European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Industrial relations in Belgium: background summary

  • Social dialogue takes place first and foremost within two bodies: the National Labour Council (CNT/NAR), which deals with the range of social issues facing Belgian companies, and the Central Council on the Economy (CCE/CRB), which is concerned with economic matters (see the Law on competitiveness below). Like the CNT, the latter is composed of an equal number of workers’ and employers’ representatives and acts in an advisory capacity to the Belgian Government. These two organisations have a cross-industry remit that extends throughout Belgium and covers all companies, regardless of sector.
  • The National Labour Council is a joint cross-industry body responsible, on the one hand, for facilitating the conclusion of collective bargaining agreements applicable to all sectors of activity and, on the other, for advising the Government, in particular through the drafting of opinions and publication of reports. A total of 118 collective bargaining agreements concluded within the CNT are currently in place. The majority of them have been made legally binding by royal decree and incorporated into Belgian law.
  • The governing bodies of trade union and employers’ organisations meet regularly outside the established structures at cross-industry level. They make up the ‘Group of Ten’, which, on the trade union side, brings together two representatives each from the country’s two main trade union confederations (the CSC/ACV and FGTB/ABVV) and one representative from the third largest confederation, the General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB/ACLVB). Acting on behalf of employers are two representatives from the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FEB/VBO) and two members of organisations representing the ‘middle classes’, i.e. SMEs and craft workers (the UCM and UNIZO), along with one farming representative (Boerenbond). The group is traditionally chaired by the FEB, taking the total number of members up to 11. The talks held by this Group of Ten are crucial to relations between the organisations themselves and with the Government. They form the basis for the conclusion of cross-industry agreements.
  • Indeed, every two years, a cross-industry agreement is negotiated at national level among workers’ and employers’ representatives within the Group of Ten. When the negotiations produce an agreement, it sets out the main issues requiring attention in terms of remuneration and working conditions. These proposals are then discussed at sectoral and national level, by the social partners but also with the Government, so that, where necessary, the law can be changed.
  • The particular feature of wage negotiations is that they are restricted by wage developments identified and planned in Belgium’s neighbouring countries (Germany, France, Netherlands). As a result, according to the 1996 Wage Standard Law, every two years, before the cross-industry negotiations start, a tripartite body – the Central Council on the Economy – publishes a technical report on the maximum margins available for the development of nominal wage costs, based on the expected development in the reference countries, namely Germany, France and the Netherlands. Based on this technical report and as part of the cross-industry agreement, the social partners set a wage standard determining the maximum margin for the development of wage costs. Within the sectoral negotiations, the social partners cannot therefore agree on general increases beyond the ceiling set by the cross-industry agreement.
  • The most recent cross-industry agreement covered the period 2009-2010. Since then, no further agreement has resulted from the talks. The draft 2011-2012 agreement was rejected by two of the three trade union confederations, while no draft was forthcoming for 2013-2014, as the ‘trade unions refused to negotiate within the pay framework set by the Government’, after the latter introduced a freeze on automatic wage increases. [1]
  • For the period 2015-2016, the Coalition Government proposed new wage moderation measures, a suspension of automatic wage increases (‘index jump’) and restrictions on access to end-of-career schemes. Talks were held by the social partners, but, this time, it was the ‘index jump’ that prevented a cross-industry agreement from being reached. Nevertheless, the discussions were fruitful on several points and the results were formalised in a social agreement endorsed by the Group of Ten, with the exception of the FGTB.
  • At sectoral level, social dialogue takes place within joint committees and subcommittees. These joint committees are composed of an equal number of representatives from employers’ and trade union organisations. Their purpose is to bring together companies in similar lines of business in order to ensure that they are subject to rules tailored to their specific working conditions and sectors. As of 1 January 2015, there were 102 joint committees and 68 joint subcommittees.
  • Working conditions (wages, bonuses, etc.) are chiefly determined by means of collective bargaining agreements concluded within these joint committees. A further role of these committees is to prevent collective disputes and/or settle any disputes between employers and workers.
  • In spite of a strong culture of social dialogue, Belgium has experienced a large number of collective disputes. Figures analysed by the European Trade Union Institute for the period 2000-2009 indicate that Belgium is one of a group of countries, along with Finland and Italy, where the number of working days lost annually to strike action per 1 000 employees falls between 50 and 100, compared with a European average of 53 days.
  • By law, two bodies must be established within companies, provided that they habitually employ at least 50 to 100 people: a workplace health and safety committee and a works council. These two bodies are formed every four years by means of social elections, held most recently in May 2016, the organisation of which is subject to strict rules (see below).
  • Works councils are composed of the company’s managing director and one or more representatives appointed by him or her, together with staff representatives elected by employees. They play an advisory role, a corollary of their right to information, and have decision-making powers on certain issues, e.g. the drafting of staff regulations, the allocation of annual leave, and so on.
  • Workplace health and safety committees consist of employee representatives elected in the course of social elections, a prevention adviser and members representing the employer. While their role is mainly advisory, they also have the right to issue a prior opinion on certain matters, such as the introduction of new technologies and specific measures for the design of workplaces.
  • Every four years companies hold social elections to elect representatives to the works council (in companies with at least 100 employees) and to the workplace health and safety committee (in companies with at least 50 employees). The last social elections, which took place in May 2016, saw the setting up or change in membership of almost 9 000 bodies – 3 000 works councils and 6 000 workplace health and safety committees.
  • It is possible to set up a trade union delegation within a company. Such delegations are composed solely of employee representatives. The number of members depends on the size of the company’s workforce. The trade union delegation’s remit is as follows: taking part in collective bargaining negotiations at company level, monitoring the enforcement of social provisions within the company, and intervening, if need be, in order to resolve and/or prevent collective or individual social disputes.
  • Belgium’s trade union membership rate is among the world’s highest at an estimated 55% (OECD/Visser 2014) and it is prolific in terms of the conclusion of agreements, with 89% of employees covered by a collective agreement thanks to the use by the authorities of an extension mechanism (European Company Survey 2013).
  • Belgium is one of the few countries whose trade unions appear to have avoided the sharp decline in membership that has affected the trade union movement in Europe, in particular by expanding member services, such as the provision of trade union and legal assistance and the running of payment offices for unemployment benefit.
  • The two largest trade union confederations are the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions and the General Federation of Belgian Labour.
  • The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV/CSC) has almost 1.7 million members, two-thirds of whom are ‘Dutch-speaking’. With its roots in Christian trade unionism, the confederation opposes class struggle. Within businesses, the CSC is regarded as a trade union that has a greater tendency to negotiate and compromise than its rival socialist confederation, the FGTB/ABVV.
  • For its part, the General Federation of Belgian Labour (FGTB/ABVV), of a socialist persuasion, has more than 1.5 million members. Its doctrine refers to class struggle as a means of transforming society. The confederation is in favour of scrutiny of employers’ decisions and public intervention in economic and social matters. It has close ties with the Flemish and French-speaking Socialist Parties.
  • Belgium’s trade union landscape features a third organisation, the Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB/ACLVB), which has 290 000 members. It emerged independently of the socialist and Christian trade unions and is founded on the values of freedom and responsibility.
  • Employers are represented by one large national employers’ association, the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FEB/VBO), which groups together more than 50 sectoral employers’ organisations of which companies are direct members. In essence it acts on behalf of businesses in the industry and service sectors. Within the craft and trade sectors and liberal professions, employers are represented by specific organisations, UNIZO on the Flemish side and UCM on the French-speaking side, which are the mouthpiece for the ‘middle classes’, i.e. SMEs and craft workers. Each of the country’s three regions also has its own employers’ organisation. The rate of membership of an employers’ organisation is very high at more than 80%.

[1] IRES (2013), ‘La concertation sociale interprofessionnelle grippée’ in Chronique internationale de l’IRES,No 141, July 2013.