incidents resulting from collective action. In practice, trade unions do not have legal personality and thereby escape liability. However, they oppose the idea of a single person being liable for prosecution.
  • The ball is now in the Government’s court, which is in a position to table legislation. However, it will be difficult for it to win the trust of the trade unions when, as recently as May 2016, it called in the Army to replace striking prison staff.
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